Posted 14 July 2011, by Nancy Sheehan, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, telegram.com
Brian Burris has learned to walk between two worlds.
World I: The concrete, everyday reality of family (wife, four kids) and the Worcester Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant. He loves his family and the Fire Department. World II: His painting studio and books on religion, philosophy, literary classics and the esoteric realms.
His artwork reflects both aspects.
In a solo show of Burris’ large-scale paintings upstairs at ARTSWorcester’s Aurora Gallery, dramatic, bifurcated canvases evoke strong emotion and deep psychological themes — mostly of the gloomy sort, at least upon initial viewing. Called “Broken,” the show opens with a reception July 15 and runs through Aug. 19. A members’ show runs concurrently downstairs at the Aurora.
“I think it’s trying to elicit the most response from the most minimal composition,” Burris said of the spare images. “They’re almost abstract landscapes, but still very psychological.” The strong horizons in each piece could be seen as delineating the conscious, the subconscious and what lies between, a theme Burris has returned to repeatedly over 30 (somewhat “broken” up) years as a painter. But mostly he wants to see what it is that you see.
“They’re vague enough that you can project whatever you want on them,” he said. “You see a little bit of your own subconscious in the painting as well.” And what does Burris see? In a painting called “The Hanging Tree” a branched upright line along a strong horizon suggests a tree with, possibly, some figures below it. The figures are indistinct, like all the human imagery in Burris’ paintings. Faces in his work are everywhere, for those with eyes to see them. Other viewers see no human traces at all.
Burris likes that ambiguousness. Of “The Hanging Tree” he said, “You may or may not see it, but it’s a mother and daughter picnicking beneath the tree and there’s still a sense of some kind of tension going on. It’s not a bucolic scene.” The reference, of course, is at the same picnic spot something murderous happened, separated only by time. Or is it separated at all? Perhaps one occurrence is merely layered upon another with an emotional overbleed that is sometimes palpable to the more sensitive among us?
“You can get into the Gnosticism: Is time past and present truly separated, and all that stuff, and when you think about those things through the years, you tend to get a multilayered approach to painting,” he said.
There was a time when Burris could have used the bi-location techniques the mystics he so likes to read about claim to have mastered. “I need a Brian to go to the Fire Department and act quite differently than the Brian who’s an artist, and believe me it’s two different worlds,” he said.
It used to be really hard for him to make the transition from one to the other but, after an inner revelation, that notion began to seem like a form of self-deception to him, so he let it go.
“There is some shifting of gears but it’s not difficult anymore,” he said. “I was just reading about a shaman in India that works as a railroad brakeman during the day, and if he can do that and then go do his thing at night, then I can go into the studio after work, and it’s really great because all I’m thinking of in there is painting. I forget about all the rest.”