Robert Xavier Burden: Original Myth
Gregorio Escalante Gallery, Los Angeles
January 7 - February 5, 2017
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, JAN. 2017
The first thing you notice about the paintings in Robert Xavier Burden’s new exhibition Original Myth is, unavoidably, their size. But it’s more than the 15-foot width; it’s the combination of that scale with the panoply of hyperbolically rich detail -- the sheer volume of imagery and objects contained within his operatic canvases -- that induces the vertigo. At a distance, the paintings carry hints of the prismatic, inflected, butterfly-wing works of Damien Hirst and the specific ways in which they each approximate stained glass cathedral windows with the high-gloss luminosity of their surfaces.
Up close, the paintings reveal their motherlodes -- impossibly eclectic, thorough, painstaking, enshrined, expressive, swarming inventories of the toys, action figures, video game characters, and merch derived from some of pop culture’s most all-star genres. Think Star Wars, Batman, robots, and dinosaurs. But then also think about the Old Masters (Renaissance, not Jedi), as Burden’s near-perfect renderings glisten under a sheer clear sheen, like the acid-free plastic of original packaging or the smooth, impervious surface of injection-molded plastic skin -- or the telltale varnish coatings of very old oil paintings.
Each of the compendium of thousands of individual icons is rendered in their own faithfully recreated aesthetic language, across degrees of realism, cartoonishness, flatness, and faux-fleshiness that ought not coexist in any single universe. Except perhaps the meta-fiction of a painted one. The onslaught evokes and represents the media-age information overload we all know and love, at the same time hearkening back to Ukiyo-e lotus-born spirit armies, or the relentless cherubim and seraphim of the Baroque.
This exact conflation of sacred religious visual tropes with profane fantasy-world characters is a witty semantic exercise, but it is more than a conceptual gesture. It has to be, by virtue of the extreme endurance craftsmanship that the artist lavishes on their making. Oil painting at this level of both patience and technical skill could never be just a punchline; this practice carries a richness of meaning within itself, performing the worshipful dedication to collective mythologies, fungibly religious and secular. Notably, it is as stated above the toys and merch rather than the actors whose likenesses are included, and the “realism” this extends to what action figures “really” look like, in earnestly rendered simulacra. However this decision is taken as a deliberate unpacking of how personal experiences are invested in these tangible avatars of readymade narrative fictions. And then, at the end, these paintings themselves become the ultimate objects of desire, fantasy, memory, and worship.
All images courtesy of Gregorio Escalante Gallery.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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