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Artist of the Month - June 2006

Alex Burbidge - A Man of Many Masks
By Annabelle Numaguchi

A painting is a reflection of the artist much like a child reflects a parent. The artist, consciously and otherwise, imparts portions of his experiences and philosophies into a work of art.

Alex Burbidge
Alex Burbidge

This connection between creator and creation makes studying the body of work of an artist particularly fascinating since it’s a way of delving into the mind of the person. For example, before Picasso painted his signature cubist faces, he explored a “Blue Period,” in which he realistically depicted figures in varying hues of blue. The transition from focusing on a color that casts a depressing tone to each canvas to what eventually became a revolutionary interest in strong linear and colorful abstract paintings is intriguing since it reflects the evolution of a creative, perceptive mind.

Much like Picasso’s later portraits which depict fractured facets of the face from one point of perception, Alex Burbidge’s portfolio includes such varying styles, revealing many sides to an inquisitive, insightful spirit.

Not only is Burbidge prolific in the amount of work he has created, but he has also explored so many divergent ideas and ways to depict them through art that he eludes being pinned down by a label.

To begin with, I was under the impression that he was a sculptor since my first introduction to his work was at the Moab Abstracts exhibit in February, which featured modern art by six local residents. Burbidge’s contribution to the show was sculptures made of wire.

Having majored in sculpture at the University of Utah, Burbidge has created other three-dimensional works, including carved figurines and masks, a subject that fascinates him.

The hallway of his home is decorated with an impressive collection of masks. Some are ones he created himself and others have been acquired as gifts or from his own travels. The materials they are made of include wood, paper mache, feathers and beads. The ones designed by Burbidge are designed to be worn, a manifestation of his belief that people wear figurative masks all the time. This idea surfaces in much of his artwork.

Nowadays, painting is the primary medium through which he explores this philosophy.

Although my encounters with Burbidge have been few, he strikes me as a soft-spoken man, keeping his tone level and low, hands anchored under his crossed arms. Juxtaposing this impression of the artist against his vibrant work echoing of social commentary reveals how he uses his paintings as a forum for eloquent visual discourse and social commentary.

Burbidge likes to explore diverse styles, moving from one series of paintings to another. Perusing his portfolio is like reading all the novels of one author. Although his style evolves, becoming more sophisticated in his later works, the central themes remain the same.

Clearly, he is an observer of human nature. One of his earlier series of paintings that he began in 2002 is made up of canvases that trick the eye into believing they are a collage of images.

In “Human Ideology: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards”, he depicts an arrangement of what appears to be disconnected images, ranging from an orangutang hanging out of a tropical forest to a black-and-white image of a well-dressed couple embracing. The latter image is sandwiched between a picture of swimming chromosomes above it and a burning hillside below it, reflecting the biological underbelly of the romantic scene.

Seven faces displaying varying expressions run along the top of the painting, representing the range of emotions art can extract from the viewer. Those faces appear to be an invitation or a warning to the viewer that these images are meant to evoke an array of feelings and thoughts.

Burbidge effectively uses different tones to distinguish one image from another. The warm colors of the African tribal woman contrast to the cooler blues of the urban man wearing a top hat. The most arresting aspect of the painting is the pair of gray hands at the bottom of the canvas that seem to rest in a supplicating pose over the collage. In the pose, Burbidge has caught the feeling of despair and wonder since it is not clear whether the hands are raised in anguish or are being held up in order to admire them and what they can accomplish.

The other paintings in this series display the same raw emotion, laying Burbidge’s ideas and questions out directly on the table. Another similar painting includes images of a semi-dressed woman kneading dough, a wolf howling and a soldier loading a gun. The center of this painting brandishes a caption reading, “Human Idealogy: Eat it, Kill it or F**k It.”

In his next series, entitled “Spinning on a Tilted Axis,” Burbidge continues to address the human condition with a forthright voice. Using bold colors, where red and royal blue dominate, he creates vibrant compositions that demand attention.

His canvases are populated by a multitude of interlaced figures, creating movement and chaos in the composition. This series seems less didactic than the previous, and appears to be more of an exploration of the relationships between people, cultures and religion.

A consistent figure in all of these paintings is “Mama Gaya,” who is identifiable by her multi-colored gown, symbolic of the tapestry of life and all its tones and shapes. Her face wears a serene expression of calm or enlightenment.

In “When Your Insides Are Out and Outsides Are In,” she is depicted with her eyes closed in what appears a meditative pose while holding up horned masks in her crossed arms. The masks partially cover the faces of two men crouching behind her, each with an opposing expression to the one worn by the mask in front of his face. It is not clear if Mama Gaya is helping to take off the masks or switching them from one man to the other.

This idea of people hiding behind masks surfaces clearly throughout this series of paintings, evidenced in a depiction of the crucifixion where every figure below Christ is wearing a full-facial mask.

Religion, both in terms of philosophy and cultural identity, seems to be a topic Burbidge does not tire of exploring, and it plays a central role in his next series of paintings, entitled “The Travels of Jesse and Buddy.” Playing on the names of Jesus and Buddha, Burbidge uses these paintings to explore how these central figures of major world religions fit into quotidian life today by placing them in familiar scenes, such as a rodeo, a volleyball tournament, a barbershop and a mosh pit.

These paintings continue to use bold color and intentionally flat dimensions, which imbue them with a cartoon-like quality, a playful invitation to consider the more serious ideas the painter is exploring through the composition. This series clearly reflects how Burbidge has emerged from a didactic phase into one of contemplation and dialogue.

The ideas that drive him remain the same. In fact, the “Mama Gaya” figure makes cameo appearances throughout this later series, appearing in the background of most of these paintings. Burbidge explores how religions blend in a global world, reflected in the number of ethnicities represented by the people who populate these paintings. The cartoon-like quality of this series belies the depth with which he considers these complicated ideas.

His most recent series of paintings is taking him into the world of abstracts. The bold colors and lines of his past paintings are still present in these newest ones. Although recognizable images appear in the current works, the overall effect is non-representational. Burbidge begins with an idea and overlays colors and marks until the canvas takes on an appearance of its own. The original image remains, but the viewer has to look for it.

In “Tree of Life-Study,” a painting Burbidge created for his wife, Julia, the turquoise and red lines pop out in the shape of a tree. Looking closely at the tree, a man and woman facing each other appears in the trunk. Between their torsos lie concentric hearts and between their legs is the shape of a child. Other recognizable figures emerge from the leaves, but the dominating image of the painting is color and lines.
Along with these divergent series, Burbidge has continued painting nature, in the form of floral still lifes, and most currently, “pleine aire” scenes of the desert landscapes. He works with oils, using a palette knife to create a thick texture. Where he is willing to turn a critical and contemplative eye on the human condition, he depicts nature in its softest, most docile moments, capturing spring vegetation along a river, autumn leaves and curvaceous sandstone.

Reviewing Burbidge’s portfolio is an introduction to the artist because he imbues so much of his work with his personal philosophies. His paintings, particularly those which compose a series, act like masks. Behind each series lies a part of the man who created them.

Like the Wizard of Oz, Burbidge prefers standing behind his creations, as evidenced by the pen name “Alea” he uses to sign his works. Also like the Wizard, he succeeds in creating such vivid, fascinating and revealing paintings that the viewer can easily forget to peek around and see the man quietly pulling the strings in the background, an interesting juxtaposition between a soft-spoken man and his vociferous ideas.

 

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