Luke Burton, born in 1983 in London, currently resides and works in the same city. He maintains a continual fascination with the role of symbolism within decorative visual culture, exploring the intricate interplay between craftsmanship, ornamentation, and fine art. This exploration delves into the realms of taste, object representation, and materiality within the realm of painting.
In addition to his more conventional approaches to painting, Burton also displays a keen interest in broadening the horizons of painting, particularly through his utilization of seemingly out-of-date mediums like folding screens and vitreous enamels.
These divergent approaches also reflect Burton's curiosity about the concept of scale within the realm of painting. He investigates the dimensions of architecture, the human perspective, and the scale of the miniature or handheld. How do these diverse scales give rise to physical and emotional spaces that evoke intimacy, estrangement, empathy, or privilege?
We asked him a couple of questions and he delivered the answers!
You often appear to delve into the symbols of the cultures in which you find yourself or are surrounded by at a particular moment – I'm considering the fountains in Baku, grapes in Athens, and footballs in England. I'm curious about the thought process that leads you to choose these particular images. How do you arrive at them?
I think that’s an interesting question and observation because I frequently ask myself how I come to use the kinds of images I use – sometimes I think I have a grip on the whole question of why this image and not another, and sometimes things feel tremendously loose, vague even. But I have come to allow this fluctuation not to trouble me too much anymore.
All those things you mention – fountains, grapes, footballs - are at one and the same time culturally specific and yet also these floating international signs or symbols, archetypes even. And there is something about the work at the moment where there is this interplay between specificity and generalization. I want there to be this ricochet between recognizing these very known kinds of images and thinking you can place them within a particular tradition – be it western, classical, or modern and national, and then feeling that they are also nebulous and too generalized, or overly-used, for even that level of specificity. So they also suggest some kind of international language that can change depending on their context.
Take the example you mention of the fountains in Baku, which conjure something both similar but profoundly different to ones in Rome, or even London, while at the same time there are obvious connections to do with western symbols of power, masculinity and life-giving forces. Like so many of these types of images they contain too much meaning! The fountain is also an interesting image because it is both a container but also an object that is constantly over-flowing, so it has this duality inherently. But the specific context in Baku was important to me. The city mayor at the time you and I were living there was building these neo-classical fountains EVERYWHERE. The constant flow of water being pumped from underground spraying into the air was also a fitting symbol for a city made from the riches of oil speculation, with the nodding donkeys in the skyline ever-present too. Many areas had these new Italianate piazzas complete with concrete or cast metal fountains in neo-classical or neo-Baroque styles. It was as if to say: what really constitutes a thriving city is not just tall skyscrapers like the Flame Towers, but also these kinds of squares and monuments, which come from another western tradition. But Baku was partially built by 19th C Polish architects who were influenced by Haussmann’s Paris and alongside these boulevard streets are, of course, many kinds of architectural styles from medieval Christian and Islamic architecture to Soviet social housing. So, the ecology of these styles is complex, and the fountains play an interesting part in how the city seemed to want to present itself as seen through the conservative aesthetic drives of the Mayor and government. That said, I’m pointing rather than making pronouncements on cultures I know very little about, as a visitor or tourist really, but I was curious as to how these kinds of forms were being utilised.
So, to come back to the question, I think I come to these kinds of images because I am interested in their mutability and seeming flexibility in different contexts which suggests a kind of pan-national form of communication that people in power frequently latch on to because it may serve a purpose within a capitalist logic whereby things should be ‘legible’ no matter what the context. I think this is a dangerous way to think about images of course but it’s also something that I recognize when you take a long historical view. So many of the images I use have been used again and again over long periods of time – the forms persist even if their meaning can change. So there is an interesting contradiction in them as I see it – they are robust because they are so mutable.
When working with images like grapes, footballs, tennis rackets, fountains, and the like, how do you tackle the alteration of their appearance, the various transformations they undergo? Do you handle them as though they are merely a pencil sketch, a cursor on a screen, or through some other method?
The forms usually start with pencil drawings in sketchbooks. I usually start with a conventional outline of the form, trying to render the object from my mind’s eye as faithfully as I can. But because these things are frequently not observed as such, there are little irregularities in the form which occur naturally. I will then take these subtle distortions and cycle through them in a series of drawings until they become more and more pronounced. I am attracted to forms which can withstand this kind of morphing to the point where their recognizability becomes under threat but not erased entirely. They also work as a collective, either on the same picture plane such as the footballs or grapes, or as a series of works shown together, like the tennis racket cut-outs. They inform and prop up each other’s recognizability by being together, like a family portrait where there are siblings, cousins, nephews, etc. standing next to each other. Despite their distortions they have certain formal consistencies to do with colour and shape that allow you to retain recognition. The footballs can really be played around with and still retain this strength of identity because of these constituent parts.
What inspired the theme and recurring depiction of judges in the artworks you created for this gallery exhibition? What led to the portrayal of toxic masculinity in this context? And why do they seem to be adorned with grapes rather than confined within the paintings themselves? I can interpret the judges within a Georgian context, where toxic masculinity becomes intertwined with the winemaking tradition, and those who view their traditionalism as superior to other historical narratives. These male figures may exude an air of snobbery and superiority, believing they have attained a heightened level of 'enlightenment.?
I think one reason for wanting to have these figures of ‘judges’ is that previous works have focused on these symbols of power largely through objects, objects that directly or obliquely suggest male power and patriarchy. Symbols such as fountains, peacocks, footballs were employed but in works that largely didn’t use the figure directly. I did previously use a male figure who I called Ambivalent Man - he looked like a boyish classical figure with a very hairy chest and was an archetype of sorts. However, having kind of ‘killed off’ Ambivalent Man, I felt there was a space for the human figure to come back into the work, but there was a question of who to paint. And this, to me, is a kind of perennially difficult question! The judges are in one sense an answer to the question of who I feel able to paint. There is an ongoing internal debate around who I feel comfortable painting from my own subject position as a white, male, CIS-gendered painter. As my work with painting has developed over the last decade, I feel as though this question has changed a great deal and is very much alive at the moment. To some extent, I ask myself if I should be painting at all, then who do I feel can be the subject of my works. White men painting other white men come with certain risks as well – the risk of perpetuating the importance of privilege of these subjects. But my aim is to acknowledge this risk and acknowledge this question or ‘problem’ and by doing so, allow myself the space to represent these kinds of figures. In a way, I am quite literally painting myself into a corner, giving myself such radical limitations. And I noticed that the images of the judge figures are all de-centred, as if they are literally being marginalized. I think this was an unconscious act to begin with but became an important relation between the compositional and conceptual dynamics of the work.
I think I have always been interested in the conventions or genres within the history of painting – still life, portrait, landscape etc - because they give you a starting point, take away some of the pain of trying to answer this question. But of course, they then present another set of problems and questions in themselves.
Another reason I have been looking at the figure of the judge is the area I live in London. I live in Westminster, and this is where our national parliament is, and also where the other arms of government are – many buildings within the area that consist of the civil service like the Home Office, the Foreign Office etc. So not only the real seat of power, ie, parliament, but the machines of power, what makes government happen, are in these modern and not so modern buildings around where I currently live. So, inevitably, I have started thinking about those aspects of power structures that are behind the scenes, indirect, even hidden, with everyday workers who are part of making government function. I then started thinking about the judiciary as another aspect of these hidden structures of government. This brought me to the connection between aesthetic judgement and taste and other kinds of judgement – legal and moral – and how the idea of taste, in English at least, connects us to aesthetic judgement as well as physical taste. So the grapes are also a symbol of taste – both aesthetic, as in the classical tradition, and physical taste. I felt there were more connections between these elements of the painting – the grapes and the portraits – than initially meets the eye. The grapes, which take on human characteristics through their distortions, and have a kind of agency through their movement, and the human portraits of judges, who are in fact very still and immobile – lifeless even! There are obvious formal contrasts, but also indirect conceptual connections as you have so brilliantly described through the viticulture in Georgia and its associations with a particular kind of masculinity.
I like the idea that you could read the judges as being adorned with these grapes as you describe. I also think you could read the dynamic in a different way, as if they are surrounded by these encroaching, monstrous grape-forms. I think there is ambiguity in which element has more prominence, or more power within the image. A portrait always draws your attention as a focal point, but the grapes have more dynamism, more energy and dominate the picture plane, despite functioning like a frame. Then of course the landscapes, which function like an additional frame, also encroach in an unruly way. The most conventional, the most conservative element are the judges who preside seemingly unaffected by what is going on around them. But as I mentioned, they don’t occupy the centre of the picture. They are always to the side, on the periphery, like playing cards pushed to the edge of the table. Or a post-card pinned casually to a notice board, they are there to be looked at, but are willfully de-centred.