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Game of Chance 

Why are some people always willing to take a chance on chance? Gamblers know the odds are stacked against them, yet they gamble anyway. We all know the perils of living by the water, but a lot of us live there anyway. Compared to the Gulf Coast, New Orleans should have been pretty well protected, but we took a chance on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' approach to flood-control structures, and look where it got us. Now new standards are being put into effect based on damage from a single storm that made a chance turn to the east at the last minute. Had the fickle finger of fate pushed it west, the outcome would have been totally different. For all the talk of rebuilding on the "high" ground above sea level, it's worth noting that some areas above sea level got several feet of water anyway, thanks to the funnel effect of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, another Corps of Engineers gamble gone bad.

Every artist knows that art is a game of chance, yet artists continue to make art. Belizian painter Joan Duran ups the ante by being active in the chancy world of politics as well, and currently holds the title of Ambassador, one of several government jobs he has held since the Central American nation became independent from Britain in 1981. These days, the Barcelona-born Duran increasingly employs a guided form of chance in his approach to painting, allowing natural forces to determine the outcome of canvases created with unnatural, that is, industrial, materials. The results are the most pristine and imposing of his locally exhibited works to date, suggesting tone poems to the elements, to the gods of fate, fancy and the imagination, and especially to the earth spirits whose presence is still strongly felt in the tropics. True to his Euro-Caribbean provenance, Duran orchestrates his industrial potions and pigments and then, with Belizian laissez faire, lets them stew in their own juices until they define themselves in an autonomous gesture of finality.

It sounds exotic, but utilizing what Andre Breton called "objective chance," was a tactic employed by artists in the heyday of surrealism. For the surrealists, chance was oracular, a mystical art as well as a creative technique. Max Ernst, especially, had a magical way with Frottage and Decalomania, techniques based on rubbings and the action of one painted surface on another, and while Duran is not really a surrealist, he does appear to be a scion of the lineage. Surely Ernst would have appreciated Akai' Tek-Rek Number One, a kind of controlled blast of black and red substances that assume the demeanor of an angry Rorschach inkblot test, almost patriarchal in its posture of incendiary beneficence. On the other hand, the Zen-like equipoise of Dua Dark Midori and Satu Dark Midori, ebony and sepia abstractions, respectively, are almost calligraphic in their gestural elegance, like strange alphabets derived from the procreative division of single cell organisms. But Suru' Surti + Blanc returns us to a Rorschach world, in a black and tan entity that suggests something manifesting out of thin air and liquid smoke, or perhaps topographical contours created by the interaction of black seas and sandstone on some distant planet.

While in purely visual terms they suggest something you'd see on a microscope slide, the large, six or seven foot, scale of these paintings changes the equation, shifting the frame of reference into something more geological. As London critic Lorna Scott Fox put it in a catalog text, "We have to really look at these phenomena on their own terms, to understand their language through the way they take possession of their own space: creeping, tensing or puddling, here dark, sundered islands, there fathomless cenotes, mineral shallows, a conflagration of magma ... ." Curiously, considering that the paintings, and her descriptions of them, were produced long before the storm, Fox remarks that these canvases "recall the fascination of seaside engineering, channeling the ocean between precarious dykes."

Hmmm. Seaside engineering, precarious dikes -- now think about that. Here was someone, weeks, probably months before Katrina, describing these paintings in terms of the very structures that failed, causing the postponement of this show from October to January. Now what were the chances of something like that ever happening?

click to enlarge Joan Duran's large paintings such as  Suru Surti + - Blanc suggest tone poems to the elements and are - among his most pristine and imposing works to date.
  • Joan Duran's large paintings such as Suru Surti + Blanc suggest tone poems to the elements and are among his most pristine and imposing works to date.
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