NOTHING FARTHER/MORE INTIMATE
by Charles Matson Lume
In relation to Fiona Burke's solo exhibition — unsupported
Part I - Nothing could be farther
Part II - Nothing could be more intimate
Part III - Nothing: farther/songs
The Hegelian Dialectic can serve as a guide to assist to better understand Fiona Burke’s recent paintings via her solo exhibition at Fogstand, St. Paul, MN, 2019.
I see there are three different kinds of paintings in the exhibition I will categorize for this essay: “screens”, “lush & hazy”, “above the horizon”. In this part of the text, I will discuss the latter two kinds.
Briefly, the Hegelian Dialectic structure looks like this: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. One creates a thesis. What is the opposite of this thesis? What does the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis look like?
Here is my Burke thesis: deep space can be intimate
Its antithesis: near space can be unknowable
A synthesis: each space can hold “paintable” secrets
Having set the structure, let me explain:
Thesis - I see in these Burke paintings a background lush, full of potential, and yet holds longing. Can something be intimate at arms-length? These parts of the painting feel like a long-distance relationship. There is deep desire, but touch is so delicate it could break. Nonetheless, the richness of these spaces supersedes any doubt because they possess a certain confidence or inevitability.
Antithesis – Although I think we may believe we understand the foreground elements with their masking tape-like qualities, bits of oil paint, and sometime shadows, what are they really doing? Like many quotidian elementals, we name and forget. Yet we don’t really know them. Here, the nameable become unknowable because we are too quick to judge and quantify. Ultimately, we lack the ability to live with ambiguity for long. Therefore, the near becomes unknowable.
Synthesis – Each space holds secrets. Are we the middle ground that creates balance between these two distinctly painted spaces? By looking, caring, and living with these paintings I think we can begin to hold these two distinct spaces, in all their complexities, so we may hear them sing clearly together. It is in their togetherness we may hear their secrets sound.
The lens through which to interpret is manifold. Like Burke’s paintings, there can be no single way to view her art. Therefore, emphasis is critical.
Let’s begin with “lush & hazy” and its furthest space. The fecundity of deep space in Burke’s paintings invites, paradoxically, certainty and doubt. One could assume the green of the bottom and the blue of the top point toward Earth and air. But what kind of Earth and atmosphere? They seem both before time began and potentially chemically illuminated. They balance gently on these potentialities. They do not tell us how to think or feel. Here, openness is a virtue. In a culture ravaged by algorithms, none appear to guide. We are lost. Free to think for ourselves. What a beautiful burden Burke has given us to bear.
In the painting’s “foreground”, a band of horizontal colors and masking-like tape appears in what seems “in front” of the “background’s” delicious atmosphere. The band of masking-like tape form veils, without excuse, the gauzy, brushless background. The band is broken by bits of paint of different colors. “I am paint”, in part, is what they might say in a confident, but quiet voice. Nothing in these paintings shout. The grossness of paint is available for viewers to witness, not necessarily as image, but something like noun & verb. They stir the surface of the canvas alive, still quivering from the release of the artists hand. They remember and ring. These marks do not try to become one with the band of tape. Gratefully, they do not blend. This would destroy the band’s presence on both accounts. Rather, they live together in a complexity of surface tension, neither breaking the other.
One of the tensions in these paintings is the back and forth of foreground to background, background to foreground. It seems like it should be easy to hold each of these in our vision, simultaneously. What one discovers is that one gets lost in looking at each part, not being able to feel the touch of the other. The want of touch in both accounts requires further looking to affirm our every encounter. The back and forth affirms the “yes” of each. Yes, this, and yes, this too. And back and forth like a lover continually acknowledging through each touch. Generosity returned again and more.
Color aids in differentiating the “lush & hazing” and the “above the horizon” paintings. These two kinds of painting share some of the same formal qualities noted about, but they feel very different both in space and what they might say to us. The “above the horizon” paintings “feel” as if viewers are floating. The whale of gravity is not relevant while we are inside these paintings. We are not located on the solid ground of Earth. Perhaps for a moment the Earth is air. We are weightless in the luminosity of light. Here, it is the band of painted “masking tape”, with its newly seen shadow, which tethers viewers to the surface and gently guides our gaze. What does the shadow give us that we do not experience in the other paintings? Light is given a particular direction and sense of time. We better experience a range of weather as if the sun where shining on the painting, but it may/will change at any moment. We witness here the fragility of time in a bouquet of calm. These paintings hold time gently with the very ends of round finger tips; almost as if not touching it, but still does. More paradoxes are withheld, and can only be experienced with and in time, perhaps more than a life time can afford.
The “lush & hazing” paintings hold the weight and lustiness of time. Here, gravity matters and partnered with time, a kind of heaviness is felt like a lead blanket put over one before the x-rayed teeth. In these paintings, time seems as old as Adam & Eve are to the Garden. Here, density and humidity might slow the flight or song of birds. The foreground in these painting have no shadow. The light overall is filtered and gauzy. Generous and clear, without glare. We notice clean color decisions and texture of paint. We notice hog’s hair has moved through this sticky oil paint to make a space that rings from an artist’s hand. It’s says “I” was here, and now color is here. Presence. Felt. A song sung and still singing.
In sum, what we finally witness is a kind of amazement inside paint. The tension of foreground and background keeps the viewer moving: wandering, wondering.
The dark screen paintings, in the St. Paul Fogstand gallery, create and situation themselves in context. They sit still like dark rectangular pools of wet light, waiting to be unseen. Here, these “screens” seem to say, “look at me, not through me”. They are unreal in their care and stillness. We expect entertainment. Their opacity mirrors our obliquity. It also mirrors the light of the gallery. Giving us a kind of unexpected truth, not sought but arriving – redeeming the encounter. The light of the gallery appears in the paintings as glare. Not as the painful scattering of light, but rather as a clarifying element. As if to say, without the glare, there is nothing to see. The glare reshapes the black screens and gives them a range of luminosity and in turn, space. However shallow, there is space. And with that space there is a kind of knowing. If we stop there, we only name and stop knowing. For it is the subtlety of the glare as it moves over the screen do we begin to know in a more complex way how light illuminates and guides our sense of seeing, and all of its demands.
These paintings do not need the viewer. They are not passively waiting. They are active. They are on. Viewers need to meet them as we meet all paintings: with time and a spirit of curiosity. The paintings hold and withhold. We cannot know them on our terms. No contract will be signed if we are small minded and ungenerous. These paintings are more stubborn than most of us. They can yield little at first glance or second. The goal is not to pick their locks. Data is not forthcoming. This is not about trickery, in the same way we cannot know the ocean by inspecting a photograph of it. What waits for us in these paintings is a kind of consciousness necessary for our survival. Like a hunter, the wait is necessary, a kind of aliveness. Hunger kills without it.
Why make paintings small? Or perhaps a better question might be how can a painting compete with other forms of communication in the 21st Century? Simply – It cannot. No way. What can be said in Burke’s paintings that can be uniquely said in paint? Technically, the range of marks in Burke’s paintings is masterly crafted. Nothing in these paintings seems out of place, poorly considered or misplaced. We feel a mind and a hand working in deep coordination. This kind of complexity arrives only from years of work and many failures with the medium. These failures create thresholds where none existed. They lead to places most cannot go. They lead to discoveries still to be discovered, and spaces where acclimatization, for some, never arrives. Like going to the bottom of the ocean, the pressure outstrips human capacities. Thus, brushes and paint become vehicles of travel. Tacit travel known less and less in a culture of the cloud and of needy serotonin.
But why small paintings? Care is perhaps one answer. Most paintings made today are not part of the industrial complex of capitalism. Some are, but most aren’t. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to make paintings like an industrial farmer, and still have human care leading each stage. In that world, scale and profit lead all decisions. No questions can be considered without them. In Burke’s paintings she is free to move elsewhere. Inside the paintings space is on the edge of unknowable. Like love, they yield control and allow for tenuousness and uncertainty to thrive. Their care allows us to trust, and in that trust we can move – have agency. Her small paintings give her a place of care to emphasize with each mark, without emphaticness. However, with too much care, the weeds of preciousness are often not far behind; strangling out freedom and movement by the inability to discern love from control. Burke knows and executes the difference.
But I have saved to the end the most difficult element to discuss in Burke’s painting: beauty. As writers and poets have noted, such as Louise Glück and Peter Schjeldahl, beauty stuns our thinking minds. In front of beauty, we sometimes stand stammering without word, but full of experience, full of encounter we wish to share, despite the inability to render language. Perhaps the desire to share the bodily outweighs the inability, and even with good intension on our side, we fall into cliché and sentimentality. If one treads lightly, we can avoid these troubles and yield fruit unbruised.
Each painting in this exhibition sings its song, slowly learned without sheet music. All sing in different tones, emphasis, care. The black paintings have it in what they decide to disclose, which is the difficulty of finding it. Theirs’ is a deep rich tone, a wavelength seemly for large ears of elephants. It travels for miles without change or echo. Gravity pulls. One needs to bend close to hear its low hum. Beauty is not equally distributed, nor equally detected.
In the “lush & hazing” and “above the horizon” paintings, beauty calls through color, form, kinds of marks, space. But these are nothing without the painter’s intelligence fostered in love. Their songs come from a buoyancy found spatially inside and outside the painting. The care they sing is known outside the painting, beyond the Renaissance window. They go back to dark desires found inside Paleolithic caves which celebrate our ancestors acknowledged need of the Other. A spiritual desire we still possess and its continuity found here, in these gaseous paintings, drawn out, sung on air.
Inside these paintings, it is the tension of harmony and dissonance that allows a kind of beauty to nest in the paintings, common as any sparrow. Between the remarkably painted and mysterious foreground elements, with their paradoxical paint-as-paint and trompe l’oeil friction, and the hazing atmospheric of Burke’s longingly deep space, beauty awaits our discovery there. The distinct care given to these two spaces seems to generate a sound found in shape-note singing that arrives only in abandonment to the song. A confident, full throatiness which finds its grace in genuine collaboration.