Emmett Duggan's Dreams in Color

An Essay by Matt Freedman

There is a funny little typo (maybe it’d not a typo at all) buried in Emmett Duggan’s artist statement: “Color, like a sent, can unlock hidden memories that we associate with things we enjoy.” “Sent” for “scent.” It’s not surprising that the painter conflates color and smell and motion.  What Emmett sees in the world and transposes onto his canvases is not merely a synesthetic jumble of color, and smell, it’s an accumulation of stimuli so vivid and uproarious that it literally catapults static objects and images into movement. His paintings as a consequence evoke a kind of prey drive in the viewer, a sudden, unbidden response to an animating stimulus.

 The staccato outbursts of noise and movement evident in the paintings are rooted in and mirrored by the complex structural webs underlying the surfaces and as we work our way through them we find ourselves increasingly caught up in the rigorously polymorphous perverse vision of the artist.  We too begin to see movement and volume and meaning in colorfully decorative arrangements whose playful and accessible charm belies their powerful hold on our senses.

 It’s easy, almost unavoidable, to get fuddled when you stare at the small square paintings with their ingenuously bemusing titles- “Mittens”, “Yo Yo Yo”, “Gunner”, “Mars Landing”, “Camp Fire.” (Not much help there except to set your mind at play.  Emmett would never give you the easy out of an explanatory title.)  First you see abstract patterns: dark, concave, prickly forms set in seas of flat color placed in turn beneath looping networks of contrasting tones accented by little dot-circles of complementary and contrasting colors. Quickly though the spikey concavities begin to recede and morph into negative spaces and the stolid color fields become contingent lines of still other, larger circles, following, or perhaps dictating, the looping roads, which turn out not to be meandering at all, but highly motivated and intricate to the nature of the image. They hold everything together.  Even the dots drop their pretense of indifference soon enough to reveal deeper alignments of implied grids and circles. 

 These are beautiful paintings, and beauty is a quality esteemed by the artist without apology or explanation, but what emerges upon study is a deeper complexity that has less to do with esthetics than with ontology.  These paintings are about how what we see and how we know that what we see is real, that vision in its broadest definition is intrinsic to our sense of ourselves and to our understanding of the nature of the things around us.  The tricky thing is, that understanding is evanescent, preconscious and too elusive for most of us to hold onto for long. I for one, to my sorrow, cannot help translating the work’s metaphysical presence into language.  Too bad for me, because my words take me out of the reveries the paintings inspire.  I see things I name-organic and inorganic forms, roads and leaves, Christmas lights and plant cells, Brownian motion and wrapping paper. I should just shut up and look.

 That’s okay I think, but that’s not the point.  The point is where my mind was for that moment just before it began to supply me with the descriptors that narrowed my understanding. The paintings inspire a state of perceptual acuity beyond argument and recognition, an experience of pure optical stimulation and delight.  Most of us can only maintain such an exquisitely intimate relationship with the visual world for a moment.  Before we know it, of course, we have retreated to our mediated condition of cause and effect and to the explanatory fictions that keep both the random terrors and the profoundly organized elegance of the universe at arm’s length. It is Emmett’s particular gift that he seems to permanently dwell in the vivid territory limned by his work.  The work itself constitutes another sort of gift entirely: Each painting is an invitation to visit his brilliant country and to enjoy a furlough from pallid imagination.

 -Matt Freedman