On Tuesday, December 19, 2017, Canada lost one of its foremost figurative painters, and one of the most notable visual artists to have come out of Prince Edward Island. At age 65, Brian Burke left behind an impressive legacy—a prodigious body of work that is powerfully haunting and impactful, tinged with black humour in its resolute dedication to the truthful representation of the timeless existential predicament of the human condition.
Born in Charlottetown on August 5th, 1952, Burke’s passion for drawing and painting extended back to his earliest childhood memory. His high school art teachers recognized his natural talent, and he was encouraged by his brother Robert, who also loved to sketch. His formal education in art included the design program at Holland College (1971-73), where he studied under Henry Purdy, Russell Stewart, and Peter Salmon. He also attended one semester at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax in 1974. An early influence was the American neo-realist Eric Fischl, his painting instructor at NSCAD, although Fischl, at that time, was making abstract, non-representational paintings that emphasized formal qualities rather than narrative meaning.
In 1982, after working as a brakeman for CNR and doing other odd jobs, Burke began painting seriously as his vocation. He was encouraged by artist/teacher Henry Purdy, who offered him an exhibition at Holland College, and by artist/activist Hilda Woolnough, who was then the director of the artist-run Great George Street Gallery and also who arranged for him to publicly show his work. Burke’s art was in tune with the 1980’s zeitgeist—that is, with the emergence of the international movement of Neo-Expressionism. It saw a return to painting after a period when much of the contemporary art scene had been dominated by performance, installation and conceptual art, and to a focus on the centuries-old theme of the human figure.
In 1986, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Burke spent a year in New York City, where he not only secured representation with the Vorpal Gallery in Soho, but met his wife Judith Scherer, a brilliant multi-disciplinary performance artist who was originally from Zurich, Switzerland. For many years, Burke and Scherer lived in Prince Edward Island National Park in Dalvay, and later in Murray Harbour. During the last six years of Burke’s life, they divided their time between Murray Harbour and Lucerne, Switzerland.
Burke achieved public exposure for his work through Mira Godard Gallery, Ingram Gallery, and Ingrid Mueller Art + Concepts, among many other venues and opportunities that presented themselves. After the 1980s, he participated in numerous international art fairs, and had solo exhibitions in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto, Quebec, St. John’s, Fredericton and Charlottetown as well as in Germany and Switzerland. In 2003, Burke was appointed to the Royal Canadian Academy, and in 2009 he received the Adrian Arsenault Award, administered by the Prince Edward Island Council of the Arts. His work is included in many public and private collections in Canada, the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and is highlighted in Brian Pollard’s 1993 film “Figure in a Landscape: A Film on the Art of Brian Burke”, which features his Prince Edward Island studio and opening receptions of his exhibitions in San Francisco and New York City.
Throughout his career, despite ever-shifting trends in the art world, Burke maintained a predilection for expressionist figurative subject matter. Although his oeuvre could be viewed in reference to a particular historical lineage of iconography that includes the painting of Max Beckmann, the tortured exponents of German Expressionism of the 1920s and 30s, and post-WWII artists Francis Bacon and Leon Golub, he steadfastly forged his own distinctive style and approach to the genre. Eschewing art that is didactic or serves as propaganda, he painted intuitively, improvising in the manner of a jazz musician. He made a correlation between his other activity as a jazz drummer in a band and the creative process, stating: “Painting for me is an activity not unlike playing jazz. With jazz I require interaction with other people to find that state where I am, in effect, watching myself play. If all is going well I can achieve a similar ‘state of grace’ while in the act of painting. I paint to find that space.”
Burke did not embellish or romanticize his portrayal of the human figure, but based his paintings on perceptive observation of human nature. The following quote about Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) by Flemish cartographer and geographer Abraham Ortelius, a contemporary of Bruegel, is also applicable to Brian Burke:
“Those painters who, painting graceful creatures in the prime of life, seek to superimpose on the painted subject, some further element of charm or elegance sprung from their free imagination disfigure the entire portrayed creation, are untrue to their model, and thereby deviate to an equal extent from true beauty. Our Bruegel is free from this fault.”
The subjects in Burke’s paintings occupy sparse, strangely elusive and uneasy settings that reinforce a characteristic mood of loneliness, desolation, and estrangement. Thinned washes of smoky colour are combined with a carefully metered sense of space to express psychological states of being. Burke links inner and outer spaces to capture the stark forlornness and alienation of the human figure trapped in Kafkaesque scenarios or confronted with the wide vacancy of the universe.
Perhaps the source of Burke’s “Beckett-esque” tableau was a subconscious response to the experiential space of Prince Edward Island in its evocation of insularity, isolation and detachment, or perhaps it derived from his troubled past. His parents’ first two children died in infancy, his mother unexpectedly died when he was only 12 years old and his two oldest brothers and father all died within a four-year period (1981-1985).
Burke most often worked in series, each of which revolved around a particular theme, narrative, or social commentary related to very real psychological states of anxiety and situations of alienation in contemporary culture. For example, his compelling “Mr. Man” series featured in his 1996 exhibition “Mister Man: Paintings by Brian Burke” at Confederation Centre Art Gallery and at WKP Kennedy Gallery, North Bay, Ontario, presented a powerful psychodrama about the male crisis—resonating content relevant to the swirl of sexual misconduct allegations currently dominating the news. Comprised of 21 paintings, it focused on unmasking masculine identity, on the trappings of male power and control, competition and violence, on the hollowness and toxicity of corporate culture and on the conformity to the symbolic structures and cultural rituals that define masculinity.
Burke made a significant contribution to the development of Canadian painting and is sorely missed by all those who knew him. His deep dedication to the figurative enterprise, his unique humour, his wit, his intelligence, his creative sensibility and his artistic finesse are all embodied in his remarkable paintings. Burke explored challenging, angst-ridden content salvaged from the social ills, cultural myopia and impoverishment of the human experience in an indifferent universe. He expressed his thoughtful impressions and perceptions of the world with a savvy economy of means and stylistic composure involving subtle paint handling and sensitive orchestrations of space. The vital power to displace us from the routine flow of life by revealing through the material substance of paint something of the existential truth of our own being is the creative achievement and lasting legacy of his life’s work.
Brian Burke: WEB
Terry Graff is an accomplished visual artist, curator, art educator, and art writer. He is also former director/curator of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Mendel Art Gallery, Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Confederation Centre Art Gallery, and Struts Gallery, and former education curator of the Art Gallery of Windsor. In 1996, he curated the exhibition “Mister Man: Paintings by Brian Burke”, and wrote an accompanying essay on Burke’s art titled “Unmasking Mister Man”.