Elizabeth Duffy: Safety Pattern, Dangerous Realm

Overlander catalogue essay

March 2012


Megan Ratner


In early pieces composed of lint, page-reinforcers, plastic straws, the telephone yellow pages, gum-wrappers or paint chips, Elizabeth Duffy found elegance and power in the commonplace. Much of this power stemmed from bulk and repetition, from allowing these overlooked items to escape their mundane fate through sheer mass. The large quantities of throwaway materials infused her pieces with a subtle absurdity, yet there is also something poignant in her work, an awareness of how the most workaday objects affect and even shape our lives. Though Duffy grew up in the United States, she has a stranger’s sense -- due in great part to her family’s frequent relocations -- of the goofier side to the American faith in material security which she expresses best in her ongoing series of security envelope pattern pieces.

As electronic mail replaces correspondence, these patterned protective envelopes have become almost quaint, vestiges of more tangible fears than those that haunt us now. Smoothed by Duffy into sheets (as in Envelope Silhouettes), the security patterns reveal peculiarities of this rudimentary data protection, the dogmatic perfection of their intentionally innocuous themes and the apparent infinity of their repetitions.  Originally intended to be glimpsed briefly, if even seen at all, these unvarying designs take on a different, decidedly sinister aspect when no longer envelope-bound. Unleashed by Duffy (in Overlander Dress Bag and Security Envelope Living Room) across wallpaper, curtains, a dress bag, and upholstery, the patterns have a smothering busy-ness.  They’re visual white noise. As you get close up, you expect them to buzz.

When translated into Duffy’s embroideries, the patterns’ dense repeats tug against underlying fabric to make a nubby surface, a frenzied brocade.  The pieces are reminiscent of Alighiero Boetti’s embroideries, in particular Collo rotto braccia lunghe (1989), in which a grid of jostling letters from Latin and Abjad alphabets verge on sense, but make none.  Less concerned with institutional symbols than Boetti, Duffy does share his self-described fascination “the concept of order and disorder: disordering order or rather placing order into certain disorders, or even presenting a visual order that was actually the representation of a mental disorder.” 

By extending the pattern to a salvaged carriage in Overlander, Duffy tethers the vehicle to the “secured” living room. (Though she does not invoke this directly, Overlander is reminiscent of the 18th c. fashion for painting carriage shades with soothing classical scenes, offering the weary tourist sure respite from the chaos of the actual world outside their window.  But in Duffy's version, passengers can’t escape the protective pattern.)  The sphere of this carriage is limited, more for errands than a getaway.  And even then, in a gentle parallel to the many devices that allegedly “free” us these days, the relentless pattern goes where you go. 

Duffy’s project to, in effect, make a world of these patterns -- in other pieces, they have migrated onto robes, slippers, sheets, quilts, dresses, and an evening gown -- has affinities with Liza Lou’s similarly immersive projects.  Both artists ground their work in repetitive motions and materials, and both recognize the shadowy side of home and its traditional safeguards.  Taken together, the Yankee-inspired comforts of Duffy’s Security Envelope Living Room, subdue everything in sight with a stifling predictability.  And like Lou’s Kitchen (1991-96), Duffy’s painstaking thoroughness is integral to skewing this conventional symbol of old-time American stability to suggest few comforts and certain confinement. 

Although Duffy makes no overt political reference, Security Envelope Living Room, does reflect the changed realities of security and home in twenty-first century America.   Much has been done in the name of protecting against imagined threats likely quite different from those we face.  Duffy's delicately suffocating installation, a kind of machine-dream of security, points to the risks of trying to eliminate every possible risk.  As Klaus Theleweit notes in writing about the Third Reich, “The monumentalism of fascism would seem to be a safety mechanism against the bewildering multiplicity of the living.  The more lifeless, regimented, and monumental reality appears to be, the more secure the men feel.  The danger is being alive itself.”  Wry and understated, Duffy’s unremitting march of perfect but deadly replicants suggests the perils of trusting too readily in what appears permanent and sure.