John Burtle's Gradual Alchemy | KCET
John Burtle's Gradual Alchemy
For interdisciplinary artist John Burtle, early experiences with his parents informed his artistic philosophy. "As far back as I can remember I have memories of painting or drawing and really enjoying it," he says. "My mom was a nurse that worked in women's health and my dad owned a hardware store, I remember building stuff with my dad in the garage, basic woodworking stuff, gardening, but we weren't a traditional artistic family." The lessons he learned were imprinted on him, instead of buying what you need, you can create or make household items or grow your food instead of grocery shopping.
His mother's role as a nurse for women's health also greatly influenced his personal philosophies evident in the artist's involvement with non-profit organizations and collective resourcing, such as KCHUNG radio, where Burtle plays an active role, The Eternal Telethon, or The Women's Center for Creative Work, which he's been a vocal advocate since the group's inception, inviting the collective, run by Sarah Williams, Katie Bachler, and Kate Johnston, on air to discuss their experiences running a more or less, leaderless organization. "I love to collaborate. I very much relate to the idea that out of labor something is produced," says Burtle, referring to how he sees himself in the artistic community. In this way all his work takes on a socially aware consciousness in which the group always strengthens the individual.
Burtle has a unique and beautiful way of repurposing acrylic or man-made materials. Small sculptures that reanimate nature in sensuous and sexual formats, either through draping or what one imagines is a tactile experience of pressing and forming with fingers and hands. His tiny rose petal sculptures, thick with the cake of dried paint. The cacti that populated his show at The Armory, were glass pendulums large and phallic, made from bright green melted plastic and what appear to be shattered Rolling Rock bottles. They are the small residues of experiment taking on new roles as Burtle transforms them.
Like the objects he shapes and manipulates with his light, versatile, and endlessly open-minded approach, this gradual alchemy seems to take its shape, much like Burtle, over a course of reflection. He takes a delicate appreciation of everything that surrounds.
Scale is also something that Burtle messes with. In his 2013 show, "Support Constructs," at Michael Benevento, Burtle continued this investigation of the fragile and intimate nature of objects. His sculptures and paintings, again dried and manipulated paint, both by Burtle's hands, but also in the way they eventually come to rest, ask us questions about our relationship to the objects in our own lives. Very few of his works include traditional mounting and instead favor the thumb tack, nail or simply resting on one another to support them. There is a collagist's energy that permeates almost all aspects of the work, an industrial softness of pinks and grays juxtaposed against bursts of large colorful arrangement, such as "Strawberry Wrapper (You Are the Sweeteest)" or "Primary Landscape," each from Benevento.
In his 2014 show at the Armory Center, "Expanding on the expansive subject, Part 3: John Burtle, The Room is a Frame and/or an Accumulated Anthrome, Burtle again dove into the nature of space and environment and how we negotiate our bodies within it. Using the size of the room as inspiration to create, Burtle created an almost perfect desert landscape, tiny replicated stones as a walking path, a breathtaking and nuanced moon sculpture, casting its long shadow against the mauve colored wall. Above plastic tarps covered in splatters of paint evoke a quiet night of solitude. If not for the squared framed centerpiece made to intone the presence of clouds, and the aforementioned cactus sculpture, the entire thing would come off as utopian space in which the ethereal presence of beauty can kick back and relax. Burtle however isn't interested in relaxing, or the pieces melding into a harmonious anything. The energy created is exactly because in many ways, he subverts the beauty of his own objects, each piece too large, too off scale to ever properly integrate within the space, stuck and bulking.
Burtle, a bed-headed dirty blonde with bright blue eyes and a bubblegum smile, looks like he could, if shaved and pressed, also pull off a convincing 1980s yuppie, or an earnest Nick Carraway at Gatsby's, East Egg, door. He has a non-aggressive confidence, a quiet reserve of self-assuredness. Possessed of a wide-eyed, spaced-out quality unique to locals, a sort of revelatory sigh and excitement just to be alive. Not quite as amiable as his light-hearted demeanor projects, Burtle is also a quick wit ready to pounce.
The artist comes from a long line of Angelenos, going back almost as far as the state itself and who have lived in many of the city's neighborhoods. "Long Beach was great. It had a small town vibe with a big world awareness," he says speaking of where he grew up. Burtle's work in many ways is about place and environment. It's not Los Angeles he investigates so much but rather the frenetic energy of it. The idea of community and nature as a source of inspiration, the fuck-it-try-anything go-big-or-go-home; a charlatan's brilliance at selling anything just because he can. John Burtle is good at many things. There is a sort of manifest destiny tied to the tail end of each encounter, each incarnation that he takes on.
Like most local kids, Burtle is a combination of many things: a zenned-out stress head, a too much too soon peace punk, a skateboarding philosopher from film and TV. Sharp and tenderhearted this is also where John Burtle the artist lives, an exhausted awareness of having grown up in L.A. saddled with a front row seat to inequalities in class and the social micro climates that jade the native. When it comes to 1990's Los Angeles, that awareness included a wash of violence and ecological disaster. A radical shift that the public school bussing system threw into political limelight as parents from wealthier enclaves pulled their kids from LAUSD to avoid metal detectors going up around the city at the rate flood and fire were bringing it down. In effect, creating greater class and racial divides amongst its citizens, pitting poor against wealthy. A city filled with the feeling that it was always one scandal, one earthquake away from collapse. Even the movies had a penchant for blowing up L.A.
"Until I was twelve I was upper class, but my dad's store was in a part of Long Beach that was very much effected by the 92 riots," he says. "His business wasn't targeted, but the neighborhood around him was, and it never sort of recovered. At the same time the epic growth of corporate hardware stores like Home Depot happened so his business went bankrupt shortly after that and my parents got divorced. I went from a private school to public school. The difference wasn't subtle. It happened fast." And with it came for the artist an immediate and necessary desire to see where he fit in the puzzle, to become in essence a socially aware and politically conscience individual.
Burtle's interest in subverting patriarchal structure in lieu of alternative models can also be looked upon as a result of this time in which as an adolescent he came face to face with the fickle notion of structural hierarchy. There is an impulse and openness to follow creative desire in almost everything he does. His work seems as much about saying yes, as it is about deconstruction. Burtle is forever searching for the better alternative, a more egalitarian way to express, share and ultimately live.
This is not to say that Burtle eschews aesthetic. On the contrary, it is this very openness to experimentation that paves the way for small pockets of vibrant cleverness. Such as the postcard series he produced while visiting New York. Each one covered in detailed colored pencil renderings of moons, flowers pressed against collaged scenes of bodies and buildings, oceans and sunrays, each postcard a tiny portrait of decadent visual consumption.
Burtle has a great knack for intuiting spatial rupture, and rather than running from it, he runs to it head first; disrupting our experience within the pieces before we can fall back on critique. In this way, all the work has a humble kindness, an admission of its imperfection, and warmth to the off-kilter.
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