The Vessel Review by Gabriel Leuter
The first and last vessels we encounter in Terry Duffy’s vivid retrospective of a life lived in and through art, are spacious, quiet rooms imbued with “a layer of dust… and memory lingering in the air”. These chambers that frame the book (the parlour of Duffy’s childhood home and his current studio space looking out over the Irish Sea), are at once blank canvases for the ever-unfolding possibilities of artistic creation to play out on, and abundantly full with manifestations of their histories, of the artist’s development, his preoccupations and duties. The quest of respecting and representing one’s heritage and environment whilst maintaining a commitment to an uncompromisingly original approach to form and expression, permeates The Vessel from the first page to the last, taking on a diverse array of shapes and considerations as the artist remembers his unique journey, exploring his inner space in the act of resurrecting outer time.
The book’s first act sees the young Duffy exploring a Liverpool which is ripe with artistic talent and enthusiasm, but frustratingly overlooked by many factions of the Art World at large. The story of Duffy’s efforts to change that world is interlinked with the subversive character of many of his early works, such as Art Games, a project which offers a deeply collaborative method of artistic production that blends competition and cooperation; or a shocking performance piece in which an incensed German Shepherd destroys an Arts Council funding application form, devouring parts of it and vomiting them back up. The idiosyncratic energy and imagination characteristic of these early works is continued and developed throughout a fascinating career, and even when Duffy turns his attention to composing Welsh landscapes or designing liturgical copes, his trademark style combining starkness and playfulness is unmistakable.
The inequities that Duffy targets grow in scope as the condition of victimhood becomes a recurrent theme in his work. His deep concern with the abjection and resilience of the dispossessed and downtrodden is instantiated perhaps most powerfully in a piece created shortly after the 1981 riots tore through his home city, a 14-foot cross bearing an androgenous body contorted in pain, Victim, no Resurrection. The journey of this work becomes one of the book’s main threads, as it travels the world with the artist, catalysing discussion and reaction among wildly diverse sets of people, many of them victims in one way or another. At once respectful of religion and challenging to the complacent, performative ways it can often be practiced, Victim, no Resurrection hangs in cathedrals from New York to Cape Town, forcing observers to re-examine and reconnect with the symbol of the cross, and the brutal violence it evokes.
The Vessel is a work of memory, and its narrative, though loosely chronological, flits between places and times according to the author’s own personal network of the emotional and meaningful connections between events, even incorporating dreamlike scenes from his imagination. Many narratives and artworks interweave in the story of a colourful and purposeful life centred around the drive to create, and that generosity of spirit characteristic of those who are sensitively attuned to suffering, yet never defeated by it. For anyone who has ever questioned if it is possible to find success in a particular field while remaining true to one’s vision and even changing that field for the better, The Vessel is well worth a read.
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Terry Duffy is an international artist with a reputation for unique, challenging work. He has exhibited in London , Paris, Berlin, Cape Town, Dresden , New York and more. Duffy was born in Liverpool and at the age of 13 won a scholarship to art school. Following this he trained as a lithographer and photographer, and for several years worked in print and design studios in London. He founded the British Art and Design Association in 1986 and Arena Studios , Liverpool. From 1986-92 he was Head of the Faculty of Art and Design, Liverpool City College, British Council Professor of Fine Art in Budapest in 1992, and Chair of the Liverpool Independent Biennial in 2008. He has received several major awards and international media recognition.
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