A Personal Conversation
by Erin Keever
Marc Burckhardt’s paintings are at once foreign and familiar. He paints in a figurative style that intentionally casts off current trends towards investigating mass reproduction, opting for a homemade, folk feel, but with a sophisticated edge. Burckhardt embraces tradition as a means to explore private realities and perhaps the larger American contemporary condition; still he is wary of offering easy interpretation. The artist says, “rather than speak too much about my work, I want the pictures to make a statement for me.” Burckhardt is an artist with one foot planted in illustration, another in art historical academia, poised to leap into his own brand of deeply personal art and symbolism. “I’m not interested in art for art’s sake, I want to say something about identity.”
Born in Germany and raised in Texas, Burckhardt admits that place shaped some of his artistic sensitivities and tastes. He draws links between his work and folk traditions found in Germany and admires the work of German Renaissance greats like Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Younger. Burckhardt grew up and went to college in Waco, Texas, which he describes as “a bizarre place to be,” one where he was a bit of an outsider, who enjoyed drawing and learning about art.
Burckhardt holds degrees in art history and printmaking and began his career as an illustrator and teacher, earning him a living and accolades in his field. He continues illustrating for publications such as Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone, but confesses a desire to do more personal work. “Instead of my work being dictated by external forces, it is more and more, an internal conversation, something personal and even universal.” He acknowledges a dialogue between the gallery work and commissioned illustration though, saying, “I find that my commissions sometimes push my thinking and image making into a whole different place. There’s a back and forth.”
Execution is a fairly involved process for the artist. Burckhardt has studied master techniques and it shows in his paintings. He does a lot of preliminary work such as multiple sketches and sometimes more elaborate sets with tones and washes to conceptualize details as well as light and mood. He paints in acrylic and oil on wood and uses varnishes to create elaborate craquelured surfaces. Like an anonymous craftsman of the Middle Ages, he treats the “work” part of the work seriously and enjoys the careful and methodical act of art making. Unlike those who wait to be divinely inspired, Burckhardt feels “there is value in being pushed every day to create art in a disciplined way.” In contrast with its highly developed technical approach, the pseudo-naïve style and self-conscious awkwardness of Burckhardt’s work has similarities with the 21st century Neo-folk movement based in New York City. This was arguably the first cohesive movement to arise in New York after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. Several examples of similar moves towards guration on the heels of upheaval exist in art history, as well as incidences of revived interest in the work of the untrained, the so-called “primitives” or artists working outside of schools or professional circles.
At least aesthetically, Burckhardt’s work reflects a folk art affinity in its lack of concern for perspective, its flatness, its clarity and simplicity of form as well as its ability to imply narrative. More than storytelling, Burckhardt confesses certain allegorical leanings, but again, won’t explain the symbolism present in his work. Past subject choices include animals, Byzantine icon-like portraits of people, landscapes and still-lifes including vanitas imagery. In addition to these tried-and-true genres, he is drawn to areas not covered in Art History survey classes, such as English sporting prints and vintage carnival banners for the anonymity they offer to the artist as well as the questionable motivation behind the work. He asks, “Why does someone have their horse painted?”
Finding animals enigmatic and useful in exploring larger ideas, Burckhardt turns to the horse often, as seen in “Bridle.” The large white horse dominating the composition is essentially in profile, front right leg lifted off the ground. Viewing Bridle, one conjures up time-honored equestrian statues, for example Ancient Rome’s mounted Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, the equestrian statue, Gattamelata, by Early Renaissance artist, Donatello, or better yet, Early Medieval equestrians such as Charlemagne. As an obvious symbol of power the horse usually lends its sitter, who commands the reigns, power as well. However, no illustrious rider sits atop Burckhardt’s steed.
Here this pale horse (perhaps the apocalyptic horse of death) doesn’t charge anywhere because he is bound. Burckhardt binds his horse with a taut rope constricting his face, torso and legs. While one eye peeks out at the viewer, the creature is utterly immovable and rendered powerless in the scene.
Looking for clues, one surveys the low horizon line juxtaposing an aquamarine sky against barren landscape. is brings our eye to the coins scattered on the ground and then over to the lower right edge of the composition, where a tiny factory puffs put smoke in the distance.
Money is squandered at the feet of the powerless. Is this an indictment of class? Or does the artist identify with his steed instead? Do patrons’ predilections rob an artist of true creative independence or freedom? Burckhardt certainly seems uncomfortable with the “show-pony” aspect of being an artist.
While ropes bind in “Bridle,” bandages blind in “Three Fates.” In three panels (a triptych), Renaissance inspired ladies are shown in profile, three-quarter and nearly frontal views, consecutively. Starting left, the first fate begins the action by holding a ribbon or bandage over one eye, moving through to the second whose eyes are completely covered until the final figure appears to cut the bandage with a pair of scissors. The arrangement suggests a linear progression. Blinding and unblinding is key, as sight is the sensory apparatus most closely associated with art making and viewing. More generally, the work seems to assert that time changes perception and in time, awareness is liberated. As time marches on, Burckhardt grapples with aging and the value of individual autonomy. He is expanding his visual repertoire in exciting ways. Why does he paint what he paints? The ever-elusive artist responds, “I paint things that matter to me.”
Marc Burckhardt lives and works in Austin, Texas. In 2010 the Texas State Legislature and the Texas Commission on the Arts named him the official State Artist. His painting “Full Cry,” was selected for the 2011 Texas Book Festival poster.