Monday, 15 August 1994

Thomas Burrows: Hematomas, Blanket Statements and Drawn Objects

Thomas Burrows, Blanket Statement No.10, polymer resin, 3 panels, 48"x 48" each, 1994.

A hematoma is associated with trials and tribulations. It it has a colour, blue, most often associated with bruising, the colour of the "school of hard knocks." Blue also, not coincidentally, lends its name to the "Blues," the musical genre of despair and misfortune. The "bruises" are metaphors, sonoric laments, wistful and ironic ballads of experience. "Bruises for Corporate Walls" Burrows calls his recent work, to recall the commodity character of art and to draw attention to the brutal nature of contemporary corporate culture. His "bruises" are artifacts of a psychic reality in the time of rampant, unrestrained global mercantilism.

Tom Burrows first worked with polyester resin in the late 1960's -- a time in the visual arts of great experimentation with the products of postwar technological research.1 He was interested in the medium as a vehicle for colour -- ideal for binding dyes and pigments because of its extreme clarity and colourlessness. He returned to working with pigmented polyester resin at the end of the 1980's. In retrospect, his twenty-year absence from this medium which holds so much attraction to him, may be seen as a search for a political context in which it would be possible to make art.
Born in 1940, Tom Burrows grew up in Galt, Ontario, Canada, an industrial town approximately 100 km. west of Toronto, now part of the amalgamated city of Cambridge. After finishing high school, he left for Canada's west coast to study medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, then left university to work and travel the world, to eventually return to the University of British Columbia in 1964, as a student of art history.
Back in Vancouver, Burrows wasted little time in his developing art career, quickly setting up a studio and producing sculpture on his own. Remarkably, after only a year of art school his work was exhibited, in 1965, at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Two years later he was included in Sculpture '67, organized by the National Gallery of Canada. In that year he received a grant from the Canada Council and travelled to England to do graduate studies in sculpture at the St. Martin's College of Art. His work at this time demonstrated his close identification with Minimalism, and was characterized by large scale, geometric forms in industrial and non-traditional art media. It was at St. Matin's in 1967 that he began his use of polyester resin.
At St. Martin's he had been drawn to a radical critique of the western culture he had come to study.2 His proximity to the radical politics of the European student movement during and after May 1968 introduced him to active, counter-cultural resistance. On his return to British Columbia in 1969, Burrows made his home in a squatter's community on the Maplewood mud flats in North Vancouver, a focus for counter-cultural developments in Vancouver at the time. For Burrows, the mud flats were the place to act on specific political and ideological positions. He became interested in the indigenous culture of British Columbia and squatting as a counter-cultural alternative to the capitalist commodification of modern life. The legal battles in defense of the community and the subsequent razing of the homes in 1971 had a profound influence on Burrows. He worked for the United Nations as Co-ordinator of Information on Non-Tenured Architecture at the UN Habitat Forum in Vancouver (1976) and documented subjects in a seven-month tour of non-tenured housing in Europe, Egypt, India and Southeast Asia in 1977. Case studies of squatting communities around the world were later incorporated into his sculptural and photographic production and were exhibited in a number of venues under the title Squat Doc. Much of his work through 1970's and 1980's was influenced by this experience.

Burrow's Minimalist sculpture of the 1960's and his political activities of the 1970's represent apparently diverse and unrelated activities. However, far from repudiating his sculptural work, Burrows initiated a pattern of point and counterpoint within the broader scope of his artistic production that has continued to the present. He never renounced the Minimalist aesthetic of his beginnings, only its canonical authority. He remained faithful to the aesthetic while seeking to humanize it by undermining its character as a commodity. Land art, assemblage, installation pieces and video from this time continue to show his interest in geometric form. Performances, photo documentation and conceptual work by the artist in the '70's, may be seen as doubt actualized -- the "but, but, but . . . " gnawing away not only at the solid forms of his work, but also at the authority of existing social and political forms. His work during this time represented feminizing actions -- fragile and transient essays that were an opening up to his environment instead of the traditional sculptural imposition upon it.
It has been observed that Burrow's "optimistic" work of the 1970's turned bleak in the 1980's.3 In these darkly humorous and compelling works Burrows courted the extremes, with references to madness, marginality, and masochism. They can be alternately amusing and confrontational, cloyingly obvious and frustratingly obscure. The work incorporates some of the images from the Squat Doc work as well introducing some powerful new icons: the lead life saver of the Story of Oh (1983), the man-sheep of Ewe Guise (1985-86) and the steel re-bar contour heart of Organ Transplant (1987). Aspects of the work have been interpreted to reflect upon the social role of the artist and the conditions of capitalism in the world during the go-go years of the 1980's.4


Burrows is less categorical about his motivations. He cites a complex interplay of political, social and art developments behind that body of work. Perhaps, it was a personal desire to return to the making of objects in reaction to his earlier photo-based and conceptually oriented work. Certainly the rightward shift in political culture caused a crisis of conscience in Burrows. He refers to his work of this time as an expression of "white rage."5 Angered by what he saw as a right wing political backlash and a renewed interest in the art community in art as a commodity, his response was to pile his work with references "so thick and so deep that it might short circuit and become nothing, like white noise."6 He deliberately made objects that were aggressive and unsaleable. It was an expurgation, and in the end probably too much to sustain -- too much rage, maybe too much art.
Like Matisse's proverbial arm chair, Burrows felt himself compelled to make objects that were simply "pleasant things to be around."7 With the end of the decade and the expectations and protests that went with it, he felt he could fall back to living with things that were commodities again. He had come to terms with the dislocations that took place during the '80's, even referring to the work from that time as "an aberration." Returning to a medium he hadn't used in 15 years, Burrows also returned to some earlier imagery -- imagery related to the Suprematist influenced Mud Flats work and the Minimalist objects of the late '60's and '70's. In the Drawn Objects series he was drawn again to floating, geometric shapes and his enduring attraction with the forms and ideals of Suprematism.
Polyester resin, in its raw state, is an unpleasant, noxious substance. It is a medium that requires the artist to work with an air filtering mask in a strictly controlled environment. It does not harden by drying nor dilute in common solvents. It congeals magically when introduced to its catalyst. With polyester resin, Burrows creates the marks, tones and hues of traditional and contemporary painting within a flat, smooth surface. Burrows is ambivalent about the character of the materials he uses, speaking admiringly of its translucency but defensively when its toxicity and commercial plastic character it mentioned. Thirty years have past between Burrows's most recent work and his earliest artistic successes in the medium.8 It is a medium that belongs to his youth. It belongs to that climate of utopian idealism and vital aesthetic debate of the late '60's and '70's. It belongs to a time when a progressive belief in better living through science was generally and widely accepted. Since that time, synthetic materials have gone from being a space age wonder to being regarded as cheap ersatz, from promising a beautiful future to being held responsible for a toxic present.9 As a medium, the polyester resin Burrows uses stands as a metamorphic touchstone to the changes that have taken place in a generation. The material disturbs. It ruptures illusions. To think about is to nervously touch and meditate on sudden strangeness of common plastic objects.
The Drawn Objects is a series of small monochrome panels each measuring 60 cm. square and projecting 3 cm. from the wall. Burrows deliberately used awkward implements to remove as much intention and permit as much spontaneous play with the medium as possible. Like a drunken, slurred speech reference to his art historical models, he drew a primitive, childish, perhaps anal imagery in this hard space age material. He has called the result "Crazy Cat Suprematism," evoking an unsettling combination of utopian desire and mocking despair, resorting to a punning description of the works as "random portholes looking onto a space without gravity," summoning up images of physical and mental vertigo similar to some of his ‘80's work.10 For the artist it was a break with some of the basic tenets of the past. The anti-commodity art making of the '70's and '80's has given way to the conscious production of commodities.
"I am consciously making commodities, like poker chips. In some ways the plastic appeals to me on that level. They talk about money as plastic now. I willingly admit that a lot of my beliefs that might have been presented in Socialism are over with in the '90's. So I'm making this object that is in a sense a commodity in the new world order of sheer capitalism."11
The multi-panel, coloured pieces of 1992-93 called the Blanket Statements demonstrate Burrow's ambivalent acceptance of art's inevitable commodification. The Suprematist figures floating in the pictorial space of the Drawn Objects have given way to colour field objects. The hanging of the multi-panel pieces is related by the artist to the hanging of Navaho blankets on the wall for aesthetic contemplation.12 The panels' colours are a direct reference to a Canadian icon, the Hudson's Bay blanket; the wool blankets traded in the 19th century by the Hudson's Bay Company for furs in western Canada. A product of the mechanical loom, the mass-produced Hudson's Bay blanket was sought by the aboriginal peoples both as an aesthetic object and as basic shelter. A wonder of steam engine technology, it was perhaps the perfect commodity of colonialism.
Again, Burrows returned to the themes of shelter and commodity. The artist invited the spectator to confront the distances between utopian dreams and physical necessity, between direct, unmediated indigenous relationships to the world and commodified, objectified and dislocated relationships. The title Blanket Statements forces us to acknowledge the artist's work as a "poker chip," a "plastic" currency, a commodity for barter and speculation, for accumulation and display. His desire to use colour, to make "pleasing things to be around," is conditional, and can only be made with reference to the mercantile character of this object of desire. It cannot be justified as pure caprice, isolated and elevated from coercion. It is a commodity, made from specific materials and techniques, within a specific context. For Burrows, it was a necessary obligation to refer to, and to acknowledge his work as commodity, before he could enjoy the limited freedom of playing with the medium.
The Hematoma series beginning in 1994 is a major advancement in the artist's work with polyester resin. Drifting away from an abstraction based on conventions of painting,13 Burrows has developed a polyester language -- a visual aesthetic specific to the medium. The title of the series, Hematoma, draws our attention to similarities between the blotchy and mottled purple-blue-green translucent polyester resins and the polychromatic manifestations of trauma to the flesh. The smooth, flat translucent polyester, unlike the mechanical weave of a canvas, is mysterious and skin-like. It doesn't support pigment on the surface rather, like flesh, contains it within.
The Hematoma series is about regret, like the Blanket Statements and the Drawn Objects, and the sculptures of the ‘80's before them. The weightless, abstract imagery, the commodity "poker chip" references, the toxic material associations, the artwork as a metaphor for the damaged body -- these are images and issues which sceptically probe, mock and bemoan the possibility of authenticity at the end of this century.
Gordon Hatt, 1994
  1. Cf. other Minimalist artists and their use of industrial materials at the time: Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Ron Davis, Larry Bell and the California artists. At the University of British Columbia, Burrows's friend and mentor Glen Toppings.
  2. Burrows became acquainted with Situationism, an anti-art position coming from French critical theory, while in England.
  3. Cf. Anderson, Andrea, Tom Burrow's Sculpture and Housing: A Material Dialectics of Form, Function and Corporeality, unpublished manuscript, 1993, p. 25.
  4. Ibid., according to Anderson the half man, half sheep piece Ewe Guise may be seen as the artist as the sacrificial lamb of capitalist commodity fetishism.
  5. Interview with the artist November 29, 1993.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Burrows polyester works form the late '60's and early '70's are in the collections of Canada Council Art Bank, Vancouver Art Gallery and the University of British Columbia Art Gallery.
  9. Cf. Burrows's reference to plastics and toxicity in Bhopal Tar & Feather, 1986.
  10. Cf. Organ Transplant, 1987, in which the heart form is encircled by a steel band carrying the inscription MAN'S LAUGHTER MAN SLAUGHTER.
  11. Interview, November 29, 1993.
  12. Cf. Burrows's reference to Southwest native culture in the anthropomorphic Hopi ladder in Out of Site, Out of Mind, 1983.
  13. Notwithstanding the influences of colour-field painters such as Ad Rheinhardt and Mark Rothko.

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