A FEW WORDS ON THE RECENT ART OF PATRICK BURNS
I know of no artist more steadfastly committed to an organized pattern of growth and development than Patrick Burns. He began his career as a printmaker; there is something about his emblematic use of insects and sub-aqueous creatures that smacks of a medieval bestiary, the sort that Durer would have consulted before engraving his Rhinoceros or the kind that Leonard Baskin imitated in his expressionist woodcuts. Such comparisons are brought to mind by the consummate draftsmanship Burns shares with Durer, a skill always evident in the paintings I have seen during more than ten years of visits to his studios in Baltimore and New York. In the past, his animals and insects were forced to share the stage with a wide range of expressionistic symbols, a pyramidal house of burning briars, a shower of appliquéd potatoes, white splotches of paint in rounded forms and drips; throughout, the use of layered images bore some relation to the work of Francis Picabia, Robert Rauschenberg and David Salle, requiring the viewer to decipher a coded message. This forced complexity naturally distracted from the visual enchantment of the pictures, especially the exquisite white splotches and drips that seemed to combine the energy of abstract expressionism with Sigmar Polke’s signature focus on the fortuitous errors that occur in the process of printing images. But Pat’s strong graphic sense has led him on to bigger and better things. A few years ago Burns began making small drawings on sandpaper, some of which contained map-like silhouettes recalling the land of his Irish forebears. The scale of these drawings forced Burns to restrict the number of motifs and brought out the essentially abstract nature of his artistic project. Black bars began to appear trimming one end or another and the blackness was further reinforced by his exuberant use of soft sticks of pure charcoal against the rough surface of the sandpaper. These Blackout drawings represent a critical development on the road to his present work. In Blackout-Stag Beetle, two squares at the top seem to compress the head of the insect until graphite pours itself out of the insect’s body into the empty white space below; in Blackout Black Widow, the vertical bars, like a jail-cell, almost completely occlude the image of the insect, leaving only the legs behind to carry the energy of the artist’s scrawling lines. Subtle pinks and yellows enter some of the later works on paper and a checkerboard of rectangular bars begins to compete for space with the expanse of black (see Blackout Tarantula), the notional creature having been submerged in a Motherwell-like cloud.
In both paintings and drawings Burns evinces a similar mastery of scale; a single insect or animal form, most successfully a jellyfish or beetle, is partially occluded by the pseudo-random placement of one or more rectangular black bars (e.g. Wasp 7 & 8 and Sting-Red & Green). The final pattern is a combination of design and chance, the predominantly vertical or horizontal disposition of the bars outlined in pencil before one or more cells are chosen to be filled in. The bars occlude but do not obscure the emblematic images—the viewer readily completes their outlines within his or her mind. By occluding but not obscuring the forms, Burns heightens the sense of threat and preserves the mystery of partially seen jaws and tentacles. The use of the velvety black bars recalls the post and lintel paintings of Brice Marden. In the Blackout drawings, the gravitational flow of charcoal falling from the bars has been preserved with a spray of fixative and the tension between expressionist chance (a la Motherwell) and post-minimalist plan is further enhanced. Despite the use of a dominant image, there is no sense of recession or depth in these pictures; they are as flat as decals or tattoos. In some of the best paintings (e.g. Wasp 7 & 8) the very idea of coherent space is completely fractured by wings that are partially black and partially red and by bars or squares that are indeterminately in front of or behind half-depicted anatomy. Wasp also gives us a partial view of a deeper layer, the windows of black opening up on a blue and yellow “sky” in pastel tonalities. As the work progresses, the drawn images re-unite into emblems and decals but the decisively brightened and fractured colors continue to frustrate our ability to see the jellyfish in Sting-Red & Green or the scorpion in Sting-Yellow & Purple; in order to see the clarification produced by the new palette, a more coherent emblem and a reduction in the number of color cells, compare Sting-Blue & Orange to Wasp 7 & 8. These latest paintings with their bold colors and coherent emblems veer closer to a Pop or Warholian sensibility and leave their expressionist tendencies behind. Stare at the left half of Sting-Red & Green and one of Warhol’s Oxidation (“piss”) paintings begins to appear. The replication of abstract color bars in the Sting series takes the place of the repeated portraits of celebrity heads in Warhol’s most iconic and most minimalist, because most cellular, work. These new paintings by Burns have much to say about the post-modern confrontation of oppositional styles (i.e. abstraction vs. representation) and the recuperation or appropriation of prior modes of image and mark making. This is explicitly recognized in the Conflict series, especially the fifth and best battle of Primaries and Secondaries enacted by a pair of insects against a field of orange; in this wonderful painting, the legs of the insects, strangely hoof-like, scatter like Pollock’s skeins of paint, moving in and out of minimalist bars symmetrically arranged like French flags at Borodino. Burns is thoughtfully fighting his way into the future without ever denying his origins as a printmaker or his gifts as a draftsman. That he is now a colorist of the first order has only further vivified his art. The combination of obvious visual pleasure with subtle disquietude fixes the images in the viewer’s mind, dread and delight in equal measure.
MICHAEL SALCMAN, poet,
physician and art critic, was chairman of neurosurgery at the
University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in
Baltimore. Currently Special Lecturer in the Osher Institute at Towson
University, he has taught history of contemporary art and lectured on
the brain and creativity at Towson University, Johns Hopkins, the
Walters Art Museum, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the
Cooper Union in New York. His course on How The Brain Works is
available through The Knowledge Network of the New York Times. Recent poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, Hopkins Review, Notre Dame Review, Ontario Review, Raritan, and New York Quarterly. He is the author of four chapbooks and two collections, The Clock Made of Confetti (Orchises, Washington, DC), nominated for The Poet’s Prize and a Finalist for The Towson University Prize in Literature, and The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises, 2011). His poems have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Euphoria,
Lee Boot’s award-winning documentary on the brain and creativity
(2008). His work has received five nominations for a Puschcart Prize.
Salcman is currently completing his anthology of classic and
contemporary poems on doctors and diseases. www.salcman.com