The Worlds of John Duckworth’s Buddha Chapel

by Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin

To walk into John Duckworth’s Buddha Chapel is to walk into a field not dissimilar to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Sea of Buddhas’ (1995). Like the arrangement in the Japanese photographer’s work of a countless number of Buddha statues tempting infinity in their perfect symmetrical placement and their many faces, Duckworth’s paintings create an infinite cycle in the layering and detail found within the confines of any one of the sixteen “portraits”. The Buddhas on display each reflect back the gaze of the viewer through equanimous, just-open eyelids; yet their apparent calm belies the depth found within.

Each mixed media work is approached as if wading into a body of water. The initial view seen from afar changes upon approach. The water’s surface reflects the sky above yet also opens to a view below – I think of M. C. Escher’s ‘Three Worlds’ (1955). Working each canvas for a prolonged period of time, Duckworth invests each of his pieces with an individual archaeology. But like Mark Bradford’s layered artworks where “merchant posters” are rendered illegible in the final composition, Duckworth’s Buddhas do not allow access to all their layers even though they are all wholly present. In ‘Asleep Like Cattle’ (2013), ‘Buoyant (for Kaia)’ (2014), ‘Empire Suicide’ (2012), ‘Illusory Distortion’ (2014) and ‘Transcend and Include’ (2011), for example, the text or image of the initial layer (or at least a substratum of the paintings) is not complete and, sometimes, almost completely lost. Only fragments remain. Any attempt at reconstruction, any search for the whole text, the whole picture, inevitably leads to another layer. The incomplete fragments are not to be lamented, but explored. One detail leads to another, the viewer travels between different visual planes.

As such, Duckworth’s mixed media canvases contain a meandering journey with no clear path, much akin to the process of sitting down to meditation. The process of quieting the mind is a cycle of constant return: to the breath, the mantra, the point of focus. The mind will wander, will jump, from witnessing the inhale, to reviewing a to-do list for the day, to revisiting yesterday’s events, etcetera and back to the breath again. While quite explicitly tied to the artist’s own practice of meditation – the Buddha figure a most obvious marker – the paintings become meditations in themselves. Beyond their Buddhist imagery, the melding layers of content contain the artist’s own meditative journey in the creation of the works. Similarly, the layers in the artworks lead the viewer on a mental journey, meandering and meditative.

While many think Buddhist meditation to be one of pure, steady calm, strong emotions do fire in the most experienced practitioners. The imagery of airplane safety manuals infiltrate ‘Anahata’ (2014), ‘Brace for Impact II’ (2014) and ‘Transcend and Include’, respectively laying out the manual in newspaper-cartoon colouring with strongly gestured overpainting, enlarging the crash-landing positions beyond the regular confines of scale of their pamphlets and, quite jarringly, placing a pair of flotation-device-holding women below a sky of birds like three graces reduced to two by cataclysm. Safety turns to an imagined disastrous reality. All is not quiet peaceful calm. And while Duckworth paints in wrathful Tibetan deities that fully embrace the dark and fiery side (as in ‘Buoyant (for Kaia)’, ‘Illusory Distortion’ and ‘One as All’ (2012)), it is when he embeds violence more implicitly into his painting that the work strikes with a particularly strong valance.

In speaking of ‘New Highs and Lows’ (2013), Duckworth frames the vertiginous view from the 60th floor of a Manhattan building by stating the painting was finished auspiciously and mindfully on 9/11. The resonance is all the more grave when considering Duckworth’s favoured quote from Ray Bradbury, “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.” Immediately – and art historically – Yves Klein’s ‘Leap into the Void’ (1960) comes to mind; yet anyone who has lived and remembers the events of 09/11/2001 cannot forget the images of those who desperately jumped from the towers. The trickle of gold from the top of the canvas, the splayed stock market vestments of the Buddha and the figure within the Buddha all echo this feeling of falling, the reminders are all too clear.

In ‘Empire Suicide’, with its rosy shading and overlaid budding branches, the initial sensation of softness and delicacy belies the work’s title. Words cascade both across the page in English and down the page in Chinese, the Buddha in the background seems to be an emanation. Yet at the bottom of the canvas, a double screenprint reproduces the “beautiful suicide” photo printed in TIME Magazine in May 1947, which later served as inspiration to Andy Warhol as part of his Death and Disaster series. The young woman jumped to her death from the top of the Empire State Building, her impact braced by a car below; her lifeless body thus appeared to simply be at rest. In the image she is stretched out in her red skirt and white blouse, she wears white gloves, her face and makeup are unblemished. The macabre and the beautiful somehow link together. And Duckworth echoes this union in his reproduction of the suicide – a calm pervades his canvas, the cycle of life seems to be encapsulated within. I recall Michael Buthe’s final installation ‘Holy Night of Virginity’ (1992); in certain varnished-then-engraved plates where the body figures distinctly, the works bridge the worlds between heavenly etchings and demarcations of a crime scene. Buthe wrote that the work comprises “the spectrum from the moment before conception to the after-moment of the first fading of life.”

Duckworth’s Buddhas ultimately harness cycles. Akin to the Rothko Chapel in its naming and multi-panel layout, Duckworth’s Buddha Chapel creates a less pure environment, yet one that is more in touch with the rich complexity of reality. One painting alone will change from different angles, will shift at different distances of observation, new details come to the surface and fade away again. One painting alone contains a complex multi-valanced universe; and as a group, the connections multiply quickly. As a viewer I begin to move from one to another, trying to piece together those connections; this is only a hint of the universe within the artist’s mind. These paintings deeply explore – and reveal –both their subject matter and their different media.

The video work ‘AWAKE’ brings Duckworth’s artistic process to life, saturated with imagery, resonating with doubling and parallels. The first continuous sequence in the film – after a patchwork of moments – shows the artist walking across the screen: across a field, across a forest, across the shore, across a bridge, across a body of water. The movement is continuous but the landscape is bisected – we imagine the space between. He then passes through a series of consecutive doorways, no door leading to a logical new space. This path is not linear. It is in the in-between spaces where our mind must make the leap. It brings to mind Nam June Paik’s ‘TV-Buddha’ (1974) in which a Buddha statue sits in front of a television, which itself acts as a mirror showing the Buddha broadcast, since the statue is being recorded by a camera just above the television. Who contemplates whom in this loop? The camera the Buddha? The Buddha his image on TV? The image on TV the Buddha? The cycle grows quickly complex and endless. It is this cerebral movement brought to life in Duckworth’s video work that pinpoints what makes his Buddha series so engaging. His layering is seamless, yet his layers disparate; the mind must jump within these paintings and bring the seams of the layers together. The more time the viewer spends with each work, and with the entire body of Buddha works, the more the depth of each painting unfolds. Faced with such vastness – in the painting's layers that themselves speak of the lengthy labours of the artist – the viewer explores multiple worlds and seeks and journeys to reconcile the whole.