Dialogue 21 | Duncan McAfee

Hello, Duncan! Could you introduce yourself, your background to start our conversation?

Duncan McAfee

I always wanted to be an artist. At eight years old this meant making a book of hand drawn Zoids with a primary school friend. Later I learned precise observational drawing. At school I pretty much gave up on everything else. I spent all my spare time in the art block. Eventually I achieved 2 A-levels: E grade for Design Technology and an A for Art.

Once in Higher Education I found figurative painting, became fascinated with how painters dealt with the body and psyche, particularly Bacon, Uglow, Freud, Fischl. I became quite skilled. Then came Chelsea College in the late 90s. I started to view that skill as trickery and abandoned it. I spent this period experimenting, making objects, using performance and sound. I see this period as working through my perceived problems with paint, trying to reconcile my attraction to figuration at a time when it was unfashionable and many considered it irrelevant.

Duncan McAfee. Exploding Heads (Happy-Go-Bye-Bye), 2019
Paint and ink on heavy watercolour paper, 297mm x 420mm

After Chelsea I trained as a teacher and worked in and around education for 10 years. I undertook publicly funded sonic arts projects and residencies across the country. I wrote and played music and poetry, toured with my band and recorded a wide range of music. I
made a meagre living and had a family. Eventually I began to feel I was doing too many different things at once and decided to return to the studio, images and painting, initially
through physical collages. I began by making companion collages for a series I’d made
aged 19 and then by cutting up all my old personal photographs and collaging these into
new, mythical and often totemic images. Drawing and painting slowly crept back in to the
work until a few years ago I finally re-embraced paint entirely.

Duncan McAfee, Exploding Head (Coma-Gimp-Spun), 2019
Paint and ink on heavy watercolour paper, 297mm x 420mm

Returning to paint in my 40s felt completely different. I had abandoned it at art school as a cumbersome medium weighed down by it’s own rhetoric but now I feel liberated. I’m free to engage with painting as a game. I can borrow and steal from parts of art history, expressionism, cubism, pop-art, cartoon imagery, contrasting pure flat colours, graphic elements and messy paintwork, figurative and abstract elements. I can take the things I like and configure them however I like.

Ultimately I love contradictions. I playfully reference art history, big ideas and religious iconography and paint them with irreverence, like a game of consequences, grand themes
about life and death, time and history, approached with a light touch.

A short film by Ivano Darra

What is your motivation for creation, Duncan?

I’ve always made stuff. It’s always just felt like something I just had to do. I’ve also written a lot of songs. Music has always been the more emotional and therapeutic side of my creativity; image making feels more abstracted and thoughtful.

Most recently I’ve been working on these large heads built up in diluted Indian ink. They are worked over and over again, in many layers until look like they’re emerging from these dark non-spaces with a kind of nervous, double-take, double exposure quality. Looking at them the other day, I realised there was a whole narrative contained in them about isolation and the excitement/anxiety of coming out of the long period of lockdown we’ve had here in the UK. I’ve been working on these paintings for a month or two, thinking about them in terms of Art History and technique and not at all about my experience of the world. It is only when they were finished that I stood back from them and these realisations come back to me from the work. 

So I paint and draw to mediate my experience of the world, and to understand my response to it but there’s always an interplay between the intellectual starting point and the conceptual and emotional response afterwards.

Could you describe your technique?

My approaches to painting are diverse, as is the imagery I use. I like to use technical and
painterly techniques and contrast them with loose, more expressionistic marks, chance
actions, flat graphic colour and cartoon, drawn motifs. In previous work I’ve mixed analogue collage with paint. I’ve made series of works of carefully rendered pencil drawing
interacting with painted patterns and flat colour; they can look like collage but are hand
painted and include elements of technical and architectural drawing.

I have a fascination with sliding between specialisms; collecting and arranging; associating
things that aren’t usually connected. It’s also something I’ve explored in my 2016 series of
sculptures. They’re small scale objects made from broken toys and electrical goods. The
starting idea was to fix them together using the screws, bolts, clips, fixing points and holes
from the original objects but to mix up all the components; to mend them wrong. Then
something new occurs; a hybrid has evolved. I’m now doing something similar with

What is the message behind your work?

It’s hard to say there’s one message as I’m constantly evolving and pushing my work forward so it changes. There are definite strands that run though it all concerning the nature of time and our relationships to ourselves over time. There’s a sense of dislocation that feels more of a reflection on our experience of the contemporary world rather than a message as such.

Recently my paintings have become more and more cartoon-like and confusing. If there is any message, political or otherwise, behind this, it’s probably about the depiction of the world being fed to us via 24hr newsfeeds – these comic-book figureheads spitting contradictory messages, nonsensical stories and blatant lies, all mediated through some manic Facebook comments stream.

We’re living in a cartoon. My work is satirical on one hand but I choose treat it with humour and revel in the ridiculousness of it all; the paintings are actually strangely celebratory.

My colleagues and I saw penises in your art works. Could you explain why you depicting it. 

There are definitely a number of ambiguous elements in most of my recent paintings and drawings. Sometimes these could be male or female body parts. I have a kind of floppy party balloon motif that does keep cropping up. It can be phallic or it can serve as a kind of bunny ear or some kind of abstraction of hair.

Duncan McAfee. Bunny Girl No.1 (after Matisse), 2018
Red Wine, paint and ink on heavy watercolour paper on birch plywood, 92cm x 122cm

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at Rembrandt’s late religious portraits, the way he depicts these biblical figures makes them feel very human, there’s even humour and irreverence there. In his Self Portrait as The Apostle Paul (1661) he’s sitting with a strange rag wrapped around his head and an odd quizzical look on his face. There’s an earlier painting called Paul In Prison (1627) where Paul’s wild hair and his facial expression again has a kind of comedic quality. He seems more relatable, more alive and more human.

Duncan McAfee. Paul Fed by The Raven (after Il Guercino), 2018
Red Wine, paint and ink on heavy watercolour paper on birch plywood, 92cm x 122cm

When I think about the history of religious painting, Rembrandt stands out in this respect. Most classical paintings are far more earnest and treat their subjects with far more deference. He’s getting inside them and inhabiting them as people. I’m doing something similar, but I’m taking it to its extreme, stripping away all artifice and politeness. I love Ralph Bakshi’s bitingly satirical animations for adults and want the paintings I make to push at the boundaries in a similar way.

With regards to the sexual references, this is a reaction against the rather staid Western tradition too. I’ve been looking at Hindu religious imagery, sculpture and the Kama Sutra. There are plenty of penises, mostly erect, and often drawn or sculpted depicting penetrative sex.

It’s fascinating to me that there are these opposing traditions, explicitly depicting sexual relationships and bodily pleasure in wonderfully celebratory ways. This research definitely influenced my imagery and I think adds another layer of humanity to my subjects. I want them to be alive and desiring, so they manifest and reveal these body parts and perhaps elements of perversion. This makes them more real to me somehow.

Duncan McAfee. Francis in Ecstasy (after El Greco), 2018
Red Wine, paint and ink on heavy watercolour paper on birch plywood, 92cm x 122cm

There’s a vulnerability to the figure of my 2018 painting Paul Fed By The Raven that is enhanced by the fact that he is naked from the waist down. Francis In Ecstasy from the same year is more comical, the memento mori of the skull is juxtaposed against the cartoon image of the giant phallic cucumber. But alongside these two explicit phallic images there are a number of female body parts in that series of paintings – it’s interesting to me that people notice the male ones before, or instead of, the female ones. I think that’s a reflection of western art history, and how it has normalised the depiction and objectification of female nudity but not male. This is a serious point and there’s something about redressing a historical imbalance, but at the same time there’s a side of me that’s just playful and childish and looks for a bit of outrage. We come back to the point about me loving contradictions and maybe that’s what it all boils down to.

Have some artists influenced you?

My influences as a painter still stem from my teenaged fascination with Frances Bacon, his figurative abstraction and the intensity of his colour. Clearly Picasso’s lineage is important, as is George Condo’s “Psychological Cubism”. Phillip Guston is a liberating figure for contemporary painters too and I’m particularly drawn to his “Poor Richard” political cartoons. I love the humanity of Haim Soutine’s awkward portraits of chefs and bellboys and at the same time the otherworldly masked characters of James Endsor. Further back Rembrandt is a key figure, both in terms of his glazed/layered technique and his approach to depicting prophets and saints with deep humanity and even quizzical humour. His late obsession with the prophet Paul in particular is informing my most recent work.

Banner of “Cool World”

And finally, a defining influence on my return to painting is the American animator, director and now painter Ralph Bakshi who is now in his 80s and painting in New Mexico. I have written an article for Felix H Wilkinson website on his 1992 film “Cool World”.

We saw on social media that you are collaborating with Lesley Hilling, one who was interviewed previously by Art & Culture Inside! Could you tell us more about this joint work?

Sure. Felix H Wilkinson is an artist collective I’m working on with sculptor Lesley Hilling. The project is a digital platform for showing and selling artists work, but more than this it’s also place for ideas and sharing with artist interviews, articles about and by them and working with film maker Ivano Darra to produce short films about artists and their practice. This project continues to grow and develop.

Thank you for a very open and interesting story, Duncan!

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