John Duff’s studio is embowered with planks of wood propped up along its walls and scattered across its floor, which, in a practical fashion is painted grey. Everything is splashed with the swirling shapes of liquid layered from years of casting in polyurethane. Duff is camouflaged, often wearing a respiratory mask, his clothes accumulating the same dust and resin as the floors and walls.
Rarely do we find wood among Duff's creations, yet he collects it on his way through New York’s Chinatown to his studio on Doyer’s St. Essential to the casting process (his casts are encased with plywood walls), wood and other discarded objects serve as an extension of his source material—an extension of the superfluous patterns of regeneration in the natural world. Debris maintains an environment conducive to invention and improvisation.
Here finished works stand in sun-lit clarity against their surroundings. Some of our first associations are organic, e.g, cells, molecules, crystals. However, closer than any outward example from nature is the phenomena of our own perceptive and cognitive apparatus that illuminates the patterns and principles of three-dimensional space. A trace of ourselves can be found everywhere since what we apprehend is first reduced to the boundaries of perception. Our initial associations are based more on conceptual models of microscopic or subatomic worlds rather than the terrestrial scale we experience.
As a result of enormous exclusions, Duff’s recent work distills space to the sphere. The sphere is a reductive conclusion of three-dimensionality—a unit from which three-dimensional form can be translated into a syntax of parts. In lattice formation, multiple spheres consume positive space while carving a negative or inverse definition between each other. In Duff’s work, their presence is inferred as an immaterial field. In a sense, these works are neutralized by a duality of positive and negative space. They are self-contained, inwardly focused, shimmering in numinous equilibrium.
Manipulating syntax over form, Duff determines his compositions with a maquette arranged from whatever marbles, prayer beads, or plastic pit balls available to glue together. Translating the maquette is a matter of counting and plotting larger spheres onto plywood shaped and enlarged to corresponding dimensions. The function of enlarging as well and numerically plotting resembles a form of digital programming.
Without any section of anatomy privileged above another, Duff's sculptures are uniform, describing substance as much as structure. The structure is articulated in the particularity of its shape, while a sense of substance consumes structure in the close-packing of spheres. The steel rings that punctuate the boundaries of Duff's forms serve a skeletal function in the finished state while also allowing the plastic spheres of the cast to interlock, leaving gaps for liquid polyurethane to circulate during casting. Welded to each steel ring are three two-inch nails that recede into the resin and act as reinforcing rebar. There is no aesthetic reason for this rather tedious detail—it exists out of structural necessity. The hidden virtuosity of Duff's sculptures resembles the inner system of an organism hatched from a shell rather than constructed or carved. As finished forms, they are monuments to his cyclical process of assembly, liquefaction, solidification, and disassembly. Like fossils, we see them as the concluding stage of a recurring narrative.
Duff's work meditates on containing and releasing space, reacquainting us with a sense of continuity we lose from pulling apart and categorizing the world into separate things. By omitting information, the elegance of space becomes more accessible. The metamorphosis of casting in polyurethane exhumes inverse space from a labyrinth of which rigidity cannot figure. While space is often understood as a medium for physical objects to stand in relation with each other, Duff's sculptures reverse this relationship, allowing the physicality of his creations to act as a medium in which the axioms of space become more apparent.