If Angels Cast Shadows is the ominous sounding title of Stuart Duffin (RSA)’s new solo-exhibition held at Glasgow’s Compass Gallery. Though the title hints at a religious and perhaps weighty theme, the new paintings presented ponder the mortality of man and the spiritual in a sensitive and sophisticated manner that reflects the artist’s mastery of his medium and artistic language. Like in his earlier mezzotints and etchings, Duffin’s newer paintings reflect his inner journey through philosophical and scientific matters. A residency at the Jerusalem Print Workshop as part of exchange programme undertaken in the late nineties sparked Duffin’s fascination with the ‘holy city’. Jerusalem becomes an icon in Duffin’s oeuvre, symbolising a place riddled by its holy and deeply conflicted past as well as its present.
The exhibition invites the viewers to join Duffin’s philosophical journey through form, symbol, colour and texture. Though the iconographic vocabulary of gargoyles, angels, doves, guns and bombs are intuitive to the Western viewer, the philosophical undercurrents may be hard to fully grasp at first glance. On the exhibition’s opening night, the gallery owner thus invited the well-spoken Duffin to elaborate on his working method and subject matter in a Q&A style set-up. Despite the weight of his subject matter, Duffin spoke of his work in an enthusiastic and light-hearted matter. Though pondering matters of war, hatred and disruption Duffin reiterates a phrase often integrated in his prints: “Peace starts with a smile.” Upon being prompted to give his thoughts on our current socio-political climate as it has developed since his previous exhibition The Jerusalem Palimpsest in 2017, Duffin reminds the audience that the most powerful weapon we hold as individuals is a smile. It seems however, that the power which Duffin himself holds as an artist is to raise the difficult subjects which permeate contemporary society and reflect them back to the viewer in a thought-inspiring way. What Duffin seeks across cultural and religious divides is the humanity that connects us and allows us to relate to each other both spiritually and pictorially as in his works. What Duffin seems to aim at in his works is initiating a dialogue and making time for contemplation.
A particularly poignant message emanates from the oil on canvas painting Bang Goes the Theory. Familiar tropes such as the gun and gun-shots as well as snakes and the peace-giving olive branch and dove come together in a carefully constructed composition. Human arms reaching out in emotional vigour suggesting both passion and pain while the sinister coils of the snake entwined with the olive branch tell a story of deceit and the fall from innocence. Despite these harrowing connotations Duffin has successfully placed a touch of humour which comes across so fervently when meeting the artist in person. The feeble “bang” emitted from the gun on a flag and the nonsensical oxymoron contained in “the Infallible Law of Error” inscribed below refer back to the smile which Duffin proposes as man’s strongest weapon in the face of adversity. A careful selection of Stuart Duffin’s new works is available for view at Compass Gallery in Glasgow’s city centre until the 31st of March.