In this solo exhibition Burke demonstrates a deft touch and self-assurance in his moody portraits of black men and women in postures of repose and wariness. Wall text describes the artist’s ambition to capture an idea of desire, though the works themselves create a wealth of associations it’s hard to tether to so narrow a concept. The figures themselves, eyes closed, bodies sprawled out across the canvas, limbs and faces coming in and out of focus, convey the incompleteness of portraiture, its denial of full exposure as these subjects fade in and out of view.
The one constant in Burke’s paintings is that compelling interplay between disclosure and intimacy. In “last poem I’m gonna write about us” a woman with eyes closed is adorned with tentatively sketched flowers and thick brushstrokes of paint left equally unformed. The impression is of remembrance in process, a desire to fix a beloved person in your mind’s eye even as they begin to fade away.
How do you convey life’s most powerful feelings and sensations, Burke’s works seem to ask? In “pushing aside poppy stems” a beautiful woman continues that tension between a classic art history odalisque offering up her body to the viewer’s gaze and the painter’s denial — maybe even refusal — of such access. Reclining into a field of black, the woman drifts in and out of our reckoning, her features sometimes emerging and sometimes hidden in Burke’s velveteen cloak of black paint. Portraits of the essential unknowability of others, Burke’s figures hide behind closed eyelids or turn away, keeping a part of themselves unknown. It’s tempting to see those postures as a defense mechanism, the wall you might build around yourself to survive. His subjects’ postures say “I’ve given you enough, don’t ask for more.”
To say these works are internal would be an understatement: they occupy the headspace of an artist with the enormous job of representing abstract ideas of subjectivity. Can the work sometimes feel portentous and grandiose? Yes it can. But this is a talented, fledgling artist finding his way to some extent and deciding what he has to say. The work is lovely, often arresting, but tends to lead with technique above all. I thought of the stylized, opaque mood pieces created by film directors like Wong Kar-wai or imagist poets like William Carlos Williams. Poetry may be the best analogy, with Burke drawing both his titles and his inspiration from poems by Black writers like Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez and Langston Hughes.
“In his company forgetfulness fell like pollen” feels like a portrait of an absent subject. In that painting, an enormous cloud rendered in glowing shades of cantaloupe and blush billows over the painting surface. Distressed, torn copies of paperbacks; the self-help bestseller “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” and the WWII novel “And Then We Heard the Thunder” are shellacked onto the foreground like a stand-in for some unseen person. A small yellow paillette glistens from the surface like the sun, lending dimension to Burke’s work.
A skilled colorist, Burke’s paintings in “And Then We Heard the Thunder” tend to evoke a feeling — wistfulness or solitude, despondency, resignation — using weeping drips of color, tarry impastoed globs of glistening black paint or patchwork fields of ochre to move beyond words. In many ways they seem to illustrate a clash between a world of lived experience and an alternate one that unfolds on canvas, one that can be controlled and conjured up like magic.
“And Then We Heard the Thunder”
Through Feb. 19. Free. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Mint Gallery, 680 Murphy Ave. SW, Unit 2095, Atlanta. 404-680-8728, mintatl.org.
Bottom line: Wonderful technique defines emerging talent Demetri Burke’s mood pieces on the chimerical nature of memory and identity.