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illustration roundup #37
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Marc Burckhardt
interviewed by Cathleen Toelke

Cathleen Toelke: Historical art shows us where we came from. Contemporary art reflects where we are now. Marc Burckhardt, a widely published and recognized artist from Austin, Texas, combines the two.




What led you to use an array of historical influences to create commentaries on the present?
"American Thoroughbred", acrylic & oil on wood
Marc Burckhardt:
Wow—into the deep end of the pool!

I grew up in a small town in Texas, but my folks were university professors and my father was from Europe, so we spent large portions of our summers overseas with his family. My mother was a painter as well, so I grew up visiting art museums, and like most kids, I drew all the time. That environment deeply influenced the imagery I created.

I got my undergraduate degree in Art History as well as painting, and found the conceptual and symbolic language of historical work as influential as the technical aspects. Leo Steinberg's "Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art" made my eyes fly open to the things that exist in front of our eyes and yet we ignore, as well as the responses that resonate on a subconscious level when we look at familiar images. In my work today, I try to tap into the emotional and intellectual connections people make when looking at work with these traditional forms, and sometimes even to make the viewer reevaluate those assumptions.

CT: One of the forms you work with often is the portrait. In "American Thoroughbred" you've taken the traditional and created a piece that is immediately startling. Would you talk about it?
"Lily", acrylic & oil on wood
MB:
Art collection and commissioning outside the realm of the church got its real start with secular Dutch merchants, who looked on paintings in general—and portraits in particular—as a way of exhibiting their newfound wealth. It wasn't long before the appeal of this sort of status symbol reached across Europe, and expanded to include "portraits" of everything from homes to ships to animals—essentially, the possessions of the patron. It's rare that a sporting painting, for example, falls outside a very strict compositional form or gives any deeper sense of the underlying personality of the animal, because that wasn't the point; it wasn't art so much as it was a social or economic calling card. I'm fascinated by this genre because it embodies both the desire to possess and the disconnection from the thing possessed. I'm interested in how these forms, placed in the context of contemporary themes, can create a reevaluation of impulses we've come to sentimentalize.

CT: It's interesting that, given our contemporary options for displaying, even broadcasting, our possessions, how your historical contexts become all the more thought provoking. What other possessions have you painted?
"Carthage", acrylic & oil on wood
MB:
Well, the genre of possession-oriented portraiture is more of a vehicle, and really one of several forms that I've used to comment on different themes. Within it, there's a quality of boastfulness, and a subtle envy that it inspires, that still resonates with modern viewers, and I try to use that "baggage" to create a startling juxtaposition with my own subject matter. My animals, or ships, or people, aren't what they appear to be; they're not specific "things", they're placeholders for desires, fears, and ideals I think we all have. And I want the viewer to make their own discoveries as the visual experience unfolds for them.

CT: Some of your portrait-based paintings of people relate to social and other issues. What are some of the themes you're interested in with these?
"Prodigy" acrylic & oil on wood
MB:
In my commissioned portraits for publications, I try to evoke the personality of the individual I'm portraying by using historical forms that we're all familiar with. With my personal work, that dynamic is inverted: I use an individual character to suggest something more universal. I like the mystery of a visual puzzle, so without imposing too much on the viewer, I'll just say I feel an obligation to engage in the culture around me, politically, socially, and economically. Like most artists, I'm sure I'm right about my take on those subjects, but one of my real pleasures in painting is provoking thoughts in others that I may never have considered myself.

CT: You've explained a way in which your illustration differs from your personal work. Are there other differences, and how do you approach an assignment?
Sonia Gandhi, TIME magazine acrylic & oil on wood, with metal
MB:
This is the $64,000 question. I think the biggest difference is that the impetus for the painting comes from outside yourself. As often as not, I'm approached to do paintings about subjects I know little or nothing about prior to tackling them in paint, and my frame of reference is the written material I'm given to work with, though I usually do additional research on a subject once I begin. The other significant difference is that I'm working collaboratively, in that my sketches, once developed, are discussed and sometimes undergo alteration based on what the art director's needs or concerns might be. At this stage of my career, I have a conceptual and stylistic approach that's well developed, so often the clients that come to me are familiar with what I do and approach me with projects that fit well with my body of work. In that sense, the lines between personal and commissioned work can blur, but I find that the combination of self-generated projects and those that originate from a literary, musical, technological or financial theme outside my own thinking offers a great balance, with each one feeding ideas for the other.

Because commissions can vary dramatically in content, complexity, and size, and obviously incorporate specific deadlines, no two projects are the same. That said, there are similarities in how I initially begin working with a client: I try to ask as many questions as I can, and gather a sense of what the goals of the assignment are. Next, I read and review any materials sent to me and combine those with my own research on the subject. Next, I develop a series of thumbnail sketches to record my thinking, eventually refining one or more of those into a precise line drawing that I can present to the client, usually by e-mail, along with any written notes I think may help guide their understanding of the direction I've taken. Refinements may be needed at that stage, or with luck, I'll move quickly to the finished painting. My finished works usually take no more than 2-3 days to complete, so this whole process can occur in a very tight time frame.

CT: What has been one of your most gratifying assignments?
"The Legend" acrylic & oil on wood
MB:
I've been fortunate to have worked on some wonderful projects, but music has been a recurring theme that's given me the chance to work with some incredible talents. I've done several paintings related to the Carter/Cash family, including June Cater Cash's Wildwood Flower and SONY Record's Grammy winning "Johnny Cash: The Legend" collection. The chance to meet and spend time with Mr. Cash was an experience I'll always carry with me, and one that I'm very grateful for.

CT: There is a variety of materials in your work. Would you describe something of your process and is it usually the same?
"Life on Mars and Implications for Religion" Atlantic Monthly, acrylic and oil with metal on wood
MB:
The basic steps in developing the direction for commissioned projects is described above, with a somewhat less structured version for personal work, but both share the idea that the concept stage determines the materials used on the finish. Though most of my pieces are done on wood, some are on more weathered boards to suit the overall direction of the work. Other materials like metalwork, goldleaf and even 3 dimensional borders & frames are incorporated where they support the concept and mood I'm trying to convey. While I'm very interested in the craft aspects, I try to let the ideas drive the execution.

CT: What is the funniest, most curious, or best comment someone has made about your art?
"Mary", TIME Acrylic & oil on wood
MB:
The Bob Edwards show on XM Radio did a profile on my work a while back—which I thought seemed curious—and in introducing the segment, they described a portrait of Mary I created as looking "like it's come from the wall of a 13th century Byzantine church". That felt pretty good to hear. And Johnny Cash called my Wildwood Flower cover his single favorite portrait of June. It just doesn't get any better than that.

CT: Where do you see your art, personal or commissioned, headed in the future? Is there a different area of art or type of project you'd like to explore?
"Momento Mori" Acrylic and oil on wood
MB:
For all my yammering, the best stuff comes from instinct and following my passions. I keep my eyes open and explore things that interest me, and that's what pushes me forward. I have a great shop now, and have been doing more wood work and even some sculptural things, so maybe that will make its way into the work. We'll see—not knowing what's ahead is what keeps it interesting.