Duke Riley creates groundbreaking drawings, sculptures, mosaics, and performances that combine research and craftsmanship, accompanied by a relentless questioning of what it means to be accepted or rejected in society. Riley says, “throughout my projects I profile the space where water meets the land, traditionally marking the periphery of urban society, what lies beyond rigid moral constructs, a sense of danger and possibility.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland commissioned Riley to work on one such project. He chose the story of Kingsbury Run, a waterway that once ran through Cleveland. In the midst of the Great Depression a shantytown grew up along its banks, a gathering space for drifters marginalized by society. Tragedy struck when a serial killer dubbed the “Torso Murderer” violently killed about a dozen of Kingsbury Run’s inhabitants between 1934 and 1938. Even Elliot Ness, who aided in the investigation, could not solve the crime and it remains one of Cleveland’s unsolved atrocities. In the end, city leaders made the decision to burn down Kingsbury Run’s shantytown and cover over the waterway.
But Then Something Evil… was part of the MOCA Cleveland exhibition. Two panels of glistening mosaic depict Kingsburg Run as it weaves through a landscape of nickels (referencing the short-lived Buffalo nickel of the 1930s and its use among hobos as symbolic membership in this itinerant community). The craftsmanship and artistry of But Then Something Evil… is evident in the intricate combination of esoteric bits of things. But the aesthetic pattern of water is gruesomely interrupted by body parts of the “Torso Murderer’s” victims bobbing up and down in the waves.
Duke Riley was born in Boston in 1972. He received his BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995 and his MFA in Painting from Pratt Institute in 2006. He lives in Brooklyn where he also works as a tattoo artist.