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tom burckhardt: graphic clarity and pop

by Stuart Servetar  

Two Nuts

New Leaf



Pack Yaz Derm
   Tom Burckhardt spins out panel after panel of fluidly facile enamel paintings in vivid flat colors. "Purposeless," these useless beauties manage to run along a thin wire from decorative to representational to abstract without becoming didactic, surreal or superfluous. He draws patterns and imagery from India, Southeast Asia and the odd Tiki Hut without becoming some crusader for the Asian House. Likewise, he throws in bits of pop imagery: The Thing's orange rock-skin, a Who's hair, etc., without succumbing to postmodern maundering.

Burckhardt eschews concept. He forswore grad school fearing "constipation" and chose instead to do his apprenticeship in the studio. Staying within himself seems to be a big part of his game. For ten years now he's been working the enamel on small, occasionally irregular wood panels. In addition to working small, Burckhardt has kept his works off the wall, preferring to display them on thin shelves. Furthermore, it's only been a few years since he's felt comfortable enough with his chops to bring his work out. He's participated in group shows with Exit Art, the late Black & Greenberg Gallery, and over at Esso -- with whom he'll be showing solo next January. This September he'll be going one-person in Boston at Toale Gallery.

Now that he's come out, so to speak, he's cautiously beginning to expand his program. Some of the panels have begun to grow larger, and have gone back to the wall. The newer pieces are slightly more ambitious and have begun to introduce objects, swaths of landscape, and parcels of open space -- a bit of breathing room his smaller, compressed anthems couldn't afford. With the introduction of a water-based enamel, he's begun laying down transparent veils of color to create pentimenti effects that take something of the edge off the generally nail-hard enamels. Throughout his work he relies on the solidity of his medium to paint freely and free-hand and still obtain images of graphic clarity and pop.

Burckhardt's day job (he's been working for Red Grooms for 14 years) precludes him from spending too much time painting, but that suits him. He's prolific and capable of generating endless pattern variations despite having only one or two hours a night to paint. "It doesn't take me long to get gassed up." He likens his process to automatic writing, "I don't sit back and stare at a patch thinking `This is what it needs.' I find doing that leads to me all the same old solutions."

It's rare to see a painter straddle so many fences in his work without succumbing to a sort of namby-pamby equivocation. Burckhardt's paintings are strong, clear, and sweet as summer rain.

STUART SERVETAR is a New York critic.