Ben Duke's abstract realism arrives in January

The Gospel 500-72
The Gospel. Oil/Canvas.

“For me, the making of the image unfolds over sometimes weeks, sometimes months,” says artist Ben Duke. As he speaks, his hands reach out broadly in open gestures, churn and come back together fluidly. He seems bemused, pulling back and leaning forward as he explains the relationship between his art, his audience and his process.

“And so, I spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, you know? Formal relationships of color or . . . how can I work out a figure so that it feels right to me. And then also the kinds of stories that get woven into it.”

In mid-January, Duke, Associate Professor of Art at Michigan State University, will transport a collection of his works spanning the last two decades to the Radford University Museum of Art for an exhibit entitled A Situation of Meanings. After several years of discussion and nine months of planning, the works will inhabit the Covington Gallery through Friday, February 23 when Duke will give a brief talk before a public reception.

As his words suggest, Duke’s paintings create a narrative, or more accurately several narratives, for his audience to explore and interpret. In his work, plausible reality mixes with fantasy and impossibility through the images and the stories emerge. Laughing cats spring up out of nowhere, perspectives curve in a fish-eye lens, people hang in space or compile in variable scales, and buildings assemble—or perhaps disassemble--without clear cause, but always with effect.

Happy Cats 500-72
Happy Cats. Oil/Canvas

The end result is an interplay of playful, positive images amid chaos.

For example, Chora and the Wolf consciously evokes the symbolism of the Red Riding Hood story, but the characters have a kind of camaraderie mixed with tension and underlying danger. And they laugh together, a “social contagion” Duke frequently depicts in his work, but there is a sense that it could turn on a dime.

“So, there's a level of ambiguity that's also always already present in images as well,” Duke notes. “I'm trying to have fun and then I'm trying to also be sophisticated at a kind of visual and compositional level.”

“And then I'm also trying to have a really easy narrative entry into it. So, when I think they really work well, then all that comes together as a nice kind of synergy.”

His process invariably begins with drawing. From there, he frequently moves to collage before transforming the final version into a painting. People, places, and experiences from his life take residence on the canvas embodying the ambiguity he sees in perception and reality.

Duke’s finished works are typically large, somewhere between four and six feet wide, enough space to capture significant detail and pose what Duke refers to as underlying existential questions.

IMG_3192 500-72
Chora and the Wolf. Oil/Canvas. To learn more about this and other works, click the picture to watch our Ben Duke video on YouTube.

So, you know, it’s really just a way of trying to say, what is my subjective experience?” he explains.

“And then how does that map to my understanding of history, where that history starts to have these extending ripples, you might say, so we end up as these beings with all these overlapping ripples of experience.”

Works like In the Land of Nod, with its tableau of somewhat surreal men reminiscent of a Greek relief sculpture, demonstrate this. Duke describes it as a proscenium composition echoing a community theater performance of history. It overlaps time and characters with references to the novel In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, the ghost of Joseph Smith and the painter himself.

And . . . there are boxes of Twinkies.

“It's kind of playing with this fake kind of retelling of history that's actually talking to itself,” Duke explains.

“There's a kind of confusion, having an origin and then confusing it, and then trying to make a painting out of it.”

Beginning on Wednesday, January 24, the exhibition will open to the public without cost during regular museum hours, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. and Saturday from noon until 4 p.m. The Covington Gallery is located on Radford’s main campus and will host the closing reception on February 23. The artist will be present and refreshments will be served.

For more information on the exhibit, visit You see more of Duke's work at or learn more here on our YouTube channel.

Jan 11, 2024
Sean Kotz