Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Duke Riley

Installation view, DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash. Brooklyn Museum, June 17, 2022–April 23, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez).

Duke Riley: DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash

Brooklyn Museum

June 17 through April 23, 2022


DEATH TO THE LIVING: Long Live Trash, Duke Riley’s solo Brooklyn Museum exhibition, is an intimate “in your face” union of the Museum’s Old Dutch 17th – 18th Century period rooms with trash that now characterizes waterfront areas around the world. Riley fools the eye, though, by turning his plastic “finds” into engaging art: every piece—including a multi-tiered chandelier, mosaics, fishing lures, a table runner, and scrimshaw— tells a story about the history and rise of plastic use. Riley developed his 3D scrimshaw virtuosity during his thirty year second career as a tattoo artist. Duke literally transforms seaside garbage into art, films, and objects with aesthetic qualities. Will viewers be aware that many of his stunning portraits show us the villains of the plastics industry? Anne Pasternak, the Shelby White and Leon Levy Director of the Brooklyn Museum, calls Duke Riley “an iconoclast who challenges dominant narratives around important social issues” and one who…” expands the very role of the artist in society…” (Duke Riley: Tides & Transgressions) See also www.dukeriley.info

Castro: What does this wall piece (in main opening gallery) date from? 

Riley: I did this drawing of the Gowanus Canal at the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. It tells my own personal history and the history of the Canal. I was doing research and also interviewing friends and people who lived on boats on the Canal from the late ‘90s up to the 2010s when a lot of that started to end and they started cleaning up the canal. All that history: with the help of 1337 Lab, we’ve created an (augmented reality) app—when you point your phone at it, my voice will come on to tell you what’s happening. For example, this is a dead sturgeon I saw on the side of the Canal. 

Castro: The opening gallery gives you an overview of the whole exhibition. The lures are darling and user-friendly. I can see how a fish would be attracted to them. Or maybe I can’t.

Riley: This is a study for the wallpaper that’s hanging in the next gallery. None of it is done with computers. It’s all hand-drawn the old fashioned way, and that’s how we made the wallpaper. 

Castro: The wallpaper adds a nice touch.  I see the Prestone antifreeze imprint on this big jug.  What does the 1985 date signify?

Riley: The jugs used to hold windshield wiper fluid, coolant, or any of those types of things. 1985 is the year they introduced plastic bags and phased out paper bags. The dates can be catastrophic events that happened at sea or may refer to legislation or the invention of some sort of plastic. 

Castro: So each of over 250 pieces in the exhibition has more stories inside. Did you ever create scrimshaw on bone?

Riley: No. Scrimshaw has appeared in almost every installation and project that I’ve done on some levels back to the late ‘90s. Back then, I would get these sheets of bone-colored plexi or other materials and engrave them with tattoo machines, rubbing into them. It wasn’t until 2018 or ’19 that I started using plastic I was getting off the beach. This exhibition covers work from 2019 to present. 

Someday, these will be ancient artifacts. These things will be here long after we’re gone, and a museum conservator and gallerists will be going through this and figuring out what to save. There’s more stuff being made every day than all the artifacts in all the museums all over the world. Some is related to the ocean—that’s a boat toilet seat for sure—and some is single use plastic stuff—how did this get into the ocean? That deck brush is plastic, but it felt like bone when I found it.

Castro: Who is John Chave? He has a flag and stands on some old bottles.

Riley: He’s the Director-General of Cosmetics Europe (based in Brussels). He’s done a lot to try to prevent any legislation or consensus in the European Union about stopping single use plastic. He basically lobbies for the cosmetic industry that, obviously, has all this single use plastic stuff. 

Castro: The education programs that this exhibition will engender are extraordinary.

Riley: The thing is, too, we spend all this time talking about recycling, and that probably isn’t going to be the thing that helps. There’s all this responsibility put on the masses whereas a handful of people globally are responsible for all this stuff. We ought to spend more time thinking about them than spending all this time recycling things that will end up in the landfill anyway.

Castro: Here is a diving fin recovered from the stomach of an eighteen-foot tiger shark caught near Daytona Beach, Florida in 1991 by a commercial fisherman. 

Riley: A friend gave it to me.

Castro: And this old bottle from the sea?

Riley: Yes, that’s from the Museum’s collection.

Installation view, DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash. Brooklyn Museum, June 17, 2022–April 23, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez).

Castro: Here is a case of your lures. The number and range of lures you’ve collected is amazing.

Riley: I have overdone it. You want to overwhelm people a little bit. The issue is already too big for us to wrap our heads around. To do it justice, I’ve created more work here than you need or want to see (laughs heartily).

Castro: You individualize each piece. This mosaic tile is?

Riley: All VCT—cheap floor tile. When I moved here, I was doing a lot of construction and renovation work. People were ripping out all these old floors.

Castro: These are?

Riley: Shotgun shells, collected from the beach at Fisher’s Island where they have a shooting club. They go out there, again, trying to connect with nature, so they probably have pheasants that they bring out and shoot at. Then they leave this plastic shit all over the ground (laughs).

Castro: These display cases merge your art and relevant art from the Museum’s collection?

Riley: Yes. In some cases, they were directly inspired. I found this cup in the collection and sort of mimicked it. Some (museum) works, like this pitcher, have one side that is political and one side that is more benign. So if you had a visitor without the same allegiance, you could turn the jug around. Some elliptical shapes with a portrait or something were inspired by these Liverpool jugs from a century prior. 

I liked this one because it says, “Success to America whose militia is better than standing armies.” That ideology is fascinating to me. America was a guerrilla army that stood up to Britain, then the largest military force in the world. Of course, now, we’re the largest military force, and when somebody does things similar to things we did back then, we call them terrorists. 

Castro: Who was Olga Osminka-Jones?

Riley: She is this New York socialite (VP of hydration, PepsiCo); she and this guy Brad Jackman (President, PepsiCo global beverage group) started this company called LIFEWTR. They sell it at art fairs and museums and claim to be promoting artist’s works. No. They’re using the artists to sell water. Their whole campaign that water is life is, basically, taking a human right, water, and turning it into a privilege. I flanked them next to a plate showing King William.

Plate, Glass, Pottery, Plastic and Allied Workers Union, mid 20th century. Glazed earthenware, gilt, 11 x 11 x 1/2 in. (27.9 x 27.9 x 3.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Michael Sze.

Castro: This plate is from the Glass, Pottery, and Plastics Union.

Riley: That union was formed in 1982 and had 80,000 members –it’s is now completely defunct because all of those jobs have disappeared, which is interesting when you think that, on a local level, there are no jobs because plastic production no longer happens in this country. I just found this out. Forty years later, none of those trades are still here.

Castro: And to think of the carbon footprint to ship plastics back and forth. The valentine art is beautiful, and I see you’ve included your signature cigarette butts as part of the mosaic materials. Do they have plastic?

Riley: Yes. Those are plastic, too. It’s paper on the outside, but the inside fibers are plastic. People throw those around and think they’ll break down, but it’s all microfibers like fiberglass.

Castro:  Your Freshkills pieces…

Riley: It’s a New York landmark. Gowanus and Newtown Creek are two of many Superfund sites. A major landfills is Freshkills. People don’t think of them as landmarks, but I’m sure archeologists will feel differently about it someday. That stuff tells how we lived.

Installation view, DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash. Brooklyn Museum, June 17, 2022–April 23, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez).

Castro: The second Schenck House has many scrimshaw portraits. Are David Perdue and Travis Allen some of the bad boys of the industrial complex?

Riley: David Perdue is a politician, I believe in Georgia, (U.S. Senate, Georgia, 2015-2021) who continually prevents plastic bag bans from happening in his state. Travis Allen is a politician (California State Assembly, 2012-2018). They all sound the same and are all rich, waspy dudes.

Castro: This house has more diversely constructed 3D Valentines, lures, and scrimshaw objects, and a film on the boat people of Newtown Creek. Where is that?

Riley: It’s an industrial canal that divides Queens and Brooklyn and was also the site of the second largest oil spill in the history of the United States. It was never cleaned up. It was the largest up until the BP spill. This one is in a contained area. This is a drawing I did first, and I did the video after.

Castro: (reads title) “On the mouth of the Newtown Creek in the Final Days of Battle.” Were the boat people moved?

Riley: The live aboard community is constantly being threatened to move. At one point, there were boats all along this wall. Now, they’re further down.

Castro: Who made the films?

Riley: This particular film I made (directed and produced) with (cinematography by) my friend Bobby Carnevale (edited by America Golden, score by Freddi Price). For the film in the last gallery, I collaborated with my friend Mac Premo.

Castro: Each of the four films in the exhibition is moving and offers perspectives that would not otherwise be seen. The boat people film addresses the whole idea of finding an affordable place to live in New York. Tell me about the site in the last film where the lady is picking up trash in the snow.

Riley: Michelle is this woman I met in 2019 while I was doing n artist’s residency on Fishers Island. Michelle’s full time job is to clean the island and to collect plastic 360 days a year. The island has the summer homes of some of the wealthiest people in the country. A few people live there year round. There are no stores on the island, so all of the plastic is coming from the city. 

Castro: Beautifully made.

Premo: Thank you. It’s pretty wild, because when you go to the beach, it looks pristine because it’s a rock beach and not a sand beach. If you spend a little time looking around, the actual amount of stuff there is mind-boggling. What I love about Michelle is if you look at the bag she’s carrying, she found that on the beach. The cushion for her shoulder for the bag, found on the beach. The forceps or barbeque tong she uses to pick up trash, found on the beach. It’s a testimony to the human spirit. It’s not going to end, but she keeps doing it.

Riley: She puts generic plastic trash in one bag; she has three others in the front to sort stuff for me. One bag is fishing lures that fishermen can reuse. She picks up two tons of trash a month. We text messages to each other, for example, if I need a thousand tooth flossers. It sounds like a drug deal. All this plastic’s moving around, and it gets dropped off at my studio, and we spend days sorting through it, dividing it into categories: lighters, shotgun shells, by color. It takes days. I saw a lot of art work where people were trying to address this situation or make stuff using the plastic, but the problem is I never liked any of it. 

I thought, there has to be a way to take all of these products that were specifically colored to be attractive to us and to sell us into buying this shit, how can we turn this into something people actually want that looks pleasing. 

Written, directed, and produced by Duke Riley, cinematography by Alexandra Egan, and edited by Brett Land and Duke Riley. Welcome Back to Wasteland Fishing, Episode Two, 2019. Single-channel video, color, sound, 6 min. 12 sec. Courtesy of the artist.

Castro:  You live on your sailboat in the summer?

Riley: Yes, and I have a studio in the Navy Yard the rest of the time. 

Castro:  Is this mural on rice paper?

Riley: No. I make this paper; it’s three different types of paper—I beat up different types of paper, and then I get bookbinding glue. I do the drawing on the thinnest tissue, and we beat it up really bad, and the fibers start to break down. I take a rolling pin, and we roll it until three papers fuse together into one. Some of the drawings I make are the size of this wall—it’s a collage of torn up strips of paper that are fused together. It’s not one piece as much as it is a bunch of pieces. It’s really strong. It’s thick like leather. 

Duke Riley (American, born 1972). The View From The Mouth Of The Newton Creek During Final Days of Battle, 2021. Ink on canary paper.
Courtesy of the artist. © Duke Riley. (Photo: Danny Perez).

Castro: Archival? It’ll last?

Riley: Yes. It’s all different types of archival paper and bookbinding glue.

Castro: In what ways are you rethinking and revising your notions of the past and maybe of the present? How do you take the audience with you?

Riley:  A lot of my work in the past used the maritime folk art techniques and motifs of the whaling era to talk about waterfront communities and the lasting positive impacts that history has had on the progressive culture as well as the oddly egalitarian aspects of that industry. This particular show focuses on the negative aspects of the whaling industry—wiping out several species of whales and making that connection with the fossil fuel industry.

The idea of looking at all of those objects in the context of a museum can help the audience be aware that the present day will become the past, and the things we’re disposing of will be here long after we’re gone. I’ve swapped out the names of the old captains with the plastic kings who have gone to great lengths to hide their environmental crimes. My feeling is that consumers need to start thinking more about how we can steer the responsibility onto the twenty-five people in the world who are most responsible.

Liz St. George, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts; Hazen Mayo, Manager, Public Relations,  Brooklyn Museum; and Kelsey Breen, Duke Riley Associate, contributed to this story. 

An additional conversation with Duke Riley will be available soon in Sculpture Magazine and at https://sculpturemagazine.art. WM 


Jan Garden Castro

Jan Garden Castro (www.jancastro.com) is author/editor of six books, including The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, Contributing Editor for Sculpture Magazine, and contributor for American Book Review. She has a major essay in a new edition of The Handmaid’s Tale (www.suntup.press/Atwood).

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