This reporter, having never seen 1933’s Duck Soup, the referent of David Kearns’ Painting Groucho’s Duck, watched the cult classic in preparation for this review. While it’s a delightful way to spend 68 minutes, don’t expect it to illuminate much about the exhibition.
The title of the Groucho Marx vehicle refers to either something easy to do or to a gullible person. Does Painting Groucho’s Duck want to be A. lighthearted like the film, B. a cruel send-up of the art and people who view it or C. merely a reference point for all the ducks? All three work, but probably C.
Ducks certainly populate the works, but so does an entire cast of incongruous (and congruous) characters and objects:
palm trees, pillars, rooftops, stereos and cats. The pieces themselves are presented in a way that shows they’re not taken too seriously. Big black binder clips support the works of acrylic and rough-hewn paper (sometimes two pieces of paper haphazardly connected) somewhat near the wall.
The exhibition can be appreciated at two distinct levels. First: for its ebullient blur of pastels, which manage to demand attention without raising their voices. At this time of the winter, the exhibition’s general color scheme is a welcome affront to the dense clouds’ abject dourness and perhaps even to the season itself. Second: for the abundance of discovery. The gestural works are crowded in a way that toes the line between Country Living family room and junkyard. Democratically placed, the many repeating characters and objects become evident at random.
Additionally, the works’ 2-D nature adds depth of viewing order while sidestepping depth of field. As such, the foreground and background are muddled. The result looks like a diagram of soil layers, rather than objects set at varying distances, and provokes fun questions of: before?, beyond?, above? or inside?
The confusing depth is particularly evident in the largest work, “In My Collection,” which reaches nearly from floor to ceiling in the tiny gallery and even wider horizontally. Therein, paintings are indistinguishable from tables, bookcases, windows and other rectangular elements in the living room.
The pleasure of discovery is lost in the smallest pieces. While the larger and medium works each span an array of textures, palettes and subjects, the smallest pieces, with their physical and thematic economies, divorce themselves from the leisurely exercise of free-form association. They serve as punctuation for the big works but, to employ a nerdy grammar metaphor: Em dashes can be useful; other less-abused methods, however, achieve the same effect.
Several times, Kearns reminds the viewer to take a step back from the dreamland he’s created, by pointing out art as an endeavor made by a person, hung on a wall and not to be taken too seriously.
In “On a Beach,” Kearns scrawls “the crowded studio” in cursive at the bottom, lest one forget the duck in this 2-D world was created by a person in a 3-D one. In “Tree Picture,” dashes make a box, within which Kearns sloppily writes “dumb shape here.”
Indeed, the paintings are creations, euphoric ones at that. In “Studio 1,” a painting of a zebra takes center stage in a depiction of the artist’s studio. Kearns’ studio, which surrounds the blithe zebra painting, is by comparison dark, drab and predominantly brown. Reality exaggerates the fantasy and vice versa.
Like its namesake film, the world within Painting Groucho’s Duck never tries to be a real place, just an immersive one. And just in case people forget where they are, every now and then, the actor speaks directly to the camera.