Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Poetics of Space: The Big, Big Pictures of David Burdeny

David Burdeny, Rockpool, Australia 2016, 5 x 5 feet.

 “The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche." – Gaston Bachelard

Well, I know that “they” always say that size doesn’t matter, and also that we know others who counter that with a rhetorical flourish and an easily understood "Size does matter." Both are clearly true. But in the case of visual art after the official invention of photography in about 1840 – and subsequently the inception of an art form that I consider to be not just a highly pertinent part of formal art history but actually its progressive culmination, leading eventually to the ultimate medium of expression, cinema – size tends to impact our perception in very valid ways.

To test this experiential fact, that size does matter after all, just submit to an easy experiment yourself: watch Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane on your smart-phone, then watch it on television, then go out and find a cinematheque in your city which is screening it in a pristine 35-mm print on a giant screen in a big room, in the dark, and surrounded by strangers.

You get the general idea. Size matters.

The same is true of the art of photography, once the viewer accepts the fact that ever since the ascent of visual artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Harry Callahan and Virginia Meier, to name but a few, photography is indeed the most paramount of aesthetic media. It certainly is the shining mirror of the last century and also even of our current pixilated era, especially once it is transported into or up to the grandeur and epitome of that most collaborative of visual arts, great filmmaking. The scope and scale of the salience conveyed by the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction is also, not always, but often, strikingly embedded in the size of the photographic format being utilized.

The earliest photographic artworks, originally scalded onto fragile glass plates over agonizingly long sessions, were barely the size of average postcards. But once reproducibility kicked into high gear, roughly the Steichen era of acceptance as paintings made mechanically with light, their true splendour as images that captured the fleeting duration of reality itself began to expand their dimensions up to and eventually even beyond the customary scale of traditional paintings on canvas.

Eventually the grandeur of an Ansel Adams (someone whose sensibility, not his style, I find to have the most affinity with Burdeny's) invited both photographers and those viewers among us who were willing to accept the industry involved as not only aesthetic but triumphantly so, began to have an appetite for images that occupied the same physical space as we ourselves do. Which brings us back to the tantalizing, mind-altering, and frequently breathtakingly big images of David Burdeny.

Over the last twenty years, he has become internationally acclaimed for what can best be described as intensely and finely composed photographs which range in subject and theme from minimalist seascapes, ornate European interiors and somewhat abstract aerial-based images. For Jennifer Kostuik, his art dealer in Vancouver, where they both reside, “[t]he sheer beauty of David’s images has firmly placed him within the realm of Canada’s most sought after photo-based artists. His willingness to take risks, eschew dogma and continuously pursue his innate curiosity for new subjects has become a signature element in his work.”

Salt Lake 5, Utah, 2015 (left);  Salt Lake 9, Utah, 2015 (right).

Most of these splendid images were shot between 2015 and 2017, in multiple locations around the world, and have two primary elements in common: most are sublime in their content and most are grand in their form. Often they are big, big pictures, usually 5 by 6 feet in scale, so human scale. And they also share with us the big picture of life on earth, what it means for humans to interact with the environment, frequently from the environment’s point of view.

He speaks on behalf of the marvelous locations he prefers to seek out, find, explore and interpret for us. A great example of this paradox would be his portrait of a surfer off the coast of Australia. Is this a picture of a surfer, of the ocean, an abstraction of pure energy, or a still life using a human body as a device for examining the power of nature and the vanitas of our own attitudes towards it? The answer is: yes.

Again Kostuik put it very well indeed when she characterized his Salt works: “The raw immediacy and lived experience of taking a photograph matters as much to Burdeny as how he composes his frame. It is his personal connection to these places and the emotional or intellectual intrigue that grips him through the process that he hopes resonates in the print. He is seeking to capture the mood and the promise, the silence and solitude in that extended moment of awareness.”

Surfer, Perth, 2016.

But of course his contemplation of the intricate relationships between nature and ourselves also takes into account the obvious but often underlooked presence of the many other sentient beings who occupy our precious space, especially the oceans, with us as invisible but implacable companions. As per his intimate studies of humpback whales going about their mysterious business in the dark depth we can’t even imagine, let alone visit.

Whales, Australia, 2017.

Burdeny demonstrates a high degree of visual eloquence and is something of a rare bird for artists: a practitioner of visual poetry who appears equally eloquent when called upon to explicate his own work, something generally left to mechanics such as myself. “These works,” he explains, “present my abiding interest in the thresholds that divide and connect the sea to the land. I am fascinated with the quality of light and the special immensity of the oceans, and I have an enormous reverence for feeling so small in the presence of something so vast, where perspective, scale, time and distance momentarily become intangible."

North Sea, Netherlands 2017.

It strikes me that the elegant acceptance of and expression of the intangible is partially what makes his work so commanding. That and the fact that they’re just so damn gorgeous, of course. For Burdeny, who was born in Winnipeg and currently resides in Vancouver, “[p]hotographing is a process of clarifying this quality (the intangible), and I work towards creating formalized, liminal spaces. The glory lies not in this act of clarification or reduction, but in the experience of what is left – a sublime experience located in ordinary space. Exposed under the light of dusk and dawn, the shutter is left open for several minutes, recording the ocean and the sky as it continuously repositions itself on the negative, a process both dependent upon and vulnerable to chance. The resulting image is an accretion of past and present. Each moment is layered over the moment preceding it – a single image that embodies the weight of cumulative time and unending metamorphosis.”

I’m pleased to say that I couldn’t have said it better myself. Also that his is that equally rare case of fabricated images that really do require very little introduction, since they actually can speak best for themselves, in their own profoundly moving visual language.

Nets, China, 2017.
Seaweed Farm, China, 2017.

His works specifically reference the interstitial gaps between solid and liquid, matter and air, mind and memory. Apart from being exceptionally well-crafted and compellingly elegant in their large-scale character, for me they also approach a captivating merger between purely aesthetic concerns about form and content-related concerns about ecological issues which have a significant pertinence in today’s global culture.

While not directly ecological per se, they raise demanding issues about land use and human habitation, while also exploring the domain of on-site spatial aspects of conceptual/perceptual experiences. His works obviously evidence a keen technical ability, enduring patience and a minimalist ethos while also showing a documentary interest in the marks humans leave behind us. They are time-based, durational epics and serial works of exceptional rigour.

Iceberg, Greenland, 2017.

And speaking of human habitation, perhaps the only physical spaces capable of competing with the architectural sacredness of icebergs in the ocean might be the grandiose architecture of human desires and dreams captured in Burdeny’s portfolio of Baroque buildings scattered across Italy. As Kostuik expressed it, “Burdeny’s Masters in Architecture and Interior Design, combined with his upbringing in the vast Canadian prairies, provides the template for his keen technical ability, enduring patience and minimalist aesthetic. The photographs are rigorous yet graceful, inviting the viewer to form their own narrative about the spaces explored.”

Reggia Torino (left); Pallazo Ducall (right)

Clearly for Kostuik and his many other admirers and collectors, his training in design plays out dramatically in his visual imagery: “In his earlier architectural practice, as in his current photographic career, David is fascinated by the opportunity to invest symbols and narrative into built forms and to see the metaphors in a material space. His work has an abiding interest in thresholds and liminal spaces, places that seem somehow a bridge between the concrete and the ephemeral, elevated above time (the home of all photographs) and hallowed. He sees the sublime residing even in an ordinary everyday space, and suggests an inherent mystery at the heart of all his photographs, an appeal to the viewer to keep looking deeply and see more beneath the surface.”

It is certain that Burdeny is equally highly attuned to the visual vibrations inherent in both the organic architecture of nature and the human designed architecture of culture. His Veld series, for instance, focuses on the annual growing season in Flevoland, The Netherlands, the largest tulip-growing area in the region. Flying in an open-door helicopter, Burdeny had to time the shoots precisely in order to capture he tulips at their peak bloom.

Tulips, The Netherlands, 2016.

The artist himself encapsulates his restless search very well: “My photography is discovery-driven and like many photographers I have an intense curiosity about the world around me. I am photographing the landscape as a sort of dream state, where we float above it and wander through its geology with no prescribed destination. I see each image as a specific essay on place, a survey of terrestrial phenomenon and the traces we humans leave behind. My photographs seem to simply ask: how do you, as human beings, experience the earth?’”

How, indeed?

David Burdeny is represented by the Jennifer Kostuik Gallery in Vancouver and by the Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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