TOM BURCKHARDT Pretty Little Liars
On ViewTibor De Nagy
October 17 – November 24, 2012
For those readers not spending time around adolescent girls, the show’s title, Pretty Little Liars, refers to an insanely popular book and television series about a group of high school girls who lie their way through a murder investigation. There aren’t any pictures of attractive teenage girls in Burckhardt’s recent paintings, but the works are undoubtedly beautiful and all about deception.
Painting is at heart mendacious. The artist takes ground dirt and oil, and through some enigmatic process, transforms it into a two-dimensional depiction of the real world, an abstract vision or something in between. Burckhardt embraces this conundrum, exploring it from all angles and making it his own.
He starts by toying with the viewer’s expectation of what a painting is. These works are not straightforward paintings made of canvas stretched on wooden frames. In fact, they are objects cast from plastic resin. Were it not for the painted “nails” visible along the works’ edges, one may not even notice. Turn one over, and its stretcher bars would be revealed as faux bois, painted with just enough verisimilitude to be convincing and just enough attitude to force a second look.
And look twice you will, because Burckhardt’s compositions are original and endlessly complex. Disparate elements are carefully pieced together into mind-bending abstractions. Each work investigates the nature of illusion conjured through the medium of paint. Forms are set up to struggle with their own identity. For example, in “Bumfight” (2012) a hard-edged geometric block containing a half circle and a droopy organic form with a slight mass becomes a disjointed face. Of course it is the artist’s subtle mastery of oil paint—judiciously applied in wash here, firmly stroked on there, establishing forms with alternately soft and hard edges—that makes these illusions so convincing. When discussing his painting, Burckhardt sometimes refers to “pareidolia,” the phenomenon by which a group of distinct forms are transformed by the mind’s eye into something else. It’s mendacity by any other name—tricking the eye into believing the lie.
Figure and ground are also important tools in this game—Burckhardt constantly manipulates idiosyncratic forms to make the viewer question the nature of the depicted space. In “Jig” (2012) two asymmetrical orange blobs flank a jigsawn rectangle of steely blue. The blue form looks to be in front of the orange shapes, except when it doesn’t. In one small corner, a slender vertical swish of white pushes the blue to the background. Everything seems just a bit in flux. Get used to the eye being definitively led to one conclusion before it is swiftly upended at the last moment.
As in earlier work, architectural imagery appears frequently. In “Vintage Synthesizers” (2012), windows, walls and roofs—all drawn from shifting perspectives and morphing into each other—are stacked inside the outline of what may or may not be a giant head. The inky blue lines are drafted with such precise consistency that the image resembles a wood block print. Underneath, a bright yellow wash glows brightly, illuminating the “head-house” from within.
A landscape sensibility also pervades many of the paintings in horizontal format. In “Mt Minukku” (2012), a grid of yellow and blue stripes in the foreground suggests an urban settlement of some sort, and the large mountain-like form dominating the composition enforces the impression of landscape. Confident strokes of cerulean blue give the definite impression of sky, but then again, this is only a superficial organization. Within the rubric are half-oval forms that suggest tombstones or doors, lines that either flatten the space or serve as a hilltop, as well as jagged rectangles that could either be shadows or architectural forms.
As indicated by the show title’s reference to contemporary culture, Burckhardt takes an eclectic, witty approach to a serious subject. He raises fundamental questions about the nature of painting without taking himself or the painting too seriously. He makes skilled use of every trick in the painter’s bag—brush technique, compositional balance, unusual and specific color mixing—to manipulate form and space. The result is a group of imaginative, unconstrained abstractions offering the viewer both endless enjoyment and confoundment. Oscar Wilde once said, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” The artist would undoubtedly agree.
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