Alchemy of the Image: New Inversion Paintings by Michael Burges
"Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees." —Robert Irwin
From the moment I first viewed the luminous paintings of Michael Burges I was tempted to say: in vitreous veritas. There, I’ve said it: in glass is truth. It’s a kind of truth however, which we look through, rather than at, and it both contains and conveys a magical force that frees the eye from the interference of thoughts. It’s not that I often erupt into Latin phrases, but somehow the images seemed to invite me into a sanctified kind of realm, one requiring a new (or even ancient) tongue to adequately describe it.
Although it is possible to say that all painting to some degree has alchemy at its core, insofar as raw pigments are transformed into fluid images in a somewhat magical manner, most painted images merely suggest in a metaphorical manner this poetic process at work. But rather than only evoking the transmutation of physical matter into mental images, the mesmerizing paintings of Michael Burges literally and actually embody the alchemical process itself. They also usher us into an archaic theatre of pure seeing. The forgetting they invite is actually more of an anamnesia, a waking up, which seems to restore our lost senses.
These reverse paintings on glass extend a long and deep tradition of placing the image on the other side of a transparent transmission surface, in this case acrylic glass (plexi is the industry name for a certain line of this uniquely fluid substance) which unlike traditional vitreous and fragile glass, is shatterproof and scratch resistant. In other words, it assumes an ideally modernist stance and updates a material which was first explored by the classical Romans in the second century of our common era.
Since this acrylic substance, officially if prosaically known as poly-methyl methacrylate, is itself a chemical, and since this artist also utilizes acrylic paint (where the acrylic pigment is suspended in water) his entire fabrication process involves a deeply felt romance at the primal level of alchemy. We are witnessing an active interaction between the chemistry of the non-absorbent “canvas” and the chemistry of the painted colours themselves, in an abstract dance viewed through a transparent screen, all via the chemistry of our eyes.
For me, the most vital examples of what I’m attempting to describe are also the most sedate and meditative ones, the quiet semi-monochrome tones of pieces #47 and #68, with their subtle interruptions of understated colour occasionally emerging from the hushed grey-white spectrum supporting them; and the visceral mysticism of #14 and #16, with their methodical grids of glittering gold leaf creating a shimmering curtain that really pushes the alchemy envelope all the way. In between these two polarities of minimalist inaction and optical opera however, is an alluring visual drama spectrum swinging from the formalist linear drip structures of #1, #21, #29 and #50, to the sheer almost floral frenzy of #5, #7, #9 and #39, to the glorious near hallucinatory psychedelia of #24, #26, #30 and #31.
Without becoming the least bit cerebral, it is possible to designate these works as phenomenological paintings. They mirror and echo the notion explored in both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, that of the phenomenology of perception, which is in fact their true subject and theme. It was the latter philosopher-poet who so poignantly expressed the essence of his love affair with the phenomenal realm of actual sensory life when he said that we must return to the Lebenswelt: the world in which we meet in the lived-in experience, in our immediate shared experience of the actual world.
Three of Burges’ lived-in images which are among the most captivatingly intense and seductively sexy are also among the smallest and most intimate. At barely one foot square in scale (most of the pieces are on average around four or five feet) #3, #33, and #43 are like filling a tiny syringe with an entire ocean of colour. They melt, they dance, they flow, they slip and slide into and out of focus in a most dynamic and extravagant manner. They leave our eyes washed and our minds clean: they are what the very best painting is really always all about.
Burges’ immersive reverse paintings, so similar to polyphonic music in their complex composition, and with such poetic affinity for the transformative agenda of alchemy, are virtual postcards from the land of the lived-in. In fact, each inverted image feels like a living, breathing, pulsating organic thing, because it is. The metal raw materials interact with the paint in the form of diffusion for gold leaf, and of oxidation for silver leaf, with the result that the pictures really do seem to continue to paint themselves over time and thus also maintain a constant state of flux.
For me, perhaps the most powerful piece is #19. In between the scale of the intimate gentle floral explosions and the large scale electric waterfalls, this piece talks to me in a whisper about content that other artists are often tempted to scream about. Considering how exuberant its wild energy field is, this piece exercises remarkable and admirable pictorial restraint, allowing the viewer to more fully experience the non-narrative but still powerful storyline in the most leisurely and personal of ways. Like all its fellow inverted images, this one is both utterly non-programmatic yet dreamily filled with an invisible plot: it is a veritable epic novel of undiluted optical characters. #19’s white cloud-like surface slowly shares a profusion of carefully crafted swirls: there is no place for the eye or mind to stop their voracious voyage across this sea of acrylic collisions. It is both everywhere and everywhen.
We’ve all heard of the scientist’s search for a state of perpetual motion. This particular painting strikes me as having discovered a zone of perpetual emotion. The paint fuses with the glass and the glass fuses with the liquid in our eyes: it is almost a painting made of teardrops, unleashed across a stage set emerging from the void. Like many of the other adjacent works, its vibrant colours remain as intense as if they were always still wet, and in fact visually they are eternally wet and infinitely drying, since time’s passage is yet another raw material in this artist’s alchemical toolkit.
It is entirely possible for paintings to explore time. In fact, time may be their primary content. The relationship between the cognitive and perceptual realms may also best be investigated through a controlled conversation between the eye and the hand, mediated by the mind, as evidenced in these splendid reverse paintings by Michael Burges. They boldly embody an obvious alchemy of the image and also effectively invert our customary manner of apprehending the traditional picture plane.
They are also virtual demonstrations of a powerful dialectic of duration, the slow accretion of meaning over time, in time, and through time, as the actualized chemical equation of their design and fabrication continues to unfold for the viewer long into the future of each painting’s life. By reminding us that lost time lurks embedded in paint, they reveal themselves to be balsamic reductions of reality, elegant mirrors in which we can actually perceive the act of our own perceiving.
In his new inversion paintings, Michael Burges strives to arrive at and effortlessly achieves the most precious of aesthetic gifts. He shares his own consciousness visually and explores the shapes of our perception itself viscerally: he transmutes mere seeing into a vital vision. He is an alchemist of the highest order.