Gary Burnley: In the Language of My Captor
The tradition of portraiture comes with it an obvious conceit–the subjects and their artists determine that the sitter is worthy of the grandiose celebration of their life, that they should be memorialized through the ages, and often within their own homes with the prominent display of the portrait. Then some, through the ages, are hung in museums and studied in colleges. But while the often white and wealthy of the 18th and 19th centuries are idolized, the Other is lost.
In the Language of My Captor, Gary Burnley finds those lost in history by peeling back the paint, so to speak, and masking the subjects with black men and women. Burnley takes the great subjects of his own world, whether his relatives or old classmates, or prominent characters like Emmett Till who fit into a much different narrative than you would find in the original works.
What we find common to many of his pieces is audacity, as if each is to say, “See? We deserve to be here, and to be seen. We have been here all along.” I can’t help but recall my own childhood. Black and brown children often draw themselves as white, because they so rarely see themselves as subjects and protagonists. Part of this body of work harkens back to the more child-like impulse to insert yourself into the story.
Some of the collages are more jarring than others. One in particular places the face of a black woman over the painting of a white woman, as if a mask–I am immediately reminded of blackface, and the ways in which the subjectivity of black characters are parodied by white actors. It is an immediate contradiction to the purpose of this work. But Burnley’s placing of the black mask is markedly different. The white subject is replaced, if only for a moment, and a new story is told. The conflict is more subtle, beyond just blatant “badness” or exclusion altogether. It gestures to the insidious.
Most of the collages, however, fill me with a longing to see our ancestors’ history elevated in a way we weren’t afforded. The work of Kehinde Wiley fills me in much the same way. In Burnley’s work, I feel a quiet discomfort, even indignation, in the skillful carving of the faces and features.
Gary Burnley: In the Language of My Captor opens February 24, 2021 at the Elizabeth Houston Gallery.
Black Americans live in a different world, or maybe we live in the same world differently is a more accurate description. I think of being an artist and the work I do as a way of inserting myself into places where I do not belong, where historically I’ve been told I have no place.
I mean to disrupt the reading of familiar narratives by shifting vernacular, by nudging the emphasis towards what could not be imagined, anticipated or expected. Like viewing a performance of a play you know well and have seen many times before, performed in another language or taking place in a different time period or casted without regard to race or gender, I’m interested in the struggle that ensues between what has been lost and what has been discovered as a result of an adaptation. I make choices intuitively not always knowing exactly where the process will lead me or what the results might mean. I’m more interested in raising questions than finding answers and usually surprised by the clarity obtained in the contradiction. – Gary Burnley
Gary Burnley (b. Saint Louis, Missouri) creates physical collages and stereographic devices that encourage dissociated images to merge in the eye and mind of the viewer. Resulting in optical rivalries that explore representation, memory and an image’s meaning through contrast, his amalgamations imagine strange bedfellows congruent for moments in time, space and reason. Burnley received a BFA from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA from Yale University. His work is part of museum and private collections in US including the Virginia Museum of Art, Richmond, VA, Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN., Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina and the Marieluise Hessel Collection, Bard College. Solo and group exhibitions include Aperture Gallery, NYC, Ogden Museum, New Orleans, LA, Tbilisi University, Tbilisi, Georgia, Candela Gallery, Richmond, VA, SALON, Florence, Italy, Honey Ramaka Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX, Artists Space, NYC. A Photolucida Critical Mass 2020 Top 50 Selection, Burnley was the 2020 Blue Sky Solo Show Winner, a 2019 FotoFilmic Mesh Award finalist, a finalist for the Clarence John Laughlin Photography Award in 2018 and has been the recipient of individual artist fellowships and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, the State of Connecticut, New York State Council on the Arts, Creative Artist Public Service Program, NYC, MTA, NYC and Bi-State Development, Saint Louis, Missouri.
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