1.2 / Review

Richmond Burton

By Bruno Fazzolari November 5, 2009

Richmond Burton's show at George Lawson Gallery features nine smaller scale paintings on board, and all are uncompromisingly decorative, with nothing to prove beyond their colorful, generous joy. In an art world seeking to remedy its financial concerns with market and institutional critiques, as well as other theoretical or puritanical justifications for art, Burton has the courage to connect with and share the grand and often simple happiness of feeling good. Not some abstracted notion of pleasure, but the airy open space of direct perception, interaction, and playful engagement.

Taking up an entire wall is the very large Tarp Painting (2009), painted in acrylics on house painter's drop-cloth. The gallery announcement shows the work in progress, suggesting the record of a performance or the set for a dance. The unstretched work drapes onto the floor, its surface folded and creased. It is soft and ornamental like a tapestry. The loose, even mellow, aspect of the work, which is its strength, is unfortunately compromised by the tight installation and close proximity of the small, intensely concentrated paintings that surround it.

Burton engages many topical abstract concerns—decoration, graphics, pattern, grid, transparency, and translucence—without over-committing to a single one. His practice revels in opticality and has long anticipated and reflected the perennial fascination with the digital. In contrast to the slavish and verbatim way much of that gets rendered, he applies paint with a casual virtuosity that recalls Jasper Johns' number paintings. Throughout his career, Burton has maintained a dialogue with the effects and demands of the grid, exploring some of the same issues of space, illusion, distortion, color, push-and-pull as Lecia Dole-Recio, Terry Winters and Chuck Close. The appearance of the grid in the paintings here is very loose—like whimsical wrought iron—but its structure remains insistent.

RIchmond Burton, 2009; installation view; George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of Author. 

Titled after the seasons, the small paintings feature zany, ballooning globules carousing around central star shapes, expressed in filigrees and outlines. So colorful, but a closer look reveals the color to be deployed almost entirely along the lines and not in the shapes: luminous cobalts, hot reds, magentas and lemon yellows like streamers streaming. The outlines recall diagrams of sound waves. A gently inflected white ground takes shape between and behind the lines. It is both deep and flat, like bright, sunlit fog. The surfaces are somehow both lush and dry, wet and starchy. As objects, the paintings are more complex than they initially appear. Convex curves of gray or metallic paint press in from top and bottom edges. The device functions as a sort of half-frame, curiously nudging the paintings into the realm of metonymies of perception, like an iris shot in film. Throughout, the colored line quickens the edges of things, producing an almost psychedelic effect.

Nature is everywhere in these pictures and is invoked without literal allusions such as folksy fragments of trees, skies, lakes, etc. There isn't a puddle or leaf to be found. It may seem very "biomorphic" at first, until one sees the red right angle smack in the middle of Winter 2 (2008). All sorts of rectilinear moments rise up before the curves swallow them back. Each painting evokes the season of its title. The Winters have the snap and glare of light falling though leafless trees and reflecting off snow, when the blue of the sky lines the edges of forms.

"The Seasons" may be a winsome, even fey, trope, but an effective one in the right hands. It's refreshing to see it deployed here without ironic dissembling.

Burton risks being direct and straightforward in a way that few painters do these days. Not burdened by self-conscious posturing or over-determined agendas, Burton's rigorous and well-considered work reminds us just how lively intelligent painting can be.

Richmond Burton is on view at George Lawson Gallery through November 7, 2009.

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