New York, Mar. 2014: Elijah Burgher and I were at Sarah Lawrence College together. I remember sitting outside the cafeteria when someone asked for the definition of the word “puckish.” With Katharine Hepburn cool, Melissa Bent, later the founder of Rivington Arms Gallery, instantly replied: “Elijah.”
I use “puckish” often and I always envision Elijah’s playful sexual spirit crouching over the word. Even if he weren’t part of my vocabulary, he’s been part of my home since college. When we were seniors taking an art class together, I admired a large painting he was making and he gave it to me. Its been hanging in every home where I’ve lived since. It is now over the sofa where I work in my Berlin apartment. More macabre than his mature work, this painting is my enduring symbol for “home.”
In the meantime, the artist himself moved to Chicago and we lost contact until I heard that he was included in the upcoming Whitney Biennial, and I invited him to engage in this dialogue. Elijah has developed an artistic universe populated by rugged naked men in their twenties or thirties and canvases consisting of color-blocks and strange symbols. Cast against strong colors and clearly drawn with a passionate hand, these occult signs appear potent – hopefully as Wiccan signage not Black Magic. But I get that the spells they cast are at least a bit mischievous…
Photo of the author's living room; Courtesy Ana Finel Honigman.
Ana Finel Honigman: Who are the men in your work and what are their relationships with their settings?
Elijah Burgher: The men are based on the likenesses of friends, lovers, and heroes, as well as my own. It's important to me that the source be my life – my loves and enthusiasms, my investments – but I do not usually think of them as portraits. By stripping the figures of their clothes, and placing them in spaces that combine the real (my apartment and studio, usually) and the imagined (the symbols inscribed on the walls), the depicted situations become more mythological – fictions, at the very least, pieced together from my daily life and the fantasies born there.
AFH: How has placing these men in your paintings affected your relationships with them?
EB: There are certainly more esoteric reasons for choosing a particular person to portray. I once made a drawing of a boy that I had a huge crush on. My wish, or wager, whichever, was that the drawing would be so beautiful as to make him fall in love with me. That spell backfired, but not so much because it didn't work. It actually worked a little too well. That was an extreme case, but I do find that drawing someone can result in increased intimacy. On the other hand, I have done quite a few break-up drawings, the point of which was to unbind an attachment that had grown poisonous or whatever. Those have always worked.
AFH: Combining your intimates and idols sounds like Elizabeth Peyton's way of incorporating her friends into an oeuvre primarily dedicated to celebrities. What do you think of her work and how she does that? Is it a similar pantheon for you?
EB: I quite liked some of her paintings and drawings when I was younger and searching for folks who were using the figure in ways that weren't entirely backward looking. I still enjoy the sweetness in her work, the visible crushing, the red lips. I relate to that impulse to draw someone that you find beautiful or admire, and do it not only well – to capture a likeness, an essence even – but also [with] the surge of feeling one experiences for that individual. But I am colder and also slower – maybe more attuned to the rhythms of control and submission that rumble within love and lust. And my subjects generally relate to particular subcultures – countercultural, queer, occult, combinations of the three – that are less known, less tuned into celebrity and pop culture, than her depictions of Kurt Cobain and the Oasis dude, for instance.
AFH: Where is the figure going in your work? How is your focus in painting shifting?
EB: Oh, god, Ana, I don't know! Sometimes, I think that I could do this – use these materials, deal with this subject matter – for the rest of my life. I have trouble projecting too far into the future. One picture grows out of the last one. On the other hand, I have reached a point where I do not think I can go any larger with the drawings without the total image subsuming the mark, which would result in a totally conventional kind of naturalism. Honestly, I've lately been fantasizing about packing up my pencils and teaching myself something like egg tempera, something really technical and "faggy." There are still problems, though, that nag at me, so an abrupt shift may not be right around the corner. The large paintings on canvas drop cloths are another story, though. I started making those in earnest about two years ago, and they are still very raw and undecided for me. Are they paintings or drawings or both or neither? Are they false walls? Tapestries? What do I do with them? Put them on the floor? Partition spaces? Make a maze?
AFH: Speaking of "faggy," is there a gay aesthetic tradition that you're particularly engaging in your work? Is there a gay aesthetic? When I think of gay art, I think of minimalism mixed with hardcore – like Elmgreen & Dragset, Terence Koh, Amir Fattal. In my mind, it’s like translating the efficiency of a dark room into a cleanly compartmentalised art-work. But your work is definitely not engaging with minimalism. How does your identity influence your technique, not just your subject matter, if it does?
EB: By "faggy," I was somewhat facetiously referring to a cluster of qualities I associate with egg tempera: it is precious, sort of antique, "technical." I associate the medium with Paul Cadmus! The question of whether my art is gay or queer, though... I go back and forth about that, almost on a daily basis, really – whether to call it (and myself) gay, queer, homosexual, or ...? I've been looking at a lot of gay lib stuff from the 70s, when the identity and the culture were in a spasm of birth, and envy the excited, protean quality of that work. I'm thinking of what was happening in film with James Bidgood, Curt McDowell, and Fred Halsted, but also in writing: Foucault on fisting, Guy Hocquenghem discussing whether gay men and lesbians should be fucking one another, Tony Duvert on children's sexuality. There's a real sense of invention in these examples: invention of culture, self, new lives, new forms, images not yet perceived. I am way more thrilled by my nostalgia for that period of artistic and intellectual experimentation than I am by the current vogue for queer abstraction and its prohibition of portraying actual subjects and objects of desire. Ultimately, though, the experience of desire is more pertinent to my technique than identity is.
Elijah Burgher, Excremental Philosophy Illustrated, Vol. 1, Colored pencil on paper, 19x24", 2013; Courtesy of the artist.
AFH: I've never forgotten when we saw Sensation together at the Brooklyn Museum and you looked at the Chapman Brother's edenic orgy and said, with pure appreciation, "I want to fuck that." That line actually influenced my whole relationship with art. However abstract that motive might feel in the context, that's my criteria when looking at art. Do I? That seems to be the content for many of your works too. The meeting of sexual desire, desire to possess, and art. What does that drive mean to you now?
EB: I don't know that I'd say that anymore about a work by the Chapman Brothers. I definitely think about the relationship between desire and visual art (both the making and the looking). As subject matter as well as a conceptual problem, I return constantly to desire. Lately, I've been attuned to how my materials and technique relate to desire in terms of failed mastery, and how that becomes a veil or layer through which the subject is perceived. Leo Bersani's writings have been really important to me in this regard. In addition to the examples from the 70s listed above, I've been looking at other artists that make work explicitly about sexual desire – Richard Hawkins, Dorothy Iannone, Monica Majoli, some of Maria Lassnig's paintings – and thinking about how art and pornography might come together and make philosophy, to put it pretty stupidly.
AFH: Explain that...why philosophy? What do you mean by philosophy there?
EB: A couple of things: that the artist thinks otherwise about both desire (or sexuality, libidinal energy, pornography) and art through the act of putting the two together, perceiving one through the frame of the other. Also, simply that good artworks not only embody ideas but are gambits for conversation, debate, and hopefully new thoughts and insights.
AFH: Tell me about working in Chicago. Why did you settle there and what does being based there mean for your work?
EB: I moved here in 2001 to attend graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I wanted to get out of NY, away from family and friends and things I knew. (Also, Chicago had a wonderful neo-no wave scene in the late 90s, so I'd imagined it must be a great place.) I stuck around after receiving my MFA for idealistic reasons, out of a sense that Chicago's peripheral status enabled artistic experiment – not only with objects, but also discourse and community. I can't say that idealism survived, but two things have kept me here: my ability to make ends meet while being relatively full-time in my studio, and my friendships with Doug Ischar and John Neff, two artists I greatly admire.
AFH: Are most of your collectors local? There is such an intense critical interest in America, its meanings and influence, throughout the world but it seems like most foreign collectors still gravitate to NYC, which only represents a very distorted image of America. Are you attracting collectors who want to relate to American art in America proper?
EB: There are a handful of collectors in Chicago and elsewhere in the States who have taken an interest in my work. A lot of really crucial support, though, came to me earlier in the form of older artists. Kevin Killian, who is based in San Francisco, commissioned a piece and brought me out to the West Coast for a solo show at 2nd Floor Projects a couple of years ago. And AA Bronson bought a couple of drawings during some difficult times. Actually, the ways in which both Kevin and AA have been encouraging are too numerous to list here, not the least of which is their example of integrity as artists.
Elijah Burgher, "6 organs" ritual, Colored pencil on paper, 11x14", 2013; Courtesy of the artist.
AFH: The symbols in your work allude to the occult. Can you walk me through the symbology?
EB: The symbols are sigils, graphic emblems to which magical power is imputed. I generally use a system for creating the forms that was developed by Austin Osman Spare, an early 20th century British artist and occultist. Basically, one takes the letters spelling out a wish or desire and recombines them into a new, easily remembered form, which is then charged by visualizing it during a "no-mind" experience, i.e. peak fear, orgasm, etc. I became aware of Spare's system through the Temple of Psychic Youth, and was interested especially in the explicit connection drawn between abstraction, wishfulness and sexuality.
AFH: Do your works co-exist as art and magic?
EB: The works do co-exist as art and magic, like most artworks of any merit.
AFH: It’s interesting about Spare. He is much less known than Aleister Crowley. What do you think that says about the world and its priorities? Or our desires to understand and interrelate with history, especially elements of history that philosophically address the future?
EB: Crowley was like the Claude Levi-Strauss of the occult, a high modernist who attempted a universal table of correspondences with which to unify esoteric knowledge from all space and time. Spare, on the other hand, was a proto-postmodernist, insofar as he modeled an individualistic path based on intuition and experiment. His influence really began to be felt through Chaos Magick – a moniker for a motley group of occultists in the 70s and 80s, whose magical pursuits reflected the influence of both punk’s nihilism and anti-establishment ethos.
AFH: When viewers approach your work, do you recommend that they engage it intellectually or emotionally? Is it a form of healing?
EB: I hope that the work engages both head and heart, as well as perhaps more prurient parts of the human body. Seriously, though, I think it's the difficult job of art to bring thought and feeling into alignment: to think feelings (or sensations) and feel thoughts. This is what I was getting at earlier by using the term "philosophy" in relation to the aesthetic and the libidinal. I reject both positions staked on anti-intellectualism and those that are anti-beauty or anti-pleasure.
ArtSlant would like to thank Elijah Burgher for his assistance in making this interview possible.
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