Smoky Mountain Vista: An Interview With Duncan Robert Anderson by David Richards

Duncan Robert Anderson

“It doesn’t take very long. You get up to the top of the mountain and get this perspective where it seems to go on endlessly, and you look downward and everything’s about that big and you’re just overwhelmed by it all…”
Duncan Robert Anderson

The titles of Duncan Robert Anderson’s paintings and sculptures tend to be long. They tell you a story, or rather part of a story, but that’s only the beginning. The titles are an entry point for the viewer to plunge in and exercise his or her imagination in the process of exploring a curious and slightly unsettling scene.

In the two-dimensional works, the titles are painted directly onto the surface, where they become part of the composition, merging with the expressionistic brushwork and luminous color, while commenting on the unfolding drama.

The sculptural pieces are like dioramas; museum exhibits displaying dramatic scenes unfolding on orphaned chunks of imaginary worlds. These are often displayed on elaborately constructed pedestals or shelves and are usually lit in a very specific and theatrical way. This creates a duality between the scene depicted, which is its own little world, and the whole thing as an object in space, including the shadows it casts on the walls and floor.

Anderson is interested in history, mythology, astronomy, drama, ghosts, contrasts in scale, and notions of home.

Duncan Robert Anderson

“Amputee with first day of school,” mixed media, photograph by the artist.

Duncan Robert Anderson: A lot of my work is steeped in “home,” perceptions of home, like the Buffalo Mountain Constellations – what the sky looks like from the top of Buffalo Mountain.

David Richards: That’s where you come from?

DRA: Yeah, East Tennessee, the Smoky Mountains, right on the border of North Carolina. Buffalo Mountain is a mountain right in the middle of town. That was my reality for so long, and then we came up here. James Joyce didn’t write Dubliners ‘til he was out of Ireland. I never thought much about how beautiful “home” was until I left.

DR: Is the “Cave Bear” an invented constellation?

DRA: Yes. Two years ago we lost my brother, who was an astronomer… I was thinking of the cave bear skull found at Chauvet, carefully placed on this flat rock thirty-five thousand years ago. It’s a very purposeful thing, clearly a religious object or a statement of belief in something. I’ve always been fascinated by our constellations and how Perseus or Andromeda would be meaningless to an eleventh century French peasant or a native Sioux and I love the comparisons of the traditional Greek constellations with those invented in China or Japan with the same stars, same sky.

Duncan Robert Anderson

“Great Cave Bear Constellation delighting as ridge line fires delineate long-lost coastlines,” 30” x 26,” gouache and colored pencil on paper, Photograph by Nathan Keay.

There’s a recurring theme in my work, that there are these lost gods that crop up, forgotten gods. It’s like pentimento, but a psychological or cultural pentimento; that we’ve forgotten it but it’s still there, and I love the way it fits in with the overlay we put on constellations. Some of those stars are gone; they’re dead. Some are billions of miles away, but we use our “overlays,” our constellations, to make sense of it all.

My father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so notions of home and identity often came up. The tribal elders would always remind us that, “You just live here; this isn’t really your country.” So there’s that constant sense that – oh yeah, we’re just another overlay on something that was here before. Going up into the mountains you realize that this is a feral ancient landscape. I can claim that I belong to it, but it doesn’t belong to me.

DR: Your sculptures are a lot like dioramas.

DRA: In the “Defiance” piece for example, I was thinking about something you might come across in a maritime museum, an exhibit that people had sort of forgotten. We don’t remember what it’s commemorating.

DR: The title “Defiance” could be the name of a ship.

Duncan Robert Anderson

“Defiance,” 55” x 14” x 12” mixed media, Photograph by the artist.

DRA: Back home on Bay’s Mountain there was a smaller, regional version of the Field Museum. My brother worked in the planetarium and I worked in the exhibits lab where I learned the stagecraft of dioramas.

DR: I was going to ask you about theatricality.

DRA: I think of some of these as like plays if you will. The narrative is very strong in the work and it is very much set up that way.

DR: Did you study theater?

DRA: I didn’t, but I’m good friends with a lot of theater people, like the folks that run “Collaboraction.”

DR: In a lot of your work there are great contrasts of scale, tiny figures in a vast landscape.

DRA: Back home you’d climb up a mountain and in front of you there’s this vast landscape that stretches forever. The single figure facing the vastness shows up in both my paintings and sculptures. It’s like that famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.”

Valentine Sevier in supplication to Nwt

“Valentine Sevier in supplication to Nwt,” 30” x 26” gouache on colored paper. Photo by Nathan Keay.

DR: There’s artificiality in your work too, like the forced perspectives and some of the colors you use in your paintings.

DRA: That feeds into the theatrics as well, and I think what informs a lot of the work for me is that it’s all about stand-ins. That’s not really Napoleon on his horse, that’s paint and canvas, and no matter how grand it is, that’s what all of us (artists) are doing. It’s like a person getting up on stage and saying, “It’s the fall of Troy.” That gets rid of all the hard stuff. I’ve established the scene, and now on to the good stuff. The work is your mask, your portal, your way in.

What I try to do in my work is to take something familiar and add that slight element of awe. It ties in with David Lynch’s films. Here’s something very familiar, and yet it’s not… quite… right. I like keeping it poetic, not giving all the information, just letting it be. Something extremely important happened here, but our language fails us.

Rod Serling crossing the River Styx to initiate negotiations (Winter Diplomacy)

“Rod Serling crossing the River Styx to initiate negotiations (Winter Diplomacy) 50” x 24” x 16” mixed media. Photograph by the artist.

Photograph by the artist.

“Secret Angel Graveyard,” 56” x 12” x 12” mixed media (motorized). Photograph by the artist.

“Hanging it up: embracing my irrelevance (a catastrophic misunderstanding of ‘us’)” 7” x 5” x 5” mixed media, photograph by the artist

Several small stones monitoring the night sky (river rocks answering an ancestral alute, the gravitational beacon heralding pre-ordained, long-awaited annihilation by and reunion with impending asteroid)

“Several small stones monitoring the night sky (river rocks answering an ancestral alute, the gravitational beacon heralding pre-ordained, long-awaited annihilation by and reunion with impending asteroid) 15” x 12” x 8” mixed media, photgraph by the artist.

Duncan Robert Anderson

Duncan and Smoky, photo by Yoko Kawaguchi.


Top image: Installation view: photograph by the artist.



Duncan Robert Anderson was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but grew up in east Tennessee. He studied at East Tennesee State University and has shown at Columbia College, Chicago; Riverside Arts Center; Firecat Projects; Kasia Kay Gallery; Evanston Arts Center and many other venues. He currently lives and works in Chicago.


David Richards is an artist and writer currently living and working in Chicago.