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Published July 13, 2023

Nothing Without Desire: Annie Duncan’s Objects Can’t Live Without You

By Katherine Jemima Hamilton

Katherine Jemima Hamilton is a curator, writer, and educator with roots in the Bay Area, Toronto, and Vancouver. She typically thinks and writes about feminism and technology, craft and ritual, unsettling practices for Western colonial institutions, and exploring sound as a framework for working and living together.

Annie Duncan in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Scissors with a pastel pink handle lay open on a silvery-black iPhone screen, pointed away from the spiky conch shell rested on the dresser, perhaps placed last week or the week before. The green-blue vase found on the sidewalk two weeks ago peers at its own reflection, twisted and obscured by the angle of the small round vanity mirror purchased from a convenience store on an impromptu trip out of town. A small decorative bust oversees the composition, facing the shell—they both played their role in developing the symbolics of “femininity” through the ages. The heel of a red pump looms in the background, frontless, faceless, but striking, arresting even, though only because of the color.

The white IUD in the foreground seems to hide from the bust and the red pump, perhaps embarrassed by its known proximity to the scene-arranger’s body. What does each of these objects know? And would they reveal this knowledge if given the chance?

Annie Duncan, Self Portrait, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 16” x 20”

Of course, this story concerning the inner life of the objects in Self Portrait cannot be confirmed—only the painting’s author knows what these things do when we aren’t looking. But why couldn’t this be their reality? After all, the artist selected these items for their recognizability to a feminine consumer, who understands each item’s place in her specific routine and the routine from which she learned to use them. Each item in these still life paintings points to a person's decision about how she wants the world to perceive her. This formation is almost as fictional as any made-up story.

For the past few years, San Francisco-based artist Annie Duncan has explored the expanded symbolism of consumer objects and how they frame femininity as slippery or malleable yet something that has historically formed (or at least informed) a person’s relationship with the world. Duncan uses the still life genre to evoke women’s agency in producing their self-image. Considered a “lower” form of art than portraiture or history painting, still life painting was historically one of the only painting genres in which women could seriously participate. By macerating a historical painting genre with the aesthetics of consumer-identity capitalism, Duncan insists that the history of women’s relationship to things must be studied, as modern capitalism attempts to sell us back our identities in pretty prim packages.

In Self Portrait, Duncan might imagine a person being the sum of their belongings. Each object helps the viewer know the owner of these objects, whether it is through a hobby (collecting), a style (the sexy red pumps), or a lifestyle (small scissors for cutting one’s own hair or clothes, the IUD on the table). And though it may seem that the viewer is gaining insight into someone’s personhood, as material culture scholar Paul Graves-Brown writes, “We never read meaning out of a signifier, only into it.” In other words, we are learning about ourselves.

Art historian Rebecca Birrell noted that women who made still life paintings, especially in the 19th century, paid particular attention to the objects that provided insight into how a household was run: where things were stored, how something might be laid out before meal preparation. For example, Ethel Sands’s Still Life with a View of the Cemetery shows three bottles filled with red and yellow liquid in corked bottles, sitting on the shelf behind a larger blue china milk pitcher, overlooking the view of the graveyard from the narrow horizontal window. Cut off by the painting’s left border, a glass vessel reflecting the china-blue of the pitcher holds a wooden spoon. The proximity to the artist’s hand makes it seem like this spoon was used recently, emphasizing that labor happens here.

Ethel Sands, Still Life with a View of a Cemetery, © the artist's estate. Photo credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

Birrell suggests that for these painters, the still life was vital because it redefined how household objects and domestic labor were valued:

“Definitions of the value of the home no longer came from the outside—the patriarchal institutions that wanted to preserve women's subservience—but from within. A new moral universe was founded, constructed by women and circulated by their creative work, with an emphasis on freedom of thought, hope, and a suddenly boundless aspiration.”

Though synonymizing “feminine” with “domestic” might be reductionist and outdated, Duncan nods to the history of women painting still lifes by also highlighting the performative element of an object, inviting the viewer to read it through mutualism: how it might relate to or reveal something about its owner.

Shoot the Moon re-narrativizes many of the same objects in Self Portrait. The chunky red heel leans over, languid, into a nearly post-coital embrace of the hairbrush, which is gingerly perched on the corner of a green book, casting a shadow on the forgotten but conspicuous Queen of Spades playing card. We, the viewers, might extrapolate several things about the arranger of these objects: that she is messy (a shoe on the dresser? Really?), she is busy (the face-down wristwatch may have been in use earlier in the day), her self presentation is important (the presence of the small mirror, hairbrush, and spray bottle of perhaps perfume or a hair product), but not really important (the mirror has not been used recently, as there is a vase with flowers standing in front of it). In a literal reading, the only thing out of place is the Queen of Spades playing card, which bridges the viewer into a world of symbolics.

Annie Duncan, Shoot the Moon, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 36” x 48

In using the still life genre, Duncan opens the items to symbolic interpretation. The mirror, of course, represents vanity, but here it’s obstructed by the flowers of beauty, or if representing spring, the mirror is clouded by youth or new beginnings. The Queen of Spades, facing up, might represent an assertive woman whose judgment is logical, practical, or grounded in materiality. However, Duncan also notes that in a game of Hearts, the Queen of Spades is “an undesirable card, unless you Shoot the Moon,” a move where a player collects all the Hearts and the Queen of Spades (the undesirable card) to win the game. Given the risk one takes when attempting to win Hearts by collecting the Queen, perhaps the card also represents the double-edged sword of women’s ambition and desirability—one is often seen as negating or risking the other.

Through their status as symbols, the objects gain independence, bordering on agency, though they were assembled by somebody whose presence is entirely out of the frame. The field of Object Oriented Ontology might emphasize these objects’ agency, severing them from their relationship to and with humans, affording them independence—yes, even manufactured objects might have rich material and cultural histories. When I first encountered these paintings, this framework was attractive: the objects seemed to speak to each other independently from their relationship to a human. But I was not factoring in the desire, the yearning, innate in Duncan’s compositions.

“Nothing is made unless it is already desired,” art historian George Kubler speculated in his book, The Shape of Time. For him, modern-day society produces based on desire rather than need. This phenomenon has evolved since his writing in the 1960s, where the objects now come first and desire for them is manufactured through subtle advertising techniques, like online influencing. In this case, desire feels as burning as need because one’s self-worth and place of belonging in society are on the line. Duncan harnesses this blurred line between survival (need) and desire (want), painting with the energy of yearning. Inside this drive, Duncan traps the viewer: the power of the bright—even sexy—paintings of things dismantles itself when the viewer realizes they have been seduced, again, by the glossy presentation of consumerism in a “feminist” package. Yes, these compositions are about femme survival and, to an extent, joy. However, Duncan also co-opts an aesthetic packaged by companies as desirable to women, making these paintings desirable to the audience who are transformed into consumers.

By macerating a historical painting genre with the aesthetics of consumer-identity capitalism, Duncan insists that the history of women’s relationship to things must be studied, as modern capitalism attempts to sell us back our identities in pretty prim packages.

Ladies Don’t Play Guitar stresses this aspect of Duncan’s practice: a pink measuring tape for sewing, a chunky necklace, a claw clip, a razor, a spool, a match, all find themselves sitting atop their reflections on a decorative mirror with a gold rim. But the mirror isn’t the only reflective surface—a glass of water (perhaps the type that is left out for nights on end) rests in front of a small painting of a giant orange Matisse-like woman, reposed on her back with her right arm stretched out behind her head, her body on display. The reflective surfaces aren’t only a technical challenge for the young painter but refer to the history of reflection in art to symbolize vanity. To love one’s appearance is now associated with female-ness, but famously, the young man Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pond. The objects look at themselves in their painted reflections, obstructing the view of the nude figure. A seduction occurs between the painting and the viewer, and it is not for the woman—it’s for things.

Duncan renders her subjects in appealing colors as part of this seduction technique. Each acrylic or oil is depicted in bright, joyful chromatics. But this palette’s visual appeal is a double-edged sword: as soon as one falls in love with the painting, they have fallen in love with the same aesthetics used to market to femme people. The past few years of internet-girl culture are characterized by a Y2K aesthetic, or rather, an imagined, nostalgic early 2000s aesthetic corporations use to sell more things. Duncan even reveals that part of the impetus for this series was her collection of Y2K trinkets collected and treasured from childhood to adulthood, and how their visual tie to a specific era elevated their status beyond mere objecthood in the current day.

She also references films steeped in Y2K nostalgia, such as The Parent Trap starring Lindsey Lohan, and the role objects played to reveal what was valued by the girl characters. In the scene where the identical twins, both played by Lohan, face off in a poker game, Duncan notes that “The stakes include loose quarters and dollar bills—but fistfuls of accessories get added to the pot, too: scrunchies, hair clips, nail polish, lip gloss, ChapStick. It’s clear that these objects, so sparkly and vibrant, serve as the primary currency amongst the girls.”

Annie Duncan, Ladies Don’t Play Guitar, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 56” x 48”

The assemblage in Ladies Don’t Play Guitar might not be worth the same high-stakes betting, but Duncan’s treatment of the objects propels them to a higher status. In seducing us with the same sparkle or shimmer of the objects a little girl might have treasured in 1998 over the image of the voluptuous woman, Duncan also comments on how the objects we own not only attempt to define us but have become more appealing than our carnal desires.

These formations of objects that Duncan paints from life also point to the centuries-long obsession in the Western world of collecting and presenting that dates back to the cabinets of curiosity held inside a wealthy person’s home. Duncan finds parallels between this tradition and her own forms of collecting “memorabilia,” as well as the patterns of collecting and identity formation through objects presented online: YouTubers or influencers curating an aesthetic based around certain products to appear as one archetype of a girl or another. This type of object = archetype equation reached its height on the internet a couple of years ago when “starter pack” memes became popular. In a single image, people would name a person with a type of attitude or social group and show objects that this persona would typically own. The idea of the starter pack was, even if accidentally, quintessential identity capitalism: if someone wants to become a type of person, buying these things is the first step.

Of course, Duncan’s critique has been presented in other forms. I think of the parallels between online shopping influencers and Brett Easton Ellis’s famed character Patrick Bateman in American Psycho: their adherence to a meticulous, “perfect” morning routine and the status they believe they achieve through it; apartment tours where they name the brands and models of everything in their apartment, again grasping at status markers, hopeful others are envious of the lives they have built.

But Duncan’s imagined sitters are not “psychos”; they’re regular women who cannot have breakdowns despite mounting societal pressures. And what’s magical about these works is how someone might see themselves in the composition and recognize camaraderie in this daily formation of identity, how capitalism has, well, capitalized on this ritual, and how we can still feel in control of our lives and self-image despite this.

Duncan reveals her plans for the future of this series are to distance the figures from reality, deconstructing the forms of objects arranged by real-life women on their dressers or in their bathrooms to emphasize these objects’ capacity for narrative or magic. Women fabricate still lives and sitter identities every day: on the internet, in our rooms. The imagined or fictionalized aspect of this ritual—creating a version of the self we want to project to the outside using objects alone—is, ironically, a type of agency. And desire? There is no satiation in Duncan’s work—the sugary taste of Barbie pink or mermaid teal is like candy for a child. Lucky for those with a sweet tooth, Duncan won’t stop painting anytime soon.

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