New York consistently wakes up something in newcomers, hitting them with overstimulation that amps up creativity. Red Grooms is a good example: A Nashville native who moved to New York and started making paintings, prints and cutouts that teem with the life of its streets, Grooms had an uncanny ability to pick out small, telling details from that chaos. Nashville continues to send young artists to the metropolis, and one of the latest is Quinn Dukes, who makes performance art out of her close observations of the city’s streets.
Performance art is not a widely cultivated form in Nashville, and when Quinn Dukes left for New York after finishing her degree at Watkins, the city lost one of its few practitioners. She came home recently with a performance at Twist Gallery that reflected her experiences on finding herself in the big city. The performance setting remains on display.
The visual background is a city street corner, with a dead fawn, modeled in plaster, lying incongruously on the floor where the intersection would be. Stencils and drawings of pigeons line the walls. The initial insight of this piece is that, even within the city’s thoroughly manufactured environment, wildness intrudes in the form of pigeons, undomesticated creatures with their own uses for the city’s structures.
For part of the performance, Quinn imitated a pigeon at rest. Covered in silver body paint and wearing a gray tunic, she stood still in a corner of the gallery, occasionally stretching her arm/wing or shifting her feet. Recorded sounds of New York traffic came out of the platform under the deer, like the noise seeping up from subway grates. After half an hour she finally opened her eyes, looking out wide-eyed and blankly. This mixture of sound and gestures was an apt observation of these negligible birds and their environment. Her act also recalled another urban archetype, the living statue.
Once the gallery filled with visitors, Quinn went into motion and lurched into the center of the room to check out the dead fawn. The dynamic of the room shifted immediately, and people moved to the sides to watch Quinn, who was now the center of attention after standing almost unnoticed in the corner. It was a reversal of a pigeon’s position in the urban crowd, where it is usually the most easily overlooked creature.
From here the performance passed from observation into an anthropomorphized fantasy. The pigeon poked at the fawn, which at first made you think of a carrion bird, but it became apparent that she was trying to revive it, dropping seeds on its mouth and even chewing up the seeds and spitting them out. In an affectless, birdlike way, Quinn seemed to grieve over the dead fawn and, by extension, similar unintentional and incidental destruction. The piece was almost over when she laid her head on the prickly seed pods surrounding the fawn, a very un-birdlike act.
By the end, Quinn’s bird had become what she always was, a bird-person, like one of Chicagoan Robert Lostutter’s paintings. She didn’t so much anthropomorphize the bird as ornitho-morphize herself.
Quinn’s performance acted out a portrait of a new transplant who experiences two places simultaneously—alert to the characteristics of the new place, but remembering the old place so intensely that it is present as an overlay on her perception of the new environment. The self becomes uncertain here, as the new arrival absorbs elements of the new place—say pigeons—almost haphazardly.In the gallery exhibit that remains on display, the leftover props become the center of attention. Subway sounds still come out of the ground underneath the deer, which is still covered with seed pods. These things continue to represent the overlay of two places and of the domestic and wild realms, but those layers carry one more level of residue now—the recollection that in addition to what you see, something unusual happened here.
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