with ELIJAH BURGHER
by Stephanie Clark
Stephanie Clark: What are you thinking
of showing in Gallery 2 at Western Exhibitions in terms of the
work? I'm interested first in the physical description of the
work, very nuts and bolts stuff. What will the viewer see?
Elijah Burgher : I am working on a group of
drawings for the show, colored pencil on paper, that will range
in scale from 9”x 12" to 19”x 22". Some
drawings will be representational, while others will be abstract.
What will likely happen is I'll bring a pile of pictures to
the gallery and edit on the spot while installing. I'd been
in the habit until recently of hanging them the way paintings
are conventionally hung--singly and with quite a bit of space
between them. Right now I am more interested in arranging them
in clusters in order to suggest a larger visual narrative--through
proximity and spacing, the height at which they are hung, etc.
SC: Looking at your works concerning sigils
I immediately consider how text is really this abstracted form,
and how ritual is a very abstract notion in itself, although
we as humans try to relegate everything to a logical place:
there is much that is highly intuitive and non-descript. How
do you see sigils creating and driving narrative within your
EB: I have a complicated relationship with
narrative--complicated in the way romantic relationships are
sometimes said to be complicated. I might have otherwise said
"larger visual structure." In terms of installation,
though, the sigil drawings can create narrative or structure
in several ways--they move attention to the left, right, up
or down based on their compositions or formal rhymes with images
in proximity to them. Also, in the past, some sigils were made
with particular individuals in mind, and I've hung those in
conjunction with portraits of those people. Other times the
connections are more esoteric.
The sigils are based on language: the forms are created by combining
the letters that spell out a wish or desire. Language might
be said to be "abstract" insofar as there's nothing
that intrinsically connects the letter "A" to the
sound it denotes, or the word "cat" to actual cats.
In that sense, I am as interested in semiotics as I am in magick.
But I am also interested in abstraction, particularly Modernist
painting, and the various meanings its practitioners and critics
ascribed to it historically. At base, I want to know whether
an artwork, any artwork, can possess meaning--to truly embody
it somehow. Is a painting by Barnett Newman an advancement in
the history of painting, a cathartic expression of Self, or
a glorified hunk of wallpaper? Drawing the sigils allows me
to think about these issues and questions.
You brought up ritual, though, as well. I don't think ritual
is abstract; on the contrary, I think it's very concrete--it
entails specific and repeatable actions in real time and space.
Perhaps the way those actions relate to the intention behind
them is "abstract" though? The ritualistic part of
drawing the sigils for me is that I self-reflect on my wishes
and desires on a daily basis (as a way to both increase self-knowledge
and furnish content for the sigil drawings) and the act of drawing
itself, which is fairly labor intensive.
SC: One aspect of your work featuring
the nude male figures that I am interested in is the place in
which the viewer happens upon a ritual voyeuristically. Could
you elaborate on this transitioning space, or in-between space
between moments of action? It seems very cinematic to me, and
also seems to push the “larger visual structure”
in your work in an interesting way.
EB: I don't think of the drawings as representing
narratives. This could seem like a trivial distinction, but
I intend them as situations. Maybe that's why they seem to picture
moments between more dramatic actions? I want them to be mundane,
rooted in daily life. That's why so many take place in the shitty
apartments in Chicago where I've resided for ten years. The
representational drawings generally begin with something that
I want to see--someone getting cut, for instance--and then I
usually take source photographs and make quick sketches in my
journal, and sit on those images for months, a year even, thinking
about why I wanted to see them in the first place. The image
accrues meaning, resonance, in that way, and then I have to
relate that meaning or resonance by realizing the image as a
drawing. The "story," or interpretation really, comes
later. The bare bones of a narrative are what I'm concerned
to illustrate, though--who, what, where, when. I think they
might look cinematic because I draw from photographs, embellishing
the source materials with memory and imagination.
I've been told before that the pictures position viewers as
voyeurs. I've never conceived of them as such. Is that because
they're small in scale? Because the men are naked and sometimes
in domestic settings? I can't say that I really mind the idea,
I'm sort of an exhibitionist in real life.
SC: I am attracted to your palette
but more so to your use of a repetitive mark. Can you discuss
your decision in using such a repetitive mark in your works?
In some ways, for me, this repetitiveness creates a distance
psychologically—also formally—from stylization while
still maintaining your distinct hand.
EB: The small repetitive marks came about by
developing my craft--especially in terms of layering color--and
also wanting the drawings to compete with paintings by being
full compositions--the images extend edge to edge, there's no
paper left uncovered untouched by the marks. Drawing the image
or the sigil is also a way of charging it, investing it with
attention and intention. I think it is true that it does create
some psychological or formal distance from the image, because
you can perceive some basic unit of labor and intentionality.
SC: You have mentioned this briefly
in a few of your responses so far, but, could you discuss your
process in creating your work? Could you elaborate on how the
process differs for you when you create your sigil drawings
and your more figuratively based works?
EB: I'm in the habit of going back and forth
between the sigils and the representational drawings, so that
I alternate between the two. I generally only work on one drawing
at a time. And I like to work for long, uninterrupted stretches.
(That said, habits are developed in order to be questions, and
sometimes broken.) The sigils are much more improvisational,
though, and therefore more pleasurable to actually make. I start
with the linear form of the sigil and use it as a suggestion
for how to subdivide space, to organize figure/ground relationships.
I usually start with a color idea, but that changes over the
course of the picture as I respond to what I've done. The improvisations
or split second decisions that happen while I'm making one of
the representational drawings are usually of a subtler nature.
I usually start with the figure and then draw the space. I think
of the two strands of work as equivalent and also as "reaching"
toward the other. With the abstractions, I am looking to create
space, and funny optical illusions usually result; whereas in
the representational drawings I am looking for opportunities
to make small abstractions on the fly--formal rhymes or flat
areas that I think of as blinking at the viewer. In both cases,
the ground wants to swallow up the figure. I want some tension,
some conflict, to exist in the figure/ground relationship.
SC: Ritual, magick, and the occult
are central to your "larger visual structure"; yet,
there is also a really wonderful feeling of "the mundane”
in the works involving figure. Could you talk a little bit about
daily life working into ritual and vice versa within your work?
EB: When I first became interested in applying
ideas from magick and the occult to visual art, it had to do
with wanting my work to be more directly related to my daily
life and social reality in general. I had been troubled by what
I was seeing in galleries and at art fairs. Much of the work
appeared to serve no function other than circulating through
the art world's media and market systems. It's ultimate content
was the individual's success and the smooth functioning of the
larger machine. So magick seemed like an interesting thought
experiment, a way of raising the ghost of the historical avant
garde: what if artworks actually had effects on reality? What
spell would I cast if they did? What kind of changes would I
like to see brought about in reality? I wanted to use magick
to force the issue of art's relationship to life. On the other
hand, I didn't want to be producing fantasies to replace reality,
but show desire in the context of life, my life. So the figures
are drawn from my friends, lovers, and people I admire. The
spaces they occupy are those I know intimately.
Do you know Devendra Banhart's first record? Musically and lyrically,
it feels like it could be from anytime whatsoever--these are
folk songs, fairy tales, nursery rhymes. But it was recorded
at home, and the tape hiss creates an ambient ground on which
his voice and guitar make a figure. And a historical ground
as well. One song is interrupted part-way through by the sound
of a car passing, presumably outside of the window of his apartment.
Yes, we do hatch fantasies in shitty apartments in various cities
around the world. You move from that car passing to the urban
environment to the lives we live in those places as under-employed
artists, and the frame expands outward metonymically to the
recession and Wall Street and permanent war and a much larger
and troubling historical ground. My point is that I'm concerned
that the "real" intrude rudely in the work. That's
a point I'm trying to push more directly in the drawings I am
making right now.
interview was conducted in preparation for Elijah Burgher’s
first solo show at Western Exhibitions,
March 16 to April 14, 2012. He will present color pencil drawings
and a large stained canvas that that utilize ideas from magick
and the occult to address sexuality, sub-cultural formation
and the history of abstraction. He has exhibited at 2nd Floor
Project in San Francisco, Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago,
Lump in Raleigh, NC, and The NY Art Book Fair in New York. Burgher
was a contributor to AA Bronson & Peter Hobbs’ Invocation
of the Queer Spirits publication this winter and collaborated
with Terence Hannum on the zine, A Cataract of Fire & Blood.
Burgher received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago and BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxeville,
NY. He lives and works in Chicago.
Stephanie Clark is an artist soon moving to
New Mexico from Chicago. She was in intern at Western Exhibition
in the fall of 2011.