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Justin Duerr’s haunting visual epic at Gallery 309


He helped unearth the mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, and now, master of oddities Justin Duerr gets a show of his own. The grimy, Gothic work of this Philly visionary is at Old City’s Gallery 309 this month: the most complete collection of his work that’s ever been shown in one location. Duerr is a veteran of Philly’s underground DIY scene, and his art — like his music and philosophical leanings — is not an easy digest for those who like their art neatly pigeonholed. Enriched by eerie detail and supported by a collective of fellow self-taught artists, Stranger Things Have Never Happened is a storyboarded walk through a career spent obsessing over esoterica.

Justin Duerr with his work. Courtesy of Robert Bullock/Coalition Ingenu.

Thirteen drawings are here, divided into two sets that wrap around the room. Cut from one gigantic scroll and laid out in hieroglyphic style in an overt nod to the love of ancient Egypt that first led him to create, all of the pieces employ Duerr’s astonishing talent for crafting tableaux that would take hours to fully absorb, although the gallery tries to alleviate that task by helpfully providing magnifying glasses. The text interludes woven into the drawings are part of a sweeping narrative – but there are no clues or notes for Duerr’s epic, only what you are able to take away from it on your own, and what can be discerned from his sprawling titles.

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Detail, “The Night Bird of Insanity Releases Her Prisoners.”

I see a number of repeated motifs in the bits of text, including birds (“The Night Bird of Insanity,” a character named “Enid Crow”) wombs and eggs; to me it feels like Duerr’s own origin myth, an amalgamation of his life experiences and archetypes familiar to him through his interests in mythology and symbolism. So many potential influences are here: Hieronymus Bosch is one possible touchstone, as are the delightfully ghoulish creations of Edward Gorey; I also see some hints of Chagall there too, in the way Duerr coaxes the ordinary features of houses, churches and people into abstract dreamscapes. The speculation about all these potential influences, references and interpretations is, for me, the most rewarding part of wandering through the gallery taking in each piece.

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Detail, “Tyrant of Primordial Cosmic Agony.”

There is something refreshing about Duerr’s work, as if by virtue of being “outsider art,” it serves as a reminder that not all inspiring art has to come from trained professionals, that every now and then it can be found outside the accredited art world. We’re also encouraged by hearing the success story about the kid who was always buried in a book, going on to create remarkable work. Work like Duerr’s acts as a kind of Rorschach, allowing visitors to think up their own interpretation of his saga, and also imagine themselves picking up an old or new creative direction, following in Duerr’s footsteps perhaps.

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Opening night. Courtesy of Robert Bullock/Coalition Ingenu.

This show was made possible with the help of Coalition Ingenu, a collective of self-taught artists like Duerr working to benefit members who come from extraordinary circumstances. Drawn from Duerr’s massive personal collection, all of the pieces were chosen by Robert Bullock, Coalition Ingenu’s founder and director.

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“Justin, wake up!”

Accompanying the exhibition, which runs until April 30, Gallery 309 will also hold a free screening of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles on April 27 from 6 to 9:30 PM; Duerr will be there to meet and speak with visitors.