I met Anthony Burnham after I saw his work at this year’s RBC Painting Competition. Struck by his work, Fragment (2009), I decided to look him up so we could talk about his art. I met with him in his studio. He paints full time now, which is a luxury for a young artist. The advantages of painting full-time aren’t lost on Burnham. In fact, one of the first things he said to me was – “It’s nice to not be an e-mail artist”, meaning he can focus primarily on painting instead of the day-to-day preoccupations surrounding the frustration artists often face in getting their work and their art out of the studio and into the world.
A sculptural element – this is the first thing you notice when you stand in front of Burnham’s work. When I saw Fragment at the Musée d’art contemporain, I was tempted to inter-act with the work the same way I would with a sculpture. I wanted to walk around the work, to see it from all sides and never mind that it was hung on the wall. This is intentional and stems from the artwork’s close connection to the “constructed” image that Burnham makes before he actually sets out to paint. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that, for Burnham, the painting is the next step in the rendering of the object.
The traditional starting point of representational art is always derived from an already existing object or figure – after all, you can’t invent a lamp if the lamp already exists. This means that you, as a viewer, approach the work with a preconceived idea of what to expect. You arrive at the work with a “history”. For example, if you look at a painting of a lamp, your preexisting knowledge of lamps will, whether consciously or unconsciously, influence your perception. It is up to the artist to re-interpret, re-configure, re-invent…
But Burnham’s art is neither about re-interpreting nor representing. His artistic concern focuses on the physical essence of the object. This is why the size of the canvas mimics the size of the object and this is why Burnham first constructs, then manipulates, then paints. Only in this way can he understand the object more fully as a physical object in and of itself.
The object’s presence takes over the work. It activates the space and brings into play the relationship between object and space. It also brings to attention the relationship between the object and us. This interaction between us and the work is important to Burnham. It is his way of allowing us to explore our connection to the objects that surround us and, more particularly, the object in his painting. Where do you stand with the image? What do you think about when you look at the image? – two of the questions Burnham might ask if he were standing next to you as you contemplate his art. Two questions that also relate to one of Burnham’s recent preoccupations – the relationship between photography and the painted object. It used to be that an artist painting an object had more flexibility than a photographer taking a picture of an object. The painter could manipulate and change the object unlike the photographer whose photographic image was not as malleable. Enter the digital world of photoshop and suddenly we find ourselves questioning the “reality” of every picture we see.
Burnham showed me a series he’s working on – a series depicting lined paper, the kind you would find on a legal-sized notepad. My first reaction was to reach for a pen and start writing. Ditto for the Mobile series where my initial reaction was to construct my own creation with the various objects on the canvas. And this, I think, answers how we see objects and the work of Burnham: they are extensions of ourselves.