Greg Burak: Visitations
On ViewFortnight Institute
September 13 – October 14, 2018
In the mid-fifties, when Abstract Expressionism began lining the pockets of its adherents and the uptown galleries that showed them, figuration was quietly making a comeback in the 10th Street galleries of the East Village. Visitations, Greg Burak’s first New York solo show at the Fortnight Institute on East 4th Street, is not far—in city blocks or in spirit—from the 10th Street ethos. His thirteen figurative paintings, all completed in 2018, feel like witty gestures of propitiation to the artists of that scene—in particular Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, and Jane Freilicher.
Burak takes the flatness of their mid-century style and imbues it with an understated voluptuousness. This is especially true of his rendering of leaves, which are endowed with a puffy three-dimensionality—as those leaves described by 10th-Streeter-by-proxy Frank O’Hara: “Those lashes of our / thinking and dreaming and drinking sight. / The spherical radiance, the Old English / look…”
Burak’s technique, in which curves are camouflaged into a general flatness of surface, can also serve as a parable for the content of the artist’s works. His paintings here invariably feature people who at first appear—through their norm-core clothing and the simple comforts of their home interiors—as somewhat flat and anesthetized archetypes of middle-class middle America. But on closer look, they turn out to be searching intently for answers: they stare out open windows and open doors, into crystal balls; they consult mediums; study constellations; and confer over the heavy low-hanging full moon.
The landscapes featured in these paintings resemble the Midwest (Burak completed his MFA at Indiana University), and the backdrops glimpsed here consist primarily of cornfield yellows and browner straw tones, dotted occasionally with old trees bristling with somber leaves. The lusher stretches of jungly greens and teals—tones that recall the palettes of Lois Dodd and Fairfield Porter—are generally found in one of three diegetic forms: houseplants, clothing, or paintings hung on the walls of interiors.
The exhibition consists of eight large paintings and five small studies. In all of these works, everyday objects—and sometimes-occult paraphernalia—have taken on lives of their own. A BlackBerry lies alit on a table, though no one is using it; pages in a book look to be turning on their own; a pencil writes on a page through telekinetic efforts; a vase has toppled over and a sheet of paper seems to have torn itself. In each case, the subjects, and by extension, the viewers, look out through the open windows and doors as if to ask: was that the wind that did that? Or a ghost? But while outside there is little to be found but stretches of yellowed nature, the ripest and most vivid details lie within the confines of these characters’ homes—it’s either there, or else in their imaginations, that the magic is taking place.
Burak explains his inspiration through a personal anecdote: A fan of the supernatural, he used to keep around an old book of magic spells. But when, one night, a friend suggested they actually perform some of the incantations, Burak realized he actually had no interest in calling forth any spirits—for fear of their actual existence. “I settled on agnosticism and moved on,” he wrote in the exhibition’s press release. “I’m interested in capturing the faltering moment at the threshold between the everyday and the supernatural.” Some of his depiction of the paranormal, here, is an investigation of ritual itself, a playful foray into the crosshairs of spirituality and capitalism.
In Vision, a dark-haired woman dressed in yellow wields a wooden wand and guides a ghoul-green canvas as it floats, Fantasia-style, down a staircase that has been revealed within a hole in the wooden floor. The woman’s companion, a sandy-haired man whose right hand glows the same shade of green, is about to follow the canvas underground, his foot poised to take the first step. It’s not clear whether she is a muse sending the artist into the underworld for the sake of realizing his own creation, or a gallerina directing a client in pursuit of a purchase. Or maybe she’s just a friend playing around with the artist and his book of spells—as Burak once refused to do.
In Cryptic Talisman, two middle-aged men with burgundy blazers and grey-streaked hair occupy a brown-carpeted room that, strangely, opens directly onto a sandy beach. On a bare wooden table sits the eponymous talisman: a red fishing weight attached to a line. Through the open door, the two men watch as a third man returns from the shore, empty-handed. In this work, Burak’s skill for embedding his stylistic flatness with a secret voluptuousness is in full force. These costive, faceless middle-aged guys are in fact hiding various sensual details: the remarkable depth of tone in those grey streaks in their hair; the elegance of the figure on the right’s barely visible ear and chiseled jaw line. The intricate lace of the door’s woodgrain performs a similar optical illusion in the otherwise humdrum room.
The soundtrack that thrums throughout Burak’s quests into the mystical is a jolly sense of humor—especially in his subjects’ curious sense of fashion. Characters in a single painting often appear dressed almost identically. It’s almost as if their twinning is a snub of the cult of individualism, a refusal on Burak’s part to worship the illusion of originality—which itself feels charmingly original. Whereas Burak’s sartorial choices for his subjects in previous works have consistently given off the seventies thrift-store vibe of the early aughts, in Visitations it’s an anachronistic khaki-and-plaid prep. The people here dress like the adults from an eighties teen movie, but with the thick-middled frumpiness of the new millennium.
If Burak’s aim was to play with the liminal space between the real and the surreal, the exhibition’s inquiry into the spiritual can be simultaneously allegorized as a commentary on the figurative artist’s approach to Realism. Alex Katz was recently quoted, in Introspective magazine, saying that Realism “is like Pandora’s box, because you initially think of it as something that’s absolutely fixed. When you start fooling around with it, you find it’s not fixed at all. It’s just a matter of opinion what’s realistic and what isn’t.” Realism in painting, for Katz, is thus best achieved through the singular subjective gaze of the artist.
But is access to spiritual truth likewise accessed individually? This question is alluded to in one of the books displayed alongside the paintings. The Fortnight Institute makes a point of contextualizing their exhibitions by placing books chosen by exhibited artists alongside their works. For Visitations, Burak brought in a few dusty volumes on symbolism and the occult, but also the Skira edition of Visioni ed Estasi, an art book of European masterpieces from 1600 through 1700. The book is open to a close-up of il Grechetto’s Cristo crocifisso abbraccia san Bernardo di Chiaravale (circa 1645), in which Jesus squirts blood from his wounded chest into the mouth of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
The choice is an interesting one: St. Bernard of Clairvaux was known for leading early medieval Christianity away from ritual and sacrament and towards a more individualized approach to spirituality—each man was to be in charge of his own faith. But rather than take Burak’s choice of this Grechetto painting as doctrine, we should turn instead to his paintings. The lack of ritual in modern life and its resulting spiritual emptiness appear to be exactly what the subjects in Visitations are suffering from. It is also what they are trying to redress in their ceremonial communications with the supernatural, and their attempts at spiritual rectification are always undertaken communally, never alone.
Hadley Suter is a New York-based writer and a Lecturer in French at Barnard College.