‘Robert Burkert: New Acquisitions and Old Favorites’ at the Memorial Union

Yesterday I braved the light afternoon drizzle to check out the Robert Burkert exhibition currently featured at the Porter Butts Gallery on the second floor of the Memorial Union. Burkert is a UW alum, having received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees right here in Madison in the first half of the 1950s. His wife is Nancy Ekholm Burkert, herself an artist whose claims to fame include illustration credits for the immortal Roald Dahl novel James and the Giant Peach and for the 1972 publication of the brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The exhibition is comprised of works in a variety of visual mediums: lithographs, screenprints, watercolors, oil paintings, and all sorts of hybrids. The literature that accompanies the show mentions Burkert’s interest in nature as subject matter, but that interest is much less straightforward than some facile attempt to reproduce the forms of overlapping tree branches or the way light bounces off an object in motion as it refuses to rest beside a glistening pond. Burkert definitely seems to be engaged in a kind of reproduction, but it’s not a strictly impressionist approach to reproduction; Burkert’s paintings suggest a dude who agrees with the impressionists that our phenomenal experience of the world ought to be captured and conveyed through art, but who also thinks that abstract analysis of this experience yields insights about the metaphysical forms of phenomena that basically resist translation into unified, tectonic arrangements. In other words, art is not just the world’s mirror; art is an actor of considerable significance within the world.

In many of Burkert’s “nature” paintings, color, no matter how drab, dominates the object that bears it; even ostensibly dark objects, like a submerged rock or a distant clump of forest, radiates a certain light, a light that is often low-key to the point of hinting at a waking death lying dormant within all of nature’s constituent stuff. This is true mostly of Burkert’s screenprints, like “August Island” and “March Furrows”, while his oil paintings flaunt more overtly  impressionist tendencies, as in “Tidal River”, which resembles the sort of work one imagines a ten-year-old Monet was churning out for auto-didactic kicks; it’s a carefree assemblage of watercolor blots and long, thin strokes.

The Monet comparison is not accidental; Burkert even attempts a portrait of his stylistic ancestor with the “Monet Series”, whose unfinished form suggests the impossibility of giving appropriately intense props when and where props are due. “Artist in Studio” dissembles its credentials as an impressionist glimpse of the artist at work, but it’s more than just an amorphous orgy of colors: it’s got a really sneaky geometrical structure.

The Monet influence is again summoned and transformed through “Trails”, in which a meadow of dispersed grass and flowers is juxtaposed with the solid, rolling hills that form the landscape’s horizon. Horizons are a point of special interest in several of the works, such as in “Daybreak”, an intensely abstracted nature scene in which a sequence of false horizons serves as the backdrop for an entangled web of tree roots. The lumpy “Maine Fog” features the most pronounced brushwork of the entire exhibit, yielding a sky with a whole lotta texture that looms heavy in relief over a comparatively quiet body of water. In “Crosswinds”, the horizon is but the ground of a plane that is spatially distant but phenomenologically near.

If nothing else, we learn two things about nature from Burkert: 1. nature, it turns out, is really a great big psychedelic tantrum, apparent from “River Flow (Osprey)”; 2. the bottom of the ocean appears to an asphyxiating diver as an assemblage of pills and globs of colorful oils (“Sea Bottom”).

Monet is not the sole point of reference: in “Georgia O’Keeffe”, the eponymous artist has her face faintly superimposed over a huge pinkish sun as it hovers just above a stretch of perfectly maintained farmland labeled ‘Sun Prairie’. “Street Cynics” is a deliberately destroyed cartoon strip printed on coffee-colored canvas. The specter of Pop Art rears it head, à la Putin, in “Rainy Thursday”, where a black-and-white photograph of two women strolling through the ‘burbs is modified with neon hues and superimposed advertisements for Pepsi-Cola and Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968). “Clouds (The Eagle)” features a view of the sky that reminds of shots from the last movement of Godard’s Eloge de l’amour (2001).

Perhaps the two most engrossing works are both lithographs: “Pine”, an abstract eruption of formlessness and bright/dark contrast that resembles a tree trunk having a nervous breakdown; and “Normandy Beach”, a study of internal framing in which ghostly presences mingle with tiny pieces of kitsch.

“New Acquisitions and Old Favorites” shows that Burkert is nothing if not dynamic: the most recent painting included, “Cottage Door”, seems to mark Burkert’s realization, awfully late in life, that there does exist such a thing as incidental geometry, though that geometry may exist primarily to serve as a stage for cast shadows to express themselves in peculiar ways. The painting that opens the exhibit, “The Night Passengers”, is isolated from the rest of the works by a world of difference; in it, a posse of Kirchnerian figures are crammed onto a train whose interior looks like a kind of hell on Earth; most of the figures are eyeless, and the sky above resembles a swirling cauldron of mouthwash while the ground below is an impossibly assembled mosaic.

Anyway, as I hope is evident from my remarks, this show has a lot going on in it, most of which is well worth checking out, and I implore you to do so. “New Acquisitions and Old Favorites” will be at the Porter Butts Gallery on the second floor of the Memorial Union until September 15, so visit it while you can.

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