Thursday, August 13, 2009

A shift in perspective yields hidden meaning in Angela Burks' arresting work

A shift in perspective yields hidden meaning in Angela Burks' arresting work

Nashville Scene
By David Maddox
Published on August 12, 2009 at 8:10am

Paintings By Angela Burks
Through Aug. 29 at Twist Art Gallery

Artworks can have an uncanny ability to change character in front of your eyes. An initial impression, perhaps triggered by the most vivid element in the piece, may suggest one set of qualities—hot or cold, violent or peaceful—or subject matter that reflects either world events or private dramas. As you spend time staring at the thing, sometimes it turns 180 degrees, and what seemed dark now seems light. The paintings by Angela Burks at Twist Gallery play these games. Initial impressions of violence give way to something much more measured, and overtones of historical cataclysms blend into portraits of everyday life.

This show at Twist marks the first solo show in Nashville by Burks, a faculty member in the art department at MTSU, and it also marks Twist gallery's third year of operations. Twist has become a reliable source for just this sort of opportunity—a thorough look at local artists who have developed a mature body of work.

By virtue of size and composition, two paintings of a person seated in a simple interior may draw a viewer's attention first. In both, the person's face explodes into bloody slashes of red. It seems like a premonitory forensic picture, catching the person in a calm moment, but imagining violence to come.

This is a case where getting closer changes the painting. The red colors are an undercoat, covering much of the canvas and seeping out in seams of windows or the outlines of a baby doll. Seen this way, the red elements read like a sketch of the body's interior musculature, as if Burks started with illustrations from Gray's Anatomy and then layered on skin. From this perspective, the painting is not a premonition of violence, but a piece of careful, almost scientific construction. The quiet interiors are not about to erupt in noise and destruction, and the vivid colors reveal life underlying the surface, not death to come.

Those two paintings are older. The more recent pieces in the show continue to work with processes of rupture, but move into different images and materials. They are painted on quilted or floral print fabric, and several combine images of the female body with discordant elements like train wheels, planes or ants. The most striking take the fabric out of a frame and present it hanging loosely.

One set of paintings uses a whole sheet of fabric, hung unframed but stiffened with glue. They show a woman's body, but in each case her head is not visible—either obliterated by a thicket of trains where her head would be, or cut off by the framing of the image. The flesh is intimate, but the person is anonymous; the trains and planes intrude into the quietness of a human body at rest.

Another set of paintings goes a step further by working with shredded pieces of fabric. After dipping them in glue and letting them take a shape, Burks paints on a bit of a female body, like arms crossed against the chest. Over this layer she applies prints of ants—producing a woman's image atop shreds of household detritus, her space literally invaded. The juxtaposition suggests someone holding on to her sense of self in the face of decay.

Burks got her MFA from Tulane, and it is tempting to see these paintings in reference to New Orleans and the destruction left by Katrina, whose floodwaters scattered the ruined contents of people's private lives. But this is another case where first impressions give way to something quieter. The combination of materials and images suggests the way the physical and social lives of women intertwine with life's inevitable imperfections. No one needs a cataclysm like Katrina to have an experience of fragmentation, decay and unwanted intrusion.

What's more, the sense of these paintings as fragments gives way to a more integrated vision. The loose fabric, like a sheet, begins to take on the shape of the bodies it covers. Any time a painting betrays its three-dimensionality with visible variations in surface depth, it moves toward sculpture. Burks' bits of stiffened fabric are objects as much as images. In the case of the full sheets, they resemble nothing so much as the Shroud of Turin, the sheet of cloth said to retain the impression of Christ's dead body.

The shredded paintings come across as relics in a more secular context—scraps of material culture awaiting excavation. The shredded fabric takes on complex shapes that look more like the shape of a body, not just something to cover it. Here, a woman's body converges with cast-off bits of domestic life and even invading pests. In the end, what seems to telegraph disintegration unveils a process that deeply integrates shapes and images. Angela Burks' paintings may touch upon decomposition, but in truth they compose themselves as you look.