060118-art-Art and Soul image

The present, almost certainly, constitutes a bleak time for a visual artist to be following the creative lead of the Dadaists from a century ago, give or take.

The degree of absurdity now inflaming the nonart world from day to day verges not so much on hilarity as on hysteria. Meanwhile, perhaps reflecting the current dire threat to the National Endowment for the Arts from the Trump administration, the art world has in large part adopted a reactive atmosphere of protest bordering less on unbecoming sobriety than on funereal solemnity.

One can’t help suspecting that Marcel Duchamp, returned from the great beyond, would feel as though his hobbyhorse (christened, of course, by Tristan Tzara) had been peddled for dog food.

Enter Milo Duke and Opposing Schools, the 40- by 12-inch oil on canvas shown here – a genuinely heartening exercise in highbrow heuristics.

The artist behind that bit of visual merriment recently came to the metro area from the West Coast. After living and working in Seattle for quite some time, Duke moved here a year ago with his wife, artist Wendy Wees (profiled in Art and Soul two months back).

Of the charmingly ichthyic jape of Opposing Schools, which dates from 2016, he relates that it belongs to “a series of paintings called Traffic on Mars which featured in an installation, ‘The Library of Alexandria,’ that I did that year at Folio, a private library in Seattle. ‘The Library of Alexandria’ represented the traveling study/archive/studio of a fictional artist/poet/scientist named Milo Duke.”

Outré? Just a smidge!

Duke – the factual Duke, not his fictional counterpart – continues: “The subjects of the paintings in the Traffic on Mars series are fantastic vehicles designed on Earth to be used on the surface of Mars. The overall inspiration for the series came from my realization that there are currently a number of Earth vehicles running around or lying derelict on the Martian surface. Why not design some more? …

“In Opposing Schools, the vehicles are racing fish posed in the ‘laboratory’ in front of a blackboard covered with many of the considerations involved in their design. The famous Martian fish races present a number of issues, primarily that they require fish out of water, given the lack of any surface water on Mars.

“Racing fish are powered by astro-geophysical music generated by three-axis flux gate magnetometer readings performed on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, and they must operate in an environment consistent with an Elliott wave analysis of ecclesiastic history; these are the design considerations depicted on the blackboard in the background.

“Clearly we’re deep in Dada territory here!”

Clearly. That territory notwithstanding, Duke’s background boasts enough interesting detail to suggest he takes his satire quite seriously.

“After leaving the law firm in Seattle where I was working as an attorney, my art career began as a self-taught street artist at the Pike Place Market in 1980,” he relates. “While I wasn’t particularly successful in the streets, within a very few years, I was regularly showing my work in Seattle galleries and have continued to show in galleries and museums locally, regionally and nationally.

“Feeling the need to learn more about technique, in 1997 I began studying at the Academy of Realist Art in Seattle, now known as the Gage Academy. I’ve been fortunate to have studied with some of America’s greatest living realist painters, including Tony Ryder, Stephen Assael and Dominic Cretara.”

That turn of events, Duke notes, led to a pedagogical sideline. That is, from 1998 to 2017, he himself taught art at various venues, including Gage.

Till 2000, Duke adds, he exhibited his more speculative work at conventions nationwide devoted to science fiction. He thereby not only gained recognition in that genre but also won awards and sold paintings to (among others) that love-him-or-loathe-him eternal enfant terrible Harlan Ellison and the late, great David G. Hartwell, the influential critic, publisher, editor and anthologist.

Also till 2000, Duke belonged to an artistic group called the Dharmic Engineers, which “did group shows and collaborated with other artists, musicians, dancers and poets on performances, installations, music albums and movies,” and for the past 29 years, he’s been collaborating with Dr. John G. Cramer (a distinguished science fact/fiction writer and professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington in Seattle) and several others on an art-and-science project intriguingly dubbed “The Gospel of Quetzalcoatl.”

“As a painter, I work in series – many different series, each of which can take years to complete,” Duke says. “I come and go amongst my many series, leaving off work on one and going to another as my interest waxes and wanes, sometimes returning after several years’ absence.

“The Traffic on Mars series is like that, having been started 20 or so years ago and still ongoing. Opposing Schools is the most recent painting in the series.”

Duke concludes by reflecting on the blissful diversity of his calling: “Throughout my career, I’ve explored as many media and forms of expression as have attracted my interest. These include watercolor, oil and acrylic painting, drawing, woodcut relief printmaking, photography, model-making, wood carving, installations, writing prose and poetry, book design and publication – I’ve published three books of my art and writing – music and science.

“Practicing art is perhaps the only occupation that could have allowed me the freedom and flexibility to have ranged so far and wide following my passions and interests.”

To learn more about our featured artist, visit gunnarnordstrom.com.

St. Louis-area artists who wish to be considered for future installments of this monthly department of Ladue News should email inquiries to bhollerbach@laduenews.com with “Art and Soul” in the subject line.

Bryan A. Hollerbach serves as LN's copy editor and one of its staff writers. He loves to read, write, impersonate an amateur artist and research all things bibulous.