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'rak'rüm (noun);
the back room of an art gallery
where artists and art lovers hang
Tera Desegna	    	   , Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Tera Desegna    ,
2014, Copper, rubber , 41 x 41 x 4 in
© Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery
Proksima Kalkulado	    	        	   , Robert BurnierRobert Burnier,
Proksima Kalkulado          ,
2014, Aluminum, Liquitex spray paint , 38 x 39 in.
© Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery
Pado , Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Pado ,
2014, Acrylic laquer, wood, 36 x 34 x 28 in.
© Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery
Aferon Kvar	        	   , Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Aferon Kvar       ,
2014 , Aluminum, primer , 17 x 32 x 28 in.
© Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery
, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier
© Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery
Graft, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Graft,
2012, Primer on aluminum, 19 3/4 x 17 in.
Fifty-Fifty, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Fifty-Fifty,
2012, Primer on aluminum, 7 x 15 in.
Interval, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Interval,
2012, Rust-o-leum on aluminum, 5 x 10 in.
Slag, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Slag,
2012, Rust-o-leum, 14 x 16 in.
Fourteen, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Fourteen,
2013, Primer on aluminum, 18 x 21 in.
Fifteen, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Fifteen,
2013, Primer on aluminum, 12 x 9 in.
Rehab, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Rehab,
2012, Primer on aluminum, 15 1/4 x 13 in.
Thirty Seven, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Thirty Seven,
2013, Laquer on aluminum
Sixteen, Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Sixteen,
2013, Primer on aluminum, 22 x 17 in.
Iom , Robert BurnierRobert Burnier, Iom ,
2013 , primer on aluminum , 16.5 in x 12 in
© Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent and upcoming exhibitions include Inland Delta at Andrew Rafacz gallery, Chicago; The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle at Hyde Park Art Center,...[more]

The Matter of Invisible Energy: An Interview with Robert Burnier

Chicago, Sep. 2014: Robert Burnier has a large body of work on display this fall at multiple locations all over the city. In addition to Inland Delta, a solo show in the West Loop at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, he is part of The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle at the Hyde Park Art Center on Chicago’s South Side, and presents a separate collaborative project, Inside Space, with artists Jason Lazarus and Molly Brandt at the Riverside Arts Center. As Burnier describes it, this latter project “investigates what is hidden and elusive” in material experience, isolating “what is activated for us by voids and gaps.” It’s a bundle of themes that reoccurs throughout his work. Finally his IN/SITU presentation will open at EXPO Chicago this week where the artist was curated by Renaud Proch.

Clearly Burnier is having a moment. It is exciting to witness. With a background in computer science and painting, his sculptural works interrogate material and philosophical concerns. In one ongoing series, he begins with a flat piece of aluminum, folding it methodically until further folds are no longer possible. The resulting elegantly crumpled objects are covered with a layer of matte paint, and thereafter appear like crumpled balls of thick paper; they evoke the residue of vibrant energies — sitting like cast aside experiments whose original purpose is not longer accessible. Burnier’s work reintroduces the process of thinking as a final object in and of itself.

Robert Burnier, Tera Desegna, 2014, Copper, rubber, 41 x 41 x  4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery

Caroline Picard: Is there any synergy between the different contexts and sites where you are currently presenting work?

Robert Burnier: Given the theme of Inland Delta, my solo show, it’s been serendipitous to have different views of my work in disparate locales. To me, it all gathers around the solo show at the gallery, which becomes a kind of central node. I hope people will get something special out of piecing the different locales together if they happen to see my work in more than one place.

CP: This fall I noticed a new development in your work, where you started to install modified and deconstructed crates. Where did the inspiration for those works come from? Were you looking through your storage unit when you suddenly felt obligated to use them somehow?

RB: There wasn't one moment where I decided I'd work with the crates. It’s been on my radar for some time. Still, one of my favorite moments in thinking about them happened a few years ago when I was talking to David Dobie of Heaven Gallery. While unpacking work for a show there, he admired the crates I made to house the work. As soon as he said that, he immediately apologized — he didn't mean that he didn't like the work in the crates! I was happy to agree, saying that I definitely wanted to explore that issue someday. Whatever happened and wherever I lived, I’ve been dragging the crates around with me, even paying to store them until I felt ready to figure them out. Now they're back! But in a way I kind of "disappeared" them again with my modifications.

CP: Part of what I find so interesting is the way they are literally a kind of baggage — as an archive built to protect and conceal old work. But when you reuse those crates in this context, you destroy the work each box was originally created to protect.

RB: Yes, that's a fair description. Every now and then I have done a purge of past work, which felt very satisfying. In this case the original art is destroyed but also gets to live again. So it’s an especially charged feeling to make this other, new aesthetic moment (or new artwork) happen simultaneously with another erasure. It's critical to an art practice to hover in a space between stasis and advance, while borders and boundaries are sites to locate interaction. I'm generally dealing with this issue as such at the moment. To me, this is a part of what being something is about. I try to avoid essentialist thinking; consciously adopting these dynamic flows seems to help. It speaks a little to your mention of a personal reference point. The personal reference is in my memory, but it is also in the thing's memory — the crate’s in this case — and that thing is out there interacting with a larger world independently.

Robert Burnier, Proksima Kalkulado, 2014, Aluminum, Liquitex spray paint, 38  x  39 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery


CP: How does your approach to the crates relate to your approach to the aluminum works?

RB: For a long time I have not been able to tolerate making anything directly. I've had to create hurdles, U-turns, dead ends, gaps — or separate my production into stages, which could have years between them. When I estrange my own production it deepens what I can do. Structures that have their own rules become something I can interact with and find alternatives to. The crates and the aluminum pieces do this for me, with different limitations. But they are variously implicit and explicit dealings with historical fact. Each material is right there. I have to deal with it.

CP: Recently we spoke about an idea of failure — particularly with regard to Esperanto, a utopian language that never quite took off despite the thought that went into it. How do you think about failure in your own work? Is that something you consider while making? Or does it only occur afterwards?

RB: I've heard it said that dirt is only something that isn't where it’s supposed to be. Likewise with failure. If you're looking with a sideways glance, failure appears as an option one can accept or reject. I think about that all the time as I work.

I like how Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, tried to alter existing linguistic traditions, not to purify them exactly, but to synthesize. A certain level of acceptance is required not to want to wipe the slate utterly clean. I like the work of a number of utopian artists from history, but I look at them all with a kind of sadness, as the results of their efforts often seem woefully and comically inadequate. But even an utter failure is a form of progress. It makes you consider other things left on the table.

CP: In that case, I almost wonder if your crates are a similarly utopian project — at least in their attempt to address and incorporate a past without trying to erase it?

RB: Everyone has questions that keep gnawing at them. I think you're getting closer to at least one of mine. There's a reason I can't stop thinking about utopian artists. I have a fascination for systemic or wide-reaching thinking in philosophy, economics, and other social sciences. For utopias, I dwell on this idea that we are not capable of having a communion with the absolute. I don't treat this only as a religious point of view, but a practical one. It just doesn't seem to work and can be incredibly damaging to try. But we have to continue somehow. What are the options? (Which is not necessarily to say solutions.)

CP: I’m reminded of a Levi Bryant quote you shared with me: "As always, the battles that swirl around epistemology are ultimately questions of ethics and politics. As Bacon noted, knowledge is power. And knowledge is not simply power in the sense that it allows us to control or master the world around us, but rather knowledge is also power in the sense that it determines who is authorized to speak, who is authorized to govern, and is the power to determine what place persons and other entities should, by right, occupy within the social order."

RB: I look at that quote as being an accurate statement about the inevitable outcome of some epistemology, whatever the intent. Bryant's The Democracy of Objects regards a so-called "flat ontology." It gives me a sense of release to imagine a world of radically absent hierarchy being just the way it is. It’s clear that histories of race, gender and social status can be looked at through a lens like that. I've also written and said before that in art anything is fair game if it’s done thoughtfully enough. So I try to be inclusive in terms of approach. Critical theory and reflection have taught us a great deal. But sometimes it also feels like we were painted into a corner or exiled to an island of denials. Bryant et. al. make a concerted study of this. Not that denials aren't part of a process to figure things out. But eventually, don't you run out of islands to escape to?

Robert Burnier; Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery


CP: I imagine you thinking about islands in your studio while folding aluminum, or cutting the corners off a wooden box…

RB: When I'm actually working on things, this is all sort of in the background. One thing I'm looking for above all else is to just partake in the huge openness of things while not forgetting I'm among them and so are my ideas. I want to see and respond to a surprise and have that be recorded for someone else to see. It’s like seeing it matters more than knowing it. That is, something that's not only a remix of culture but is an occurrence to be regarded.


Caroline Picard


ArtSlant would like to thank Robert Burnier for his assistance in making this interview possible.


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