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Pirate Artist

Photo: Art in America.
Dick Riley’s approach to art stirs things up.

The New York Times calls this anti-plastic missionary a “pirate artist.” Melena Ryzik‘s article explains how he got that moniker.

“The artist Duke Riley isn’t exactly sure why he had the idea to turn a plastic tampon applicator into a fishing lure, but he knows one thing for certain: It works.

“He put it to the test one summer day on a buddy’s boat in Block Island Sound, and, with his pastel bait bouncing along the ocean floor, pulled up a sizable fluke. It was a keeper — ‘I definitely ate it,’ he said.

“The applicator tube had first washed up ashore, part of the many tons of seaborne trash that Riley, a Brooklyn artist known to scavenge New York’s waterways for materials and inspiration, has collected over the years. Putting this spent plastic product to use as fish food — that was some D.I.Y. upcycling. Putting it into the Brooklyn Museum of Art: that is Riley’s wild and singular artistic ingenuity.

“There’s a film of the fishing endeavor, done in the style of a crusty YouTube tutorial. The lures — displayed on pegboard, as in a real bait shop — join other plastic detritus that Riley has repurposed, like straws, dental floss picks and vape pens, in ‘DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash,‘ an exhibition [that opened in June] at the Brooklyn Museum. Across multiple rooms and settings, it confronts the calamitous environmental impact of the plastics industry and the ways in which unchecked consumption, for personal convenience, has polluted waterways.

“Its centerpiece is more than 200 works of painstakingly hand-drawn scrimshaw that Riley has spent three years making. Instead of the whale teeth and walrus tusks that 19th-century sailors once etched, he uses a contemporary, dispiritingly abundant, analog: discarded plastics. Lotion tubes, squirt bottles, brushes, a honey bear, solo flip-flops, a Wiffle ball and a legless lawn flamingo now stained bone-white, all provide the canvas for Riley’s patterned mariner drawings in India ink.

“As whalers often depicted the leaders and profiteers of their day, Riley portrays the C.E.O.s of chemical companies, plastic industry lobbyists and others he deems responsible for producing the devastating tonnages of single-use plastics that are engulfing our oceans and threatening our ecosystems. It’s a downer, but if you look closely there’s often a Riley twist of humor, like the seagull shown relieving itself on the head of a water bottle magnate.

“ ‘This is an artist who I always refer to as a modern-day pirate,’ said Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. ‘He’s not just an aesthete pointing to something passively, he’s working to actively spur change — you have to be in it with an artist like Duke. He’s not going to hold back.’

“Calling out corporate titans and politicians — particularly when institutions like the Brooklyn Museum depend on them for donations and support — comes from a fearless ethic and ‘a wit that is hilarious and unforgiving.’ She added, ‘I always think of him as the George Carlin of the art world.’ …

“Best known for ‘Fly by Night,’ a 2016 performance in which 2,000 trained pigeons outfitted with LEDs lit up the New York sky, or for launching his own homemade Revolutionary War submarine into the path of the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, Riley has mostly succeeded by navigating around the commercial New York art world, though he holds degrees from some of its prestigious feeder institutions (a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design and an M.F.A. in sculpture from Pratt Institute). …

“ ‘Duke is a natural,’ said Ernesto Pujol, an artist and former professor at Pratt who has mentored him. ‘A huge talent. … He had to fight his way for the art world to see him holistically — he is the kind of artist that is always more than you bargain for.’ …

“Riley works in many mediums: The Brooklyn exhibition includes films, decorative installations, mosaics and illustrations, like a vast map of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, encompassing its history from precolonial bounty to Dutch settlers through the polluted Superfund site that in 2007 tested positive for gonorrhea. …

“His mosaics offer one of the biggest wows of the show. Inspired by sailors’ valentines, a nautical souvenir traditionally made of shells, Riley’s are enormous and quite beautiful.

Only on close inspection do you notice that the perfect, shiny seashells are interlaid with a rainbow of bottle caps, cigar tips, bits of mechanical pencils, and bread bag clips, all harvested from New York streets and waterfronts. …

“[His studio is] a cleanish space, stacked with neatly bagged, color-coordinated trash. A trailer outside was filled with more refuse. Some of it came from Fishers Island, the exclusive enclave in Long Island Sound, where Riley had a residency in 2019, and where he met a woman whose full-time job is to rid its beaches, the summer home of families like the DuPonts, of plastic rubbish.

“ ‘The exhibition is so much about holding people accountable, and the little acts that people can take to solve this problem,’ Liz St. George, the show’s curator, said. That includes museum administrators; in the course of working with Riley, they changed cafeteria suppliers to minimize plastic, and reconfigured water fountains to accommodate reusable bottles. …

“He did the scrimshaw in solitude aboard his boat, now docked in Rhode Island. A Massachusetts native who worked on the fish docks and grew up visiting places like the New Bedford Whaling Museum, he has always been attracted to a New England nautical aesthetic. …

“This week, Riley is also debuting a mosaic in Boston’s central library. It is one of only a few pieces of contemporary art purchased for permanent installation in the landmark 1895 building, since a circa-1900s John Singer Sargent mural. Riley’s work is partly inspired by the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, an urban disaster caused when a storage tank exploded, releasing millions of gallons of the sticky stuff. It destroyed neighborhoods in the North End, a community of Italian immigrants. …

“For his core group of collaborators, no project is too brazen, or too labor-intensive. ‘We always pull it off,’ said Nicholas Schneider, a New York City firefighter and a longtime member of Riley’s crew. Through all the fun, ‘there is always a somber or very serious component that I think he’s always been the most focused on and proud of.’ “

More at the Times, here. See also Art in America, here.

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