Duncan McAfee

Duncan McAfee is a London based artist and musician who has worked in a wide range of media and situations. Below is an interview with Duncan about his work and life.

‘I tend to work in series. This allows for the self-collaborative process to be exaggerated and become more apparent I think. It takes a while to get through the whole set of forty or however many images, working on one layer, so by the time I get back to the first one, I’ve invariably changed my mind or at least forgotten what I was doing’.

Duncan McAfee's Exploding Heads exhibition

Hello Duncan.  First of all, could you tell us about yourself, your background, and how you became an artist?

As far back as I remember I wanted to be an artist. The idea of what this might be changed but the ambition was the same. When I was eight years old it meant making my own book of hand drawn Zoids (armoured robotic dinosaurs) with a primary school friend, then later becoming very precise at observational drawing in that GCSE/A-Level school tradition. At secondary school I was very single-minded and pretty much gave up on everything else eventually getting only 2 A-levels, an E for Design Technology and an A for Art. Once in Higher Education I quickly found figurative drawing and painting, became fascinated with how painters could deal with the body and human psyche, particularly Bacon, Uglow, Freud, Fischl. I became relatively skilled I suppose.
Then came Chelsea College in the late 90s where I started to view that skill as trickery and quickly abandoned it. I spent this period experimenting with other approaches to making such as objects, performance and sound. I see this period as working through the perceived problems with paint, trying to reconcile my attraction to figurative painting at a time when it was unfashionable and many considered it irrelevant. The thing I remember most was making a very detailed full scale plan drawing of my body in 3 elevations, measured using some home made wooden calipers. This took most of my second year to complete. By the time I graduated I was using a lot of sound and music too. I’d also begun collaborating with Andrew Miller whom I met at Chelsea during the final year.
On graduating I trained as a teacher so I could work part time in education to support my art practice. Having done the 3 or 4 years in schools and Sixth Form I had a couple of good funding opportunities and went full-time freelance. Andrew Miller and I were working together almost exclusively at this point using sound and working with installation, performance and publications. We did this for almost a decade until I think we both reached a point of feeling this project based, analytical approach to making had somehow run its course. We both wanted to get back to a more intuitive and visual way of working. We both started making images again.
This began a slow return to painting for me, initially through physical collage where I was literally destroying my old photographs by cutting them up and rearranging them into mythical versions of my personal history. Drawing and painting gradually crept back in until a few years ago I finally conceded the went back to paint entirely. 

At first glance your pictures have an immediate strong, graphic quality, and refer to comics, animation and the graphic novel.  Bright colours and cartoony style, full of movement.  Your painting seems to use a tradition of portraiture through the lens of the comic book.  Your pictures are like psychedelic mugshots of these shifty, shifting, mutating characters.  Could you say more about this?

Duncan McAfee's Exploding Head painting
Work in progress – a piece based on Rembrandt’s Self portrait as the Apostle Paul

For me the return to painting brought back some of the youthful angst and personal expression that had first attracted me, but also there was a feeling of freshness and freedom that took me by surprise. I think there was something about being older, loosing that sense of youthful embarrassment and uncertainty that allowed me to have more fun with it. Rather that the history of painting being a burden of rhetoric that must be carefully navigated, I started to experience it as a game in which I could join in with and enjoy. 
In a simple sense I guess I just jam together elements that I like from modern art movements and popular visual culture to make these kind of hybrid paintings. In terms of the comic-book elements and colours, I think these reflect our world as it becomes more cartoon-like and irrational and extreme. I imagine The Exploding Heads could be the congregation or the mad prophets of some post apocalyptic cult. They’re constructed from broken fragments of other images that have been mis-remembered or mis-quoted. I think of this in terms of Russell Hoban’s novel Ridley Walker. The post-apocalyptic society he depicts has a a kind of organised, ritual spirituality built around bits of four thousand year-old objects they’ve unearthed from our civilization including a Punch puppet. I found the way Hoban describes the puppet shows in the book was so perfect, the way it’s mis-appropriated and all wrong is funny and but the weight and meaning it takes on is also deeply affecting. I want to try and get close to that conflict of feelings in my paintings.

A drawing by Duncan McAfee
Preparatory drawing for The Last Supper

I suppose I’m also attracted to the ‘outsider’ idea too. Whilst I’m currently spending a lot of time looking at Nigel Cooke’s recurring characters, George Condo’s Psychological Cubism, revisiting Francis Bacon and feeding off the fanaticism of classical religious painting, my big influence is currently Ralph Bakshi. His career as an animator was blighted by self-sabotages at every stage, all too risque social satire and everything too much for the sensibilities of the time. He’s always been out on the boundary, right on the edge. I grew up watching his New Adventures of Mighty Mouse in the 80s with my little brothers and saw how that changed  animation for children and adults afterwards. Without Bakshi there would be no Ren and Stimpy, no Spongebob,  Rick and Morty etc. And now Bakshi is a painter painting these crowds of clowns, mobsters and misfits in the most wonderfully disgusting ways.

As well as your dialogue with art history, your pictures have a quality of arresting something mid-process, a metamorphosis.  Your ‘characters’ are frozen in mid-transformation as they ooze, slide, burst and bulge, into a new form. Does your painting begin with a gesture which  grows and becomes animated? How much are you in control of what these creatures are becoming?

I think this state of transition is a symptom of the world as it is. We are at a very uncertain point, an in-between moment. The news narrative for some years now has been that everything is on the verge of collapse, our ecological, political, social, economic systems all bowing and buckling towards breaking point, all struggling to keep up with human growth, change and technologial development. I wrote a piece for a painter Chris Hawtin talking about the New Age of Anxiety, the era in which we live where all forms of ideology (philosophical, political or religious) have been discredited leaving behind only a set of pick-and-mix neuroses from from which we can each construct our personal window on the world, a kind of post-new-age spirituality … and this was in 2013! Here we are mid-Covid, Trump, Boris et al.
As far as my personal control over the physical painting process goes, I tend to play back and forth between very loose chance actions and very tightly controlled drawing/painting. I went through a stage of beginning a painting by throwing a glass of red wine over the blank surface and building an image in response to these random marks. On one level it’s a form of collaboration with something indefinable, with Bacon’s “Happy Accident”, or maybe it’s an act of self-sabotage that needs to happen so that I can fix it and make it right again. I like the idea that using wine is somehow a shortcut to making it a religious painting too. I don’t like the way the wine changes colour over time so I’ve started making a fake wine out of ink and paint which I think works even better – fake wine for fake religious paintings.
On a practical level this means I can work in a different way each time I approach the studio depending on what feels appropriate, fast/slow, loose/tight, hard/soft, drawing/painting etc. I like the tension this creates in each image as it tries to hold itself together or pushes itself apart and I like the internal conversations elements have with one another. It’s similar to the way collage can work when two disjointed pieces kind of click into place to create some new image/form with uncertain meaning, a surrealist “chance encounter” but also perhaps it’s also like William Burroughs’ cut-ups: a form of time travel.

Nostalgia's Confession by Duncan McAfee
Nostalgia’s Confession

I’m still fascinated by this idea of self-collaboration that I started exploring in sound works in the 2010s. I suppose a bit like Samual Beckett’s Krapp going over his tapes, interacting with, sometimes mocking his former and future selves. There’s also a wonderful short story by Ray Bradbury called I:Mars in which a stranded astronaut has built the virtual inhabitants of an entire city out of tape relays of his own voice. They eventually become sentient and conspire to kill him so that they can truly live.  I’m constantly thinking about that space between each layer of process in the paintings and how aware the perpetrator of each action is of the others, these different versions of me. I made a series of collages called Mythologies which were 32 pairs of images, one made in 1995 the other in 2011 so that there is an overt and direct conversation across time. I think this is still there in the paintings – I imagine a kind of simultaneity of space-time where the image might exist in all states of completion as though the days were layered over one-another like sheets of acetate.  

One of the very interesting qualities of your pictures is the spattered paint which accentuates the explosive quality of the events taking place – bursting and leaking.  At what point in your picture making process do you choose to use a very different language? When do you know when a picture is finished?

Loner Gimpton, a print by Duncan McAfee
Loner Gimpton

I tend to work in series. This allows for the self-collaborative process to be exaggerated and become more apparent. It takes a while to get through the whole set of forty or however many images, working on one layer, so by the time I get back to the first one, I’ve invariably changed my mind or at least forgotten what I was doing! You can tell by my website that I’m a bit of a butterfly so I kind of need to keep changing and doing something else. Previously that would result in a quite disparate set of works in all kinds of different media and working with lots of different people. With painting I seem to have found a way to do a lot of different things in the same image so the paintings feel much more like one body of work. There’s a development that I felt I couldn’t track in the same way previously.
I still try to work as intuitively as possible so the process is never really that planned out. I see it as a bit like a game of consequences. I’ll come to the studio and look around at what’s on the go and decide what to work on depending on how I feel at the time. Similarly the end point might be relatively arbitrary. For example with the Exploding Heads I decided they all needed a black “X” which might function as a cartoon dead eye or a bow-tie, hair-bow or simply a playful way of dealing with a portion of the painting I wasn’t happy with – instead of repainting it, I just crossed it out. Once they all had their X a proportion of them felt complete so I put them aside, others got further work. If I’m struggling with a particular painting I’ll often do something completely stupid to it like put a black square over two thirds of it or something that is guaranteed to ruin it. Then the game becomes how to rescue it from there. Some get thrown away eventually but the majority eventually end up going somewhere that seems interesting, to me at least! 

As well as being a visual artist you are also a musician and write music.  How does the relationship between these two art forms work for you?

Straight after art school I set up a kind of shouty post-punk electro-pop band called Bib, also initially with Andrew Miller. We toured a little bit and did a couple of singles and a video but I quit before it got anywhere. This was also just before my son was born and it didn’t seem the most healthy of lifestyles. Since then I’ve done a few musical projects and they’ve become more and more personal over time. I think music is more therapeutic for me now so I keep it more to myself so that I can keep the painting free of that. 
I did work a lot in sound and much of this crossed over in to music and song-writing anyway – I didn’t really get too involved with the theoretical, kind of “hard” sound-art thing. There was always a pop sensibility to even the more “art” sound work. I think this is important to me in terms of an emotional directness and an accessibility. I don’t like exclusivity and the more niche the work gets the harder it is to access. The first properly collaborative work I made was a book called 101 Art Jokes with Andrew Miller and this was all about these ideas: to get the joke you need the background knowledge, it’s an insider thing, but at the same time we were somehow democratising this by poking fun at it and making bad cracker-jokes, some of which everyone would get. I think too much art relies on its rhetorical references too heavily and takes itself too earnestly. Art could be described as basically glorified decoration. I think it’s important there are layers there if want to dig deeper but I want it to be fun and visually exciting, maybe beautiful, or at least visually jarring or weird enough to be interesting, kind of like a pop song.
I think also the process of making music with computers changed the way I work permanently. You have this time-line and a loop function and can build up a basic track in seconds from a few cut and paste elements. This isn’t like traditional painting, it’s not fluid and organic, it’s disjointed and sequential and you have to put a lot of work in to smooth off the edges and make it sound like something more natural. It’s more like digital collage than say live recording or even using the old 4-track tape recorder I had years ago. Physical collage is similar if slightly more restrictive in that you can’t re-scale things and I liked going back to and rethinking this old way of working with this new feeling that it was closer to how we think now due to technology. I think I’ve taken that sense into painting now too. It’s kind of an obsolescent way of making things but done in a way that’s been infected with post-digital mentality. 

You are a father of young children, how has this influenced your work? 

As I said previously, I’ve found it pretty liberating. There’s a perspective on the world that having children gave me where I’m far less concerned about what other people think. Maybe this is partly just aging, but once you’ve dealt with the supermarket tantrums and a 3 year old vomiting over you on the bus you kind of lose your illusions of being “cool” and just stop caring as much. I think there’s also a moment when you realise that this little bag of meat doesn’t know anything at all and would just step out in front of a lorry so actually you personally do know a lot. It firms up your own sense of right and wrong because you suddenly have to teach someone that stuff from scratch. I think this manifested in the work as me having more of my own voice, going back to working on solo work and a generally more confident approach.
My kids are now 13 and 10 and both very creative and into drawing and making models. I’m sure the characters they come up with have crept into my work too at points. And of course they’re great critics and with strong moral sensibilities – sometimes they have to point out what’s right or wrong to me now!

Tell us how you spend your day, what is your routine?  What is your studio like?

I try to be disciplined and work during the school day so am usually there between 9am and 3pm. This works well particularly when I’ve got a series on the go and I think routine is kind of necessary to make sure the work happens. I moved studio a few years ago and before I was in a cold, damp railway arch with no windows. Now I have a big roof-light and much more space which has allowed me to work on larger paintings and I’m using brighter colours. 
I’ve developed a way of painting on paper and with mainly household vinyl emulsion paints which allows me to work quickly and not be too precious. This has kind of freed me up and helped me get away from my natural tendency to veer back to being a bit tight, representational and sometimes too graphic. 

Is there anything new in the pipeline which you’d like to tell us about?  What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any plans for the next couple of years.

I’m currently working on a large scale transposition of Da Vinci’s Last Supper which fit’s nicely on my 7m wide dividing wall. This has been in my mind for a while, thinking in terms of the ideological and psychological landscape at the moment. It’s kind of the archetypal image of a moment of transition, marking the beginning of the end of one life and how this precipitates the end of the beginning of a whole religious tradition. Obviously I am approaching it in my own exaggerated cartoon way so the whole scene becomes more of a maddened party/argument and the characters are kind of dissolving into one-another. There’s some historical and social commentary there if you want it but to be honest I’m just as interested in the history of the fresco itself and how that relates to the layered approach to my paintings. What we see of the original now has had layers added and removed again several times by restorers, been reassembled from paint fragments rescued from the floor, bits chopped out of it to make way for a doorway which was later removed – it’s incredible to think about the history of the surface and how many layers of process have been applied then removed since it was “completed”.
So far I’ve done a number of smaller character studies and completed a 5m wide large scale black and white version. I love the variety of expression in the characters, the compositional groupings, the narrative elements and history of the physical thing itself. I feel like there’s so much to explore. This might be my Pope Innocent X!

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