Essay for the publication accompanying the exhibition
House Guests, Evergreen’s Artists-in-Residence 2004: Patrick Burns / Evergreen Drawings
Johns Hopkins University
Patrick Burns characteristically creates large-scale paintings and drawings with difficult or even repulsive imagery, but he also knows how to seduce the viewer with his deft use of richly layered materials. With the Evergreen Drawings he has moved to a surface that is literally abrasive – sandpaper – to create some of his smallest, sparest, and subtlest work.
Working in the wood shop of The Baltimore Museum of Art, where he sometimes assists with exhibition installations, he became intrigued by some haphazard marks on a sheet of sandpaper and began to draw on it. Sand is not totally unprecedented in paintings and drawings. One finds it especially among the work of the surrealists with whom Burns shares a strategy of bringing together disparate images to create new meaning.* The Evergreen residency gave Burns not only the opportunity to explore a new material but also revealed new imagery through which he could continue his long-term dialogue with beauty and repulsion.
Not long after Burns began experimenting with the sandpaper, he was offered the opportunity to be an artist-in-residence at Evergreen House. The conversations at Evergreen began after a 2003 trip to Ireland where he saw the magnificent Book of Kells, a densely ornamented illuminated manuscript from ca. 800. Its elaborately interlaced patterns resonated with Burns’s own work of the late 1990s and early 2000s, particularly his recurring thorny woven structures and knotted bulbous forms. The armature of the Book of Kells illuminations also seems to relate to the geometric framework that often underlies the placement of Burns’s ambiguous organic forms.
The experience in Ireland led Burns to study Evergreen’s rare book collection, focusing on illustrated natural histories from the 17th through the 19th centuries. One of the most beautifully illustrated is E. (Edward) Donovan’s A Naturalist’s Repository of Exotic Natural History, 1823, with finely detailed engravings delicately and stunningly hand-colored. Burns, though, was more excited by a much earlier Italian production by Ulisse Androvandi, one of the fathers of modern zoology. De animalibus insectis libri septem: cum singulorum inconibus ad vivum expressis, 1602, contains depictions of insects in woodcut, a medium more suited to bold delineation than precision. The crudeness of the illustrations appealed to Burns as did their shape, structure, and gesture. Several specimens from this book, including a scorpion, caterpillar, and horned beetle, became focal elements in some of the Evergreen Drawings. Plants and fish imagery are incorporated from several other rare books in Evergreen’s collection.
On 11- by 9-inch sheets of the novel ready-made surface, Burns began working in his established ways to see where they would lead him. The earliest Evergreen Drawings are among the simplest and most persuasive. Drawing with graphite on the rough surface resulted in vague yet recognizable creatures that were further dissolved with an application of graphite wash or acrylic varnish. Over this fluid atmospheric veil, stenciled geometric shapes float in a harmonic balance; yet these solid, hard-edged elements, generally of one primary color, also add a layer of dissonance and energy to the work, playing off transparency against density and subtlety against vibrancy. The stenciled elements and primary colors are ingredients that Burns has been using in his work for many years, but it seems that his study of Evergreen House has made these even more relevant. How could he not be enthralled with Leon Bakst’s stunning theater decorations for the premises, where stenciled figures and geometric patterns bring the space to life, even without a performance?
At the very least, the distinguished resources at Evergreen provided a substantial opportunity for Burns to explore new territory and enrich the range of his complex surfaces and evocative imagery.
Howard has been curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the
Museum of Art, Rhode Island
School of Design, since April 2000. Prior to her position at RISD, she
was a curator for 14 years
in the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at The Baltimore
Museum of Art. Her
exhibitions have primarily focused on modern and contemporary art,
including Interior Drama: Aaron
Siskind’s Photographs of the 1940s, 2003; Adrian Piper: Food
for the Spirit, 2001-2002; African
Affinities: Contemporary Connections, 2001; Laurie Simmons: The
Music of Regret, 1997.