In his recent exhibit at Linda Hodges, young Seattle-based painter Justin Duffus derives haunting resonance from the mundane with a collection of small oils on paper or panel. Rendered in chilly gem tones, his figures burn with mysterious lassitude, or melt into walls, patios and pillows. In the painting Vacation (2013), he serves up the blank stares of vacationers seated at a picnic bench in front of a camper, who have turned in unison to cheese for a snapshot. Distinguishing features have been smeared to fleshy voids, reduced to a mire of minimal, lustrous strokes. Even smiles are illegible; the scene reads like a distilled memory muddled by the amnesia of time, recalled through a myopic lens. In Tara, a nude reposes on a couch in a state of partial undress, her blue and white checkered shirt unbuttoned, gaping around breasts-a dreamlike slice of domestic bliss couched in a mess of patterned throw cushions worthy of Matisse or Missoni.
While a few paintings like Tara are portraits of friends or lovers, the majority of Duffus’ source material was stumbled across in a box left behind in a house he recently remodeled. They comprise a parade of graduation scenes, snapshots at dinner tables, or photographic mishaps in the pre-selfie era, like a bride’s smile unhappily eclipsed by the yellow plaid of a stranger’s dinner jacket jutting into frame. In some of these images, Duffus recreates the scene with his own brand of grotesque photorealism: smudged to obliteration, interjecting an occasional punctuation of unreal, neon color. With others he takes liberties, performing amputations and erasures, casually omitting a subject’s head or dissolving a dinner guest to the point of a translucent, gray stain. In Untitled 2 (2015), Dufus takes care to reproduce all the awkward rigidity of a family portrait from the late ’70s from the bell-bottoms to the drab, brown sweaters. Interrupting the gravitas is an anonymous, headless girl in a miniskirt and bare feet, with incandescent blue arms, frozen mid-dance, who hovers just on the edge of the family unit.
Duffus has an empathetic, if at times satirical eye for the misadventures to be located in the quotidian. And if he can’t find them, he creates them, with laughable brute force. His deft insertions and deletions underscore the melancholy-and at times uncanny-malleability of memory. But we can also count on his humor to hold our hand along the way. His tableaux of lost summer vacations and white middle class milestones are too diamantine and weird to actually be sad.