Late last month, “Ducks,” a group show curated by Ryan Travis Christian featuring a staggering 99 artists making work about the titular bird, opened at Greenpoint Terminal Gallery on the Brooklyn waterfront. The crowd at the small third floor gallery (inside of a former rope factory that until recently was the province of squatters and skaters but now contains everything from galleries to porn studios) spilled out into the hallway, drinking dollar Budweisers and sporting a variety of beanies and baseball caps, both cloth-and-snap backed (full disclosure: the writer of this article was also wearing a hat).
There was a lot to look at: over 100 duck-centric works hinging around playful illustration, collage and painting were arranged in flock-like clusters on seven walls, with additional art on display in the studio room of the gallery. A tiny sampling of the artists participating: Tyson and Scott Reeder, Ben Jones, Morgan Blair, Taylor McKimens, Austin Lee, Matt Leines, Allison Schulnik, Brian Belott, Michelle Blade and Jacob Ciocci.
“I just randomly made a bunch of duck, cartoony characters,” James Ulmer said by way of explaining his piece. It was called Duck. “I just had a bunch of duck guys around.”
The title of Milwaukee artist and gallerist John Riepenhoff’s 1996 piece Wood Duck from Memory by Bob Riepenhoff is a slight misnomer. According to the curator, Riepenhoff shot and mounted a bird as a teen with the help of his late father, but when digging up the piece at his parents’ house, he was surprised to find that what he remembered as a duck was actually a pheasant. Regardless of taxonomy, the work is a rustic piece of beginner’s taxidermy whose sculptural presence and upper-Midwest charm nicely offset the paintings that surround it.
Elsewhere, Brian Belott mischievously brought a cat to the duck show, showing a small drawing of a feline that contently rested on the bottom right corner of an otherwise duck-strewn wall. Belott somewhat atoned for his thematic neglect in the back room of the gallery, showing four quick-and-loose graphite-on-paper drawings that were not so much drawings of ducks as they were a representation of the word duck, scrawled out multiple times inside of a series of boxes like an oblique floor plan.
Naturally, there were a lot of duck puns going around the room. “Do you have all your ducks in a row?” the artist Melissa Brown asked Taylor McKimens, who contributed a small duck drawing to the show. When asked for comment, McKimens gave a one-word response: “quack.”
The show came about when Greenpoint Terminal’s director, Brian Willmont, asked Travis Christian if he had any ideas for a show. “And he said, ‘I got some good ideas and some dumb ideas,’” Willmont recalled. “’One of my dumb ideas is ducks.'” A few days passed and Willmont asked again, but Travis Christian was unwavering. “I told you man, ducks,” he reiterated to Willmont.
“My girl and I moved to the suburbs of Chicago recently and we live on a river,” Travis Christian said. “So, all day long I see ducks and they just crack me up.” He pointed to Eddie Martinez, Allison Schulnik, and Joyce Pensato as artists who have made inspiring duck-based work, and gave respect to Chuck Jones’s classic representation of Daffy Duck.
Travis Christian thinks of “Ducks” as a social experiment. “There’s some stinkers in here, in my opinion,” he admitted, but that’s almost beside the point—inclusiveness is key. “Its gotten to the point where on (social media) people are like, ‘Yo can I be in the duck show,’ and it’s like, ‘Sure, why not.’” He added: “I mean, logistically it’s a nightmare.”
“Ducks” will travel to Los Angeles next year, and there will be an additional 80 to 100 artists showing at a space about the same size as Greenpoint Terminal. “It just becomes such a mess. Things start to fall apart,” he said, sounding at once positive and realistic, before concluding that, “I just want these things to be massive.”