Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elemental: New Glass/Metal Paintings by Michael Burges at Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto

No 2. (2020), acrylic, Plexiglas, goldleaf on aluminum, 8 x 8 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).
“If we keep our eyes open in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself, it retires into itself. That stimulating and grateful contact is wanting by means of which it is connected with the external world.”  – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810).

Some viewers and readers may recall earlier bodies of work by Michael Burges executed in reverse painting on glass, a resistant surface which allowed us to look through to get at, and an intriguing strategy devised to liberate the artist from the acres of textile and canvas customarily used by painters throughout art history, those who formally celebrated its absorbent and tactile qualities. With these new works, this painter continues to explore reverse glass painting mounted on aluminum, an equally resistant and reflective surface capable of carrying the subtle language of his images of time-soaked light as a most effective medium. Our eyes themselves are now the delicate textiles which absorb their fleeting messages, if we allow their mesmerizing gaze back at us. 

Throughout his ongoing focus on ethereal sensoria, he also demonstrates a few of the qualities that all great artists share: dedication, continuity and commitment. But his grasp of the ineffable and transient, as evidenced in his latest threshold-like paintings, is still powerfully visceral and haptic, and it reveals the actual sensation of our eyes being touched by seeing colour. The great German poet and playwright Goethe, who once brazenly declared that all his vastly influential literary works paled in comparison to his vital contributions to what he called the “difficult science of colour,” was trying to draw our attention to what he considered the elemental and crucial role of our perception of colours in mediating the world around us. So is Burges.

What can it mean for something to be described as elemental? In chemistry, an element is a pure substance which cannot be broken down further, consisting of atoms which have identical numbers of protons in their nucleus, with their quantum being referred to as the atomic number. Fittingly, the title of a Burges painting is also its atomic number. Ancient philosophy posited a set of classical elements to explain observed patterns in nature and those elements originally referred to earth, water, air and fire, rather than the chemical elements of modern science. Today, the transfixing nature of the elemental, inherently reduced to an essence which precedes perception, remains as mysterious as ever, and these paintings effectively convey some of the essentialist drama of that distillation. This is especially the case in the largest piece in the show, perhaps its starring feature, the majestic gold leafed Diptych, with its breathtaking opulence taking centre stage.

It’s a tantalizing realm of near-transcendence if handled masterfully, and Burges does so in a very process-oriented manner, as he clearly indicated in his working notes leading up to this body of work: “The painting material is not only a medium for me, but is also the actual actor. I let the matter present itself via physical or chemical structural processes, and perform. In their metallic, narrative-free presence, they are perhaps more image-objects which undermine the usual interpretations, and they create a visual sound. As such, they demand a unfocused view, with a musical eye.” Indeed, he does orchestrate captivating optical operas and several fine immersive examples of such a visual aria are the watery vistas rippling in #12, #18, and #36.

No. 12 (2020), acrylic, Plexiglas on aluminum, 47 x 54 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).

No 18 (2020), acrylic and Plexiglas on aluminum, 39 x 51 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).

If there is a periodic table for elements in the fabrication of art, similar to the one for chemical compounds, it might consist of the subjects and themes in visual culture (self, nature, society, spirituality), as well as the formats (portrait, still life, landscape, abstraction) for exploring and sharing those themes. These formats can, of course, easily be regarded as compounded constituents of those first core elements. Within the visually challenging arena of abstraction and the conceptual, both languages that are well handled in the capable hands of Burges, each and all of the others can be combined and reconfigured to an practically infinite effect. Pieces such as the explosively floral #29 and #30, for instance, suggest a recursive plane of myriad subjects, themes and meanings. Here we have a not-so-still life writ large that both envelops and exorcizes nature. 

No. 29 (2019), acrylic and Plexiglas on aluminum, 8 x 8 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).

No. 30 (2019), acrylic and Plexiglas on aluminum, 8 x 8 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).
It seems clear that one parallel counterpart of the periodic table of chemical elements might very well be the colour spectrum in the optical domain of visual art. It also feels quite fair to call his works process paintings, since the artist admitted to as much in his insightful working notes for this series: “A work seems to me to be particularly successful when I no longer know exactly what it is about, and it still captures me. In the colour works, I use the randomly oriented techniques of color shaking, the disturbance by chemical agents, and above all colour squeezes.” For me, the concept of a colour squeeze alone is well worth the price of admission to his world.

Yet even when a work is deemed complete, since it is part of an aesthetic zone I’m calling process art it still has an extended life, one in which we, the viewers, take on a much heightened prominence, and in a very real sense we complete the work via our engagement with it. As per the artist’s further observations on his method and strategy: “Through this post-painting process they are self-emergent, bringing out their inner potential in time, developing and working out their own characters. In these paintings, time is conceptually taken into account.”

Thus his works are not only process-oriented but also embodiments of duration, to some extent even being emblems of time itself. They are also, in many cases, extremely compressed and condensed visual codes which engender a large-scale emotional impact which powerfully belies their occasionally intimate physical size. Many of his gently gridded gold-leaf pieces appear mysteriously sequential in feeling almost and come across as postmodern evocations of medieval icons, minus the saints.

When Goethe published his Theory of Colours in 1810, he was exploring the metaphysics of colours almost as much as their scientific qualities, and in particular was fascinated by the colour black, delving into the challenges of an artist’s representing something that appears to reside in a nebulous realm bounded by the absence of light. His remarkable achievement, a synthesis of both science and aesthetics, was in fact to distinguish the visible from the optical spectrums, in a manner which considered colour as a physiological phenomenon, to “search for nothing beyond the phenomena” of seeing colour through the apparatus of the human eye.

To my eye, the metal paintings by Burges are a parallel expression of this poetic adherence to the lived-in experience, so much so that they appear to hover over the territory of another profound German thinker, the great culture critic Walter Benjamin, whose notion of an optical unconscious provides us access to the subtly layered dimensions often being depicted by Burges, which frequently feel like matter dreaming. Those who support the non-structural view of consciousness, its free-floating and non-localized nature, have often suggested that the core elements of our awareness are the so called qualia – supposedly qualitative personal features of our own conscious experience. The most paradigmatic examples of qualia are simple color experiences or raw feelings: the redness of red or the painfulness of pain or the joyfulness of joy, for instance. And yet these private subjective sensations can be shared with others. This is an intriguing idea, that Burges is painting qualia, and it makes sense to me as one observing his works from a close conceptual range. Thus they seem to convey pure unconscious forms, as the very essence of what this mysterious optical unconscious of both Goethe and Benjamin might just consist of.

Burges is a kind of visual archaeologist, digging into the foundational levels of our optical awareness through his elemental paintings, telling us stories, which we actively participate in composing, not so much of recognizable narrative actions but rather of what it means to see per se. To see the colour gold, for instance, long before we think about what gold might mean, or represent, or symbolize. In a work such as the primal #9, with its quietly emerging colour crevices, we can immediately feel what it means, because a gifted purveyor of thresholds has shared his incisive glance with us: his own glance has also touched our eyes. 

They are extremely light sensitive; to call them meditative might be something of an understatement. Their true subject could be an openness which reflects whatever emotion or idea each viewer brings to them. They are active celebrants in the sheer radiance of seeing and they remind us of a simple fact that D.H. Lawrence pointed out so long ago: the incarnate Now is supreme.

No. 9 (2019), acrylic and Plexiglas on aluminum (Odon Wagner Gallery)

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.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 latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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