KRISTIAN BURFORD: On Rebecca, Christopher and Kathryn
Essay by Jan Tumlir, August 2007
At once evident to even the most casual observer of Kristian Burford’s works is his singular commitment to the object: inert sculptural stuff that is convincingly rendered as a separate body, and then inserted into a fully furnished architectonic set that can only be viewed from a specific and restricted perspective. Framed as a kind of mise-en-scene, the outcome begs a partly theatrical, partly cinematic description, even though it is, in the end, neither one of these.
In his last exhibition at I-20 in New York, the artist for the first time “tipped his hand” to present evidence of his working process. On an unassuming work-table positioned near the entrance of the gallery and visible from the street through the large windows that comprise its façade were several small clay “sketches” of “Rebecca,” the same female form that would reappear as the life-sized centerpiece of the finished work, tucked away in back. These figurines, all the more vulnerable in their diminutive, hand-held scale to the distorting imprint of the artist’s own fingers, proclaimed the importance of the sculptural act in the most basic sense: one body shaping another.
Balanced on saw-horse supports, the provisional character of the display table pointed back to the space of the studio, to the work of art – and also, by extension, the body – in process. It is an archaic sort of understanding that guides this search for expressive form, pose and gesture, one that taps into the body’s own intimate reserves of memory. At the same time, one senses how the eyes and mind monitor this operation, seizing upon vague potentials that flicker across the changing material surface. The artist recognizes the allegorical import of the act in the most general and specific terms: every chance configuration recalls a compositional precedent either to be denied or accepted. Moreover, the artist always comes to the table with certain art historical models already in mind, and in this sense even the most blind and “mindless” act of molding can be seen as a channeling of cultural memory, but now with the material itself in the role of final arbiter as to just what contents are appropriate – basically, what sticks.
At I-20, the two-sidedness of this process was echoed in the division of the show-space between a frank, light-filled front and a shadowy, occluded back. Burford has mentioned, in this regard, the function of darkness in the foreground of “Old Master” paintings as a threshold that one must cross in order to enter the space of the picture. Here, too, one passed through darkness into the half-light of representation. One by one, viewers were drawn out of the freely circulating group at the front of the gallery and, via a narrow corridor, toward the back. As is typically the case with Burford’s work, one came upon “Rebecca” from out of the darkness, a masked gaze with body following behind.
The Screen and the Stage
Burford constructs sculptural tableaux that we view largely as image - that is to say, external phenomena taken in to become, simply, what one sees. But this is a stubbornly fixed image that encourages a rapt voyeuristic posture, and thereby also the sense of being taken in oneself. Drawn from a private reservoir of everyday life experience, the image is outwardly mundane but hinting at secret depths simply by virtue of its presence before us. Like the image in film, it is experienced as simultaneously other and same, someone else’s visions that we internalize and make into our own. That said, Burford is pointedly not a film-maker, not a photographer, not even a painter; the “slice of life” scenes that he offers up to the gaze are actually there, taking up three-dimensional space. Inasmuch as all images are to some extent sliced out of the spatio-temporal continuum, these retain the palpable thickness and resistance of the real.
In contrast to the screen image, its super-flat surface inscribed with flickering illusions of endless recession, one might want to think about the shallow but actual depth of theatrical space. This space is determined on every side by the given scale of the enfolding architecture, which in turn is determined inwardly by the people and things it contains. As extruded images, or images delivered from the 2D plane into the actual space that we, the viewers, share with them, Burford’s sculptures must implicitly answer to the same mundane, worldly laws. More to the point, though, is the way that these spaces remain nevertheless discrete, sealed off as if by a force-field. They are parallel, but fundamentally separate, worlds.
The perception of theatrical space as a room within a room is countered by its open face. The wall that would shelter this space from our eyes evaporates with the opening of the curtain, and it is here also, on this now-transparent plane, that the image as such takes shape. This ritualized moment of revelation is carried over to cinema where, to this day, curtains sometimes still part before the screen. In Burford’s works, however, the curtains remain drawn, or almost. The illusion of total access is consistently denied in favor of a partial view, a sliver of visibility that both invites and deflects the possibility of voyeuristic absorption. To greater or lesser extent, the gaze is obstructed, causing one to force one’s way in, while remaining acutely aware that one is doing so. Certainly, these difficulties – the aggressive character of this forcing, the resistance inherent in the object, the sense of being forced oneself to look in this way – all bear an erotic charge. Eroticism is an integral ingredient of all images, perhaps of all aesthetic experience, but here it is especially so. One might say that it is a current of eroticism that binds all parts of the work together, ourselves included, and motivates their clockwork interaction.
Christopher… begins, as do all of Burford’s works, with a narrative description of the scene we are about to witness delivered by way of a lengthy title. From the first moment, the literary quality of this language grates against the expectations of empirical frankness we bring to this context. The experiential scope of art is typically limited to the phenomenal plane, to what can be made available to the senses in the here and now of a singular encounter. Conversely, literary language points to what can only exist in the imagination, in the mind of the author and then the reader. The relation of word and thing is here orchestrated as a play of absence and presence, the self-evident “being there” of the object all at once resounding with intimations of various “elsewheres.” The word highlights the lack inherent in things precisely by way of compensation, extending their reach through space and time, grafting on dimensions of sensation and thought, infusing them throughout with a sense of hidden potential.
The title relates a back-story, of sorts, to what sculptural form makes plainly evident. In the case of Christopher…, one gathers that the central figure occupies “a chamber that once served as his mother’s sewing room,” that she has since passed away, and that he is here working on “a short video” inspired by an adolescent, boarding school prank. Lying before us naked, he is testing on himself the proposition that “if the hand of a sleeping boy were to be submerged in tepid water, the boy would be made to wet his bed.” A closed circuit camera records the outcome, which is only absurd insofar as it is witness to a frozen moment, but this is also pointedly a pregnant moment.
The walls of this room-within-a-room are made of curtains, a piecemeal assortment of fabrics running right around the space with several small gaps left open for us to peek through. Suggestive of pragmatic considerations over and above aesthetic ones, this provisional shelter is seemingly comprised of whatever happened to be lying around. The late-mother’s sewing room has become a point of reclamation, the title informs, for “a small number of disused items that have failed to find a home elsewhere in the apartment.” In this way, language accounts for the arbitrary hodge-podge of mismatched colors and patterns that greets our eyes, but it also imbues the curtains, as well as the sheets and blankets lying all around, with an acute physicality. Streaming down from the ceiling like a waterfall, their baroque folds gather around the prone figure of “Christopher,” pooling up and eddying out. Taking on the contours of his body, these fabrics in turn become embodied to suggest wavy amniotic secretions and the ruffled fleshy lining of a great maternal host-body.
On a table close to “Christopher’s” feet, a National Geographic magazine has been pulled from a stack and opened to a page featuring Japanese watercolors of water-nymphs at play. Like the sirens that tempted Odysseus, these figures underscore the mythological link between the feminine-maternal and watery oblivion. Theodor Adorno famously employed the siren episode in Book 12 of The Odyssey to discuss the divided condition of art under modernity.(#. Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, “On the Concept of Enlightenment,” German Twentieth Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School, ed. Wolfgang Schirmacher, Continuum, New York, 2000, pgs 61-66.) The working classes that row the boat must stop up their ears, closing themselves off to aesthetic experience; only Odysseus, the boss, can allow himself to listen, but having been bound to the mast beforehand, he physically demonstrates the limitations of an art that becomes all the more poignant for being renounced, in final analysis, as a life practice. Art is a trial that the Odysseus, as a prefiguration of the canny bourgeois entrepreneur, must navigate his way through as efficiently as possible. That “Christopher,” for his part, has chosen the opposite route can be surmised from the laxity of his pose which bespeaks a general capitulation to the same entropic pull that every social order built on the principle of rational production must arduously resist.
If Burford’s protagonist remains productive nevertheless, it is only in the most unconscious and effortless manner. In this way, “Christopher” aligns the aesthetic sphere with path of least resistance as a direct affront to the strenuous postures that a more conventional concept of work would seem to demand. The presence of the video camera and the blue glow of its monitor brings the scene into registration with the context of contemporary art: one thinks of Warhol, both the Sleep film and the Oxidation Paintings, alongside certain key documents of “body art” and performance. But it is with the archaic aesthetic summoned up by the National Geographic reproductions that it shares the closest affinity. Even from a distance, one can make out that the flat space of those prints and this fully materialized sculptural space are linked by color. At once sumptuous and degraded, these are the colors of skin and its cosmetic embellishments, of the body’s external appearance as well as its internal contents. Submerged within the indifferent now-time of the artwork, these colors come apart from their mass-media source with its smugly progressive first-world perspective on all the world’s various exoticisms and primitivisms to address us directly. It is the painterly color-key for all that is watery within us, formless and unimaginable, until it spills out.
Painting and Sculpture
In the grand teleological narrative of modern art, the transition from painting to sculpture as “dominant medium” is a key moment that announces either the becoming-aesthetic of everyday life or, conversely, the becoming-everyday of the aesthetic. The concept of “dominant medium” is a crucial part of Clement Greenberg’s theorization of artistic evolution, the baton being passed from one form of production to another in accordance with the changing demands of the zeitgeist. As we approach the sixties, however, this tidy system of succession comes up for review, and not only because the functional distinctions between one medium and the next have grown increasingly vague and irrelevant, but because “the borderline between art and non-art,” as Clement Greenberg puts it, is itself on the verge of giving way.(#. Clement Greenberg, “Modernism with a Vengeance,” in Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Art and Objecthood, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago / London, 1998, pg 152.) This “borderline,” having become the principal area of interest of a new generation, “had to be sought in the three-dimensional, where sculpture was, and where everything material that was not art also was.”
Michael Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood” explores in detail the consequences of this border-crossing, and it is here, also, that the analogy of the theatrical is introduced into sculptural discourse to describe the potential downside of the newly emancipated object. At the extreme end of truth-seeking anti-illusionism – that overarching pursuit, initiated within painting and then fulfilled by sculpture, of “the positive and literal essence of (…) medium” – an all the more insidious order of contrivance takes hold.(#. Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” Clement Greenberg: Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, 1945-1949, ed. John O’Brian, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago / London, 186, pg 315.) Theatricality, as Fried describes it, is what happens when the total experience of our being in space with sculpture, the object ostensibly released from its former representational commitments, all at once snaps into focus as a picture itself. On this point, Fried quotes Robert Morris: “I wish to emphasize that things are in a space with oneself, rather than (that) one is in a place surrounded by things.”(#. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Art and Objecthood, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago / London, 1998, pg 154.)
These “things” are prop-like and hollow, the critic goes on to claim; they have renounced inner richness in favor of sheer exteriority, absorption in favor of reflexivity. The resulting experience is that “of an object in a situation – one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.(#. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” pg 153.) In regard to Morris’ stated interest in controlling this situation in its entirety, Fried writes, “It is, I think, worth remarking that ‘the entire situation’ means exactly that: all of it – including, it seems, the beholder’s body.”(#. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” pg 155.) Fried, who equates art’s “promesse de bonheur” with the concept of grace as a momentary reprieve from the gravitational pull of all things downward, is bound to find it unbearable to be reminded, here of all places, of his body in time. But this is precisely the mandate of theatrical art, and it is one that Burford takes to heart. His work is precisely that “of an object in a situation,” and the moment we enter into this situation we become part of it, and hence also the work.
If, as Fried suggests, the hollow cubic structures of the minimalist art are haunted from the first moment by a “latent or hidden (…) anthropomorphism,” then Burford simply seizes on what is already there: a vague spectral potential that is gradually materialized into tangible figurative form.(#. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” pg 157.) More specifically, this work stages an encounter between two bodies, one of which is also a wholly made thing. Between our real bodies and this product of a partial return to the “Graeco-Roman tradition of carving and modeling,” a third thing intrudes: the sculptural equivalent of a picture frame, a rectangle rotated on its axis to become a literal enclosure. From the exterior it takes shape as a massive cube, somewhat reminiscent of a Tony Smith but with Nauman-esque stage-flat walls. All the various transpositions of domestic architecture into the space of the gallery, beginning with Surrealism and running right through to the era of Conceptual Art and the work of such figures as Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham and William Leavitt, are also salient here. But the key reference point is certainly Marcel Duchamp, and above all his Etant Donnés, which marked a return to the figure, to representational art and the picture form, following a career-long exploration of abstract modalities. In Burford’s work, likewise, the figure returns to the scene of advanced art not to announce the failure of the great modern project, as this is precisely where it locates its grounding conditions. The figure returns as though through the screen of abstraction and its various anti-representational and de-materializing polemics.
Above all, what Burford shares with Duchamp is an interest in the psychic interplay of illusion and fantasy in regard to both the perceptual process and its external cues. His works encourage us to see rendered sculptural form as living beings and their surrounding contextual arrangements as living rooms by way of a highly developed mimetic technique, but perhaps even more importantly, by way of the manipulation and control of point of view. The eyes are forced through the narrowest openings to contend with one obstruction after another before at last settling on the promised object, and it is only at the end of this arduous process that one may begin to recognize that the work as such cannot be reduced to the scene of a figure in a setting. It is a finely tuned viewing mechanism; its principal material, what is in effect being molded, is the most abstract part of the equation - our desire to see.
Somewhat like the video camera and monitor serves, in Christopher…, as a sign of our visual occupation of the work, Kathryn… gives us a small ceramic cat, placed on the lowermost shelf of a corner-hugging cubby, to one side of the sofa that bears the slumped form of the central figure. Although it shares this space with various other half-hearted collectibles, its particular significance is underwritten by the work’s narrative pretext, which is again related by way of a lengthy title. A cat is ostensibly the cause of “Kathryn’s” vaguely traumatized expression and pose, having turned on the girl suddenly, leaving her with a scratched wrist and bloodied finger. However, aside from these wounds and the collar dangling wanly from the fingers of her right hand, this creature is nowhere in sight. It has supposedly fled the scene, leaving behind only a stylized representation, and moreover, one that that we cannot access directly, but only by way of a mirror reflection.
The mirror renders the object all the more transitional, this ceramic stand-in for a cat that actually exists nowhere outside the language that first brings it to our attention. Undergoing a series of translations from the order of the word to the thing and then to the image, it functions as a key, of sorts, embedded within the work, and explaining its outward system of operation. With a paw placed over one eye, it acknowledges its own furtive peek-a-boo presence, and hence also its potential absence, retreating from the concrete layout of the scene toward the indeterminate, shadowy wings of sexual innuendo and metaphor. The title is suitably ambiguous on this point: “After some minutes of happily petting the cat,” it reads, “Kathryn” all at once finds herself locked in violent struggle with a feral creature. But how does this explain her semi-nudity, her “slutty” make-up, her single braid and, moreover, her highly theatrical pose, which might be compared to one or another of Charcot’s famous “attitudes passionels” in its odd mixture of stiffness and luxuriance? These questions are all addressed, if not answered, by the one-eyed cat who could be throwing us a wink.
Only the most stubborn literalist would fail read the titular pretext of Kathryn… as having to do with the violence of a young girl’s sexual awakening. This is very nearly a genre in its own right, taking in the cruelly elegant compositions of Balthus as well as the soft-focus kitsch of David Hamilton, but here it serves a dual purpose, being both about eroticism and of it – that is to say, eroticism as a crucial component of all images and all art. As a found object, the ceramic cat occupies a transitional zone between the variable world of representations and our own given world. Like the sculptural figure of ”Kathryn,” the cat is a wholly-made thing, but it is not made by the artist and thereby, like us, a foreign element within his composition. It is, as mentioned, a stylized stand-in for the cat that dug its claws into the girl, and accordingly presides over her distress like some ancient pagan idol. At the same time, however indirectly, this creature appears to be soliciting the viewer: with one eye open it lures us into the image, and with the other eye shut it locks us in place.
If the work in its entirety may be understood a finely-tuned viewing mechanism, then this absent/present figurine is its conduit. Connecting the worlds inside and out, it channels desire toward its object and then back, tapping the viewer as the work’s energy-source, its battery. Kathryn… is, like all of Burford’s works, an aesthetic proposition couched in the form of a sexual fantasy, and this consists not only of the masturbatory scenario objectively “enacted” before us, but the dawning realization of our implication within it. From our end, the fantasy is one of omniscience, of witnessing in detail a private, ritualistic scene that was not meant for our eyes, but that we came upon as if by accident. That all pictures operate in this way is a point that this one makes overt and emphatic, as the implicit sexuality that is at the root of all aesthetic experience is here externalized as subject-matter. But once it is acknowledged in this way, sexuality also becomes something else, something more theoretical, even philosophical…
Aesthetic Origin and End
As with Rebecca… and Christopher…, Kathryn… precisely locates the fault-line between the outlying material world and the internal “life of the mind” in the erotic imagination. All of the above figures are born of a confluence of the erotic and the aesthetic, and all undergo a curiously indeterminate physical process that may be understood both in terms of becoming and regression. It is telling that all find themselves subtly displaced within rooms that are not their own: rooms that point to earlier states of being, as with “Rebecca” who “has returned to the house in which she grew up,” or “Christopher” who occupies “a chamber that once served as his mother’s sewing room” some years after her death, or “Kathryn” who has effectively fallen back a whole generation, “staying after school at her grandparents’ house.” In one way or another, these are all archaic spaces, redolent of prehistory for the subjects that they now enfold.
It is telling, as well, that all of Burford’s protagonists find their way back into these spaces via watery pathways. In the case of “Rebecca,” it is literally a diving accident that maroons her paralyzed figure within her childhood home. The moment of impact with the water’s surface, related by way of the work’s extended title, can be read as a gloss on the viewer’s own troubled passage through the picture plane. After all, our own entrance into the parallel world of representations is also predicated on conditions of silence and stillness. With “Christopher,” paralysis is actively sought by way of sleep and a school-boy trick that would further reduce one’s control over one’s body functions. The water bottles strewn all about the room bespeak the oceanic pull of dreams, the imaginary waves of which lap right up against his outstretched fingers. The deceased mother’s sewing room is a dessicated womb that the son can only reenter by “playing dead,” and the same goes for us, the viewers, who have followed his trail to this lonely place on the promise of primal union. “Kathryn” also has struck a frozen pose, there, on her grandparents’ couch as if in preparation for her own conversion into the static form of sculpture. And once again the figure is caught wavering on the threshold of absorption, “performing” the process of surrender that we must likewise undergo, albeit in a somewhat less consuming, more distanced manner. That is, we can only follow “Kathryn’s” example to the border of the visual, a limit that she, eyes closing, is right on the verge of crossing. With dazed, evacuated expression, she appears literally dumbstruck; her one arm taught, outstretched, marks her last willful act, as the other folds up languidly at her side. The final release of internal tensions is demonstrated externally by the fact that blanket beneath her is stained with urine, a dirty-yellow stream that runs from between her legs to her feet.
At first glance, Kathryn… recalls a Baroque ascension, the figure transported heavenward, rotating on swirling cloud formations. However, on closer inspection, this body remains stubbornly anchored to earth, swaddled in heavy, ancient blankets. The downward course of the piss-stain reflects the pull of gravity, thereby denying us any sense of apotheosis or grace. It is very much the abject lining of the sublime, the point at which all that has evaporated to become golden, airy and weightless condenses once again into a shower of vile droplets. But this reverse-alchemy does more than simply reassert the burden of the mortal body, for collapse here signifies refusal rather than defeat.
Like “Rebecca” and “Christopher,” “Kathryn” falls from grace into oceanic waters, as full of piss and blood as any womb. In this way, Burford suggests that our own relation to art is rarely, if ever, a progressive one. We do not seek confirmation within these works of our own good taste, our powers of judgment and/or higher interpretative faculties. Rather, to the extent that we allow ourselves to “go with the flow” of what we are shown, we too are set on a regressive course. The extruded image pushes out into our world, but it only receives those who move backward in time, those who have followed the example of Burford’s sculptural figures and taken the downward plunge. Where one winds up is anyone’s guess; a true Romantic would liken it to the primitive pre-literate core of being, but it is finally too simple to claim that it lies outside the reach of language, as it is language that brought us here. Rather more productively, one might read Burford’s extended titles as a sort of charm or incantation, a means of transforming the world while leaving it essentially intact.
Conjoining word, thing and image, something is being “set up” here in that original Heideggerian sense.(#. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, Harper-Collins, San Fransisco, 1993.) In Antique times, this complex would have taken shape as a temple erected on consecrated ground to house the singular figure of a god, to effectively hold that god’s place on earth in human form. The name of the place would have been one’s first cue as to its eternal holdings; the upward pitch of the architecture, the second; and a faraway, contemplative look in the eyes peering out of this enclosure, the third. Peering in turn into these unmoving eyes, hollowed out of stone, the passerby is literally arrested in space and time to ponder the transitory nature of existence and whatever it is that precedes and succeeds it. Caught in the gaze of this inert figure, the body of the observer takes on the quality of a made thing itself, a precarious envelope of skin and bone for the roiling humors.
Although Burford’s figures occupy the secular context of the gallery, they remain eternally bound to replay art’s ritualistic origins. The homey clutter that enfolds them is an affront to the progressive mandate of the “white cube”; clearly, no new solutions are here being proposed. But for this very reason, perhaps, their challenge only grows more daunting: to imagine ourselves as wholly aesthetic beings.