Hope for a better past, MAC Belfast, 30 August – 13 October 2013-09-03
The title of this exhibition reminds me of the last verse in a poem by Seamus Heaney:..”.hope and history rhyme” . In a gentle manner Burke’s art shadows Heaney with stable images.
In an elegant and sensitive display of ceramics on beautiful plinths, the Sunken Gallery at the MAC became a host to thirteen works of art, eight sculptures in Parian porcelain , five in glazed porcelain, and one wall hanging in white on white embroidery.
The display forged interesting links between them. On the left wing the motive of houses and animals made a reference to settled place, urban and rural, on the right, the three male figure to “three ages” of a man, a soldier, a father, an old man, secured the connection to time. In between , a portrait, a newly born, three young women, decadent macho man, surrounded a Bonfire – a cult of a tradition, that in a returning curve ended on the embroidered comment on recent protests.
With skills and grace Burke’ delicate modelling embodies political function of art in an intelligent subversion of norms. J Mukarovsky established in the 1930s that the appearance of antinorm is a constituent of evolution in aesthetics, including art.
Burke’s first “antinorm” tool is the material.
The term Parian porcelain, coined by Minton in 19th C, is a derivative from Paros marble, made famous by the classical Greek sculptures. The marble and the Parian porcelain share translucency, an aesthetic (optical) value favoured by the Victorian ceramics. Around 1840 the Minton figurines established the Parian porcelain as the ideal material for ornamental figurines. Wedgwood apparently called the material a Carrara. The material and technique had been developed at the Staffordshire pottery of Copeland and Garret , who started selling it in 1842. More durable than plaster, cheaper than bronze, the Parian porcelain developed from the biscuit unglazed white Sevres. The official catalogue of the Great Exhibition in London, 1851 gives credit to Thomas Battam for “…producing a very perfect imitation of marble both in surface and tint”. During the 19th C Parian figuries, vases, boxes or busts captivated the middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic as a mode of proclaiming their “gentility”. Especially after the invention of a machine that scaled down large classical sculpture to small replicas .
Ursula Burke has no such clientele at hand, nor does she entertain cultural link to any recognisable middle class taste. At a fleeting glance, she seems to be working the porcelain the same way as her predecessors. However, by measured application of glazes, paints, lustres and she frustrates the tint, the translucency of unglazed Parian porcelain.
She combats the tradition by staining the three male figures in The Cycle to indicate the three ages of man – the subject of several significant late renaissance and mannierist painting. Pushing the surface to become narrative , the Super Mario is glazed in black, completely denying the faux marble effect.
Her use of glazes, lustre and stain is not decorative, it is either describing or defining the character of each figure, or its socio-political element.
Another antinorm move is the decision on scale: Burke prefers the handheld size, a choice that foregrounds privacy of the encounter, not as a show off one’s “gentility”. In this exhibition there are two exceptions, the Bonfire and the Mixed.
The bust portrait of Burke’s daughter visually connects to the familiar examples from the 19th C , the Parian bust of Clytie, produced by Copeland from 1855, after a Roman marble original ( AD 40 -50). The removal of the mythologial context is not an innocent modernisation, it is a stern refusal of the culturally dominant norm. I know of one earlier attempt of this in connection to French Modernism a la Charles Baudelaire , marred by being made in marble: the bust of a girl by Marcel Leduc in late 19th C. Instead of a nymph punished by Apollo to face the sun forever , Burke presents a close family member, her daughter, a choice that evokes another layer of privacy. Consistently, Burke has replaced the sunflowers of Clytie with a playful joyful wreath of flowers. The angle of the head and the oval drapery sing from the same sheet as the marble bust of Sapho, the ancient writer of poetry. It is a poetics that is the supreme principle of Burke’s work, whatever else is observable. She embodies history of art and vulgar present day politics in seductively pretty objects that both insist on innocence and subvert it. Ensuing images are akin Gnostic rhymes easily remembered .
It interests me how Burke’s commitment to subversion of a norm works without a canonic composition at hand. The Bonfire is such an object. Clearly related the culturally dominant habit of building towers from pallets to burn on 12th of July as a prominently political act, the monochrom cleanliness severs sensual response from the smoke, smell and debris. In a deliberate rejection of the dominant meaning of those events, Burke introduces fragments like arms, legs, plants, and not just for their surreal interference.
The fragments come out haphazardly from the main volume and assume stronger reality than the real event. The dreamy disjointed elements are strangely full of life and energy, the association with burning becomes oddly inadequate. During a slow viewing, the personal experience at first besieged by the unreal, turns into a dissonance with the habitual tradition. A growing awareness of liberating force connects with a similar theme, worked out by the 15th C Sienese painter of a freedom resulting from a miracle.
Drawn to the detail, I recalled Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta, the Sienese painter of the San Sepolcro Altarpiece (1437-44), in particular the panel now in Louvre representing the blessed Ranieri freeing the poor from a Florentine Jail. Mind and hand skills predominate both his and Burke’s compositions that effortlessly connect wide ranging culture and local pre-occupations .Both focus on the narrative power of a detail. The theme of freedom from any sort of external constraints has been interestingly shared by Mario Testino recently:” Looking at art has also pushed me to seek a kind of freedom that is hard to find …”
The Three Graces are the “enemy within”, a visualisation of an antinorm, vis a vis classicism, and neo- classicism, the two strongly normative art periods.
Burke presents her art as a process of encounter and discovery, while championing freedom of expression, humour and provocation. On one hand, the Three graces are a strong link to those two traditions, in particular to the versions by Antonio Canova.
In Burke’s approach it is not the tradition that dominates the present, it is the present that dominates the past. The choices she made are firmly of our time: instead of a column or a pillar, the three graces lean on a trunk of a tree, they wear boxing gloves, briefs and make up, and assembled a little still life of handbag and a small dog. The three graces are not representing the brilliance, splendour and glory (Aglaia), nor pleasure and joy (Euphrosyne). They do try hard to look festive and in a good mood in line with Thalia’s preoccupation – putting on a show, a spectacle.
Burke is not a host who treats her visitors like Procrustes, nor is she ambivalent in serving the rough with the smooth. The serene and the grotesque leave their incongruity behind to avoid clashing. The grotesque – most openly in the Protagonist and the Dynamics of Power –
has a capacity to conceptualise the otherness, the difference without reducing the field to monsters. Her soft use of caricature reminds me of medieval drolleries. A little detached from the main narrative(the idea that art without political element seems oddly inadequate and oddly besieged) each exhibit turns out to be a little aloof, yet endearing, little calm, and little driven.
The main poetic tropes include hybridity and visual disjunction of incongruous strings of meaning held together by empathy. This art does not submit to politics. It refers to a cycle of behaviour so poignantly reworked by Seamus Heaney in District in Circle.
Images of the exhibits courtesy Ursula Burke.