By Kevin Blake
As Elijah Burgherâ€™s solo show at Western Exhibitions comes to a close and he sets his sights on the 2014 Whitney Biennial, he weighs in on his practice. With a â€˜no stone left unturnedâ€™ approach to his work, Burgher is tough to stump and shows us why his work merits a bigger stage.Â
Kevin Blake:Your recent solo show â€˜Friendship as a Way of Life b/w Iâ€™m Seeking the Minotaurâ€™ at Western Exhibitions features an eclectic grouping of work. From intimate representational drawings that appear overtly labor intensive to large abstract paintings on canvas drop cloths that hang from the ceiling, each work demands something different of the viewer. These works interrupt the gallery space in an interesting way and requires the audience to physically adapt to your installation.Â Can you talk about how you conceived the schematic for hanging this show and how it may or may not reflect your ideas about ritual?Â
Elijah Burgher: Originally, I wanted to install the drawings and drop cloth paintings separately in Scott’s two galleries, constructing a labyrinth of sorts with the latter works. I had in mind something like Robert Irwin’s installation at Dia’s Chelsea space in the late 90s, which consisted of a maze of scrims lit by differently colored fluorescent lights. (I saw that when I was an undergrad, and it left an impression on me, but I hadn’t known what to do with that experience in my own work.) Or imagine being able to physically enter a painting by Mark Tobey or Brion Gysin. I was–and continue to be–interested in contrasting the depicted space within the drawings and the real space created by the drop cloths when they are hung as false walls–I am thinking of them more and more as building blocks for a soft architecture. I decided instead, however, to hang the drop cloths among the drawings, and use them to partition the gallery space into smaller rooms. The labyrinth idea is still present, but less literally manifest. I think it is also reinforced by certain of the drawings, like “In the horny deeps below finding,” which pictures two figures standing on the threshold of a space, on the walls of which sigils are painted.
The drop cloth paintings have their origin in rituals I was devising and conducting a couple of years ago, around 2011 or thereabouts. I was combining Austin Osman Spare’s sigil magic, bits and pieces of European ceremonial magic, and my experience participating in AA Bronson’s Invocation of the Queer Spirits project in these rituals. The drop cloths functioned as both portable temples–spaces for conducting rituals–and artifacts of the rituals. I made a video documenting one of these actions with my friend, Tom Daws, three years ago, which was shown as part of an exhibition at Gallery 400 called “Intimacies.” That context remains pertinent, although the paintings are no longer, strictly speaking, artifacts of rituals. It’s the portable temple part I’m more interested in now–again: false walls, fragments of a soft architecture. And I hasten to add that I do, in fact, live with them in this way. For instance, my studio and kitchen are separated off from one another by two drop cloths hung back-to-back.
KB: I think the essence of Irwin’s work is experienceâ€“how the work presents itself at the moment you interact with it. Irwin’s work was made to transcend the material nature of its temporary existence. It certainly did for you, it seems. In that vein, your work evoked in me the idea of ritualâ€“the ritual of looking at art or the art of looking in the gallery context. As I wandered through the space, I kept thinking about how I was supposed to maneuver, and if I was doing my part correctly so as to understand your intentions. Your work alludes, pictorially, to the occult, but the way the show was hung addressed Irwin’s ideas more overtly. For me, this over-arching metaphor for experience and ritual, really tied the show together nicely. Is this happenstance or a strategic move to conflate those ideas?
EB: This is a hard question to answer. It wasn’t precisely my intention to draw an analogy between the experience of looking at art and ritual. In fact,Â I worry about conjuring the look and feel of sacredness in a humorless, worshipful manner. On the other hand, I think that bringing ideas from magick and the occult into art can focus our thinking about art, especially regarding our psychic investments, our expectations and hopes and worries.
The stakes of Irwin’s work, generally speaking, are in prioritizing the phenomenological aspect of visual art, enabling a pure experience of looking: “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” My work does not share this aim. It’s invoked in order to be complicated, even reversed. I’m too interested in representation and language. I think that the experience of the show at Western involves toggling back and forth between depicted and real, imaginary and actual. I also hope to make those polarities more volatile. I’m obsessed, for instance, with making something happen by drawing.
KB: The way the drop cloths were hung forced a physical encounter with the intimate scale of the drawings, while simultaneously conveying a sense of being walled in by the paintings. I think this mandates an initiation to the work that is a compelling component to the show. How do you think about the audience in the production of the work, or is it a curatorial consideration post production?
EB: Yes, I wanted the drop cloths to operate in that way–to contrast the scale and sense of touch in the drawings, as well as suggest connections amongst certain groups of drawings by separating them off.
I was going to reply that I do not take the audience into consideration when I work, but that’s not entirely true. I suppose I resist the idea of a general or abstract audience. Primarily, I make things that I want to look at and think about (or try to do so, at least). And I also make work with specific individuals or sets of individuals in mind–people with whom I am already in dialogue or wish to engage in dialogue. When I am working, I am thinking about my friends–amazing artists like Doug Ischar, John Neff, and AA Bronson–as well as figures with whom I can only engage in imaginary conversation because they’re dead. William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Forrest Bess would be examples of the latter.
But maybe I’m misunderstanding the gist of your question? You’re suggesting that I’m molding the viewer’s experience through installation decisions, which direct not only the viewer’s bodily navigation of the show but their conceptual understanding of the works. I think this is right, although, again, I wasn’t really thinking of the audience. I was thinking about the works themselves and the relationships amongst them in the show as a whole. It was important for Lucifer andÂ In the horny deeps, below findingÂ to be in the first room, providing a kind of key with which to approach the other works in the show.
KB: For me the show does much in the way of re-instating the experience of art as something personal if not sacrosanct. Your figurative drawings allude to deeply personal narratives while the spaces in which the figures exist complicate the read. Â Those spaces are self referential in a way-suggesting a dialogue with your paintings. It is as if you give the viewer something, but not everything at onceâ€“morsels of information laid out in a trail from one work to the next. I’m guessing that you are working on multiple pieces at once, maybe making labored drawings at a desk and when you don’t have that kind of patience, you make these large gestural, energy-infused paintings that feel absent of circumstance. Can you say something about the experience of making, dictating outcomes, as it relates to your conceptual framework?
EB: I trust the space and time of my studio–its organization and furniture, its rhythms. From that perspective, I think about working in terms of wrist versus arm, sitting versus standing, stillness versus movement, head and hand versus whole body. I make work from above: it is either on a table or the floor. These physical aspects of making impart a charge to the work, conveying particular kinds of attention and intention. For instance, devotion–in its religious, romantic and sexual registers–is both cause and effect of the exacting care with which the two portraits in the show are drawn.
Right now I am very committed to drawing as a medium, and I’m interested in activating and exploring two of its primary traits or functions. Drawings were historically valued as a form of raw, active thinking: notes, plans, visualizations of paintings to be painted or buildings to be built. They were also valued in terms of pure mark-making–for their autographic nature. (Think of the cliche of a connoisseur being able to distinguish a straight line drawn by Picasso from one by Matisse.) The first has to do with drawing’s intimacy with the head, the latter with the hand. The first projects into the future, the second indexes presence. All of this has something to do with desire, its force and movement, but I am still trying to figure that out.
KB: I think you are right about artâ€“particularly art-makingâ€“possibly being about fulfilling a desire. A desire to exert, regurgitate, project, exorcise, or summon an idea, dream, or memory. As both are perpetually changing or in motion, how do you think about the relationship between time and desire, specifically as it relates to the act of drawing?
EB: When I think about the experience of desire in relation to time, I think about insistence, rhythm and rhyme, repetition and variation of forms. It might be the case that my drawings embody something about desire’s force, form and tempo, but it might also be that I associate desire with these qualities because of the drawings themselves–the repetitive mark; the rulers and compasses I use, etc. We could also discuss the temporality of desire differently, though: the way it shuttles across past, present, and future. Desire retrieves objects from the past–a lost beloved, wishing something might have happened differently, etc–and projects into the future–I want to find my lost ipod, I want that artist’s grant, I don’t want to die!
Several of the reviews of the show at Western have noted that the drawings are stiff, cold, distant, and that this contradicts the ostensible subject matter of sexuality. I wonder, though, why desire should be represented by messiness, drips, open form, and other painterly effects? I think desire has as much to do with attempts at mastery and control as it does submission, accident, loss of control.
KB: Time and desire will surely continue to play a role in your studio life moving forward, and considering the recent news of your inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, time specifically, will be at a premium. How do you hope to maintain the integrity of your desires in the work, while fulfilling the desires of your professional demands?
EB: There were pictures I wanted to make for the show at Western that I simply didn’t have time to make, and I’ve begun working on some of those since the show opened. This is a pattern from the past couple of years–there’s always some image left unmade, some problem that hasn’t been addressed, some loose thread to follow, which keeps me both focused and a little frantic.
I do worry about the integrity of my desires, but that is fairly private and coded–there’s plenty of irony, metaphor and other games in my work to ensure that. This work is predicated on the thought experiment of art possessing magical efficacy. Taking that seriously–that artworks cause change to occur in conformity with one’s will, to paraphrase Aleister Crowley–results in some serious self-reflection.
In daydreaming fantasies, I’m a totally evil bad ass, I need no one, and I’m flipping a pentagram-adorned middle finger at the world… but when I’m honest with myself about myself and my desires, I end up thinking about other people: human relationality, subject/object, love/aggression, ethics. I say this not because I’m so exquisitely sensitive to the needs of others but because any rigorously rational reflection on desire implicates the social, self and other, etc. I have no qualms admitting I want success–critical esteem from my peers, a livelihood!–but it’s these other riddles that I want to think about, and that sustain my work in the studio. Perhaps, though, one day I won’t require magic to reconcile art and life, self-determination and sociality, etc? On the other hand, I can’t help but think that art itself is always already a thought experiment, always an as-if proposition; which brings me back to magic, arguably the mother of metaphor and salve/lens of contradictions.