The Limits of Chaos


Zhivago Duncan’s mixed paintings and screenprints take off from the accessibility and ease of execution offered by contemporary strategies of appropriation. Like many young artists, the 29-year-old, Berlin-based Duncan is fascinated with the legacy of Late Warhol—the point in the signature portraiture where the serial image merged with the ubiquitous artist, and where iteration seemed to reach exhaustion. In portraits of bygone icons and anonymous headshots alike, Duncan conflates additional tropes of pop communicability-Day-Glo colors, graffiti drips, even the statics endemic to the margins of a Xerox machine—until the painting is itself a satire of diffused presentation.

During this most recent Berlin Gallery Weekend, Duncan’s work was itself ubiquitous: in group exhibitions at Vittorio Manalese and Tape Modern and a solo show at Cruise and Callas, he showed large-scale screenprinted canvases, and sculpture based on stacks of model cars. Duncan discusses how today, effigy partakes in the real:

NOAH BECKER: How did you end up living and working in Berlin? 
ZHIVAGO DUNCAN: After finishing school in London I found myself homeless, but luckily my cousin took me in. I saved a little cash from art sales and had plans to leave for China. During my last year in school I was invited to participate in a young art fair in Cologne. After participating in that show I visited Berlin and settled here.  
BECKER: For your series “The Beautiful and The Damned,” the Warholian painting techniques, particularly the loosely composed screenprinting, are right at the surface. What strategies of Warhol were you hoping to isolate?

DUNCAN: There was a period when I was making screen prints featuring Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug trafficker; now I also have screen prints of Shirley Temple. Andy Warhol definitely gave artists the latitude to jump from Pablo Escobar to Che Guevara to Shirley Temple, to mix subjects in similar format without worrying about content. Content wasn’t entirely evacuated so much as extracted from formal concerns. It’s a procedure ripped straight from advertising: You can find everything Che, for instance. There are Che Guevara alarm clocks—of course, the real Che was a wake-up call, but it’s a real difference of magnitude. Of course, the famous Che screenprint was in fact Gerard Malanga ripping off the style Warhol, in an attempt to make money. I thought that was a pointed fact, by the way. So I screen printed Pablo Escobar in red, black and white in a very noble pose on posters, T-shirts, skateboards and canvases, so it operates—and circulates—in the same cliché style as the Che Guevara propaganda posters. 

BECKER: How are your paintings constructed? If appropriation as a formal technique is subtractive, taking the image from its context, to what extent do you consider your process additive?

DUNCAN: For The Beautiful and the Damned series the process begins with Photoshop. I document images from back issues of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, and I chose 36 images that I worked with.  After about five months of working digitally on the images test prints are made using silkscreen. I work at controlling the finished image in different ways, controlling the significance of the painting if you may. Sometimes I wash out a canvas but these distorted and beautiful faces are burnt into the surface. In this way you can lose control and create a very beautiful chaos.