The Edge of the Skin & the World: Kristian Burford

“I’ve been working on a sculpture of a couple having sex,” says Kristian Burford, speaking from his quarantine quarters in the Northern Territory. The sculpture had appeared before, as a study. “People seemed to enjoy the playful transgression of the woman reaching back to penetrate the man, who is fucking her from behind.” In conversation with Rose Vickers for Artist Profile 56, Burford is quick to conflate the carnal and the conceptual.

I found out about Burford’s practice through a mutual friend and former art dealer – the advisor Paul Judelson – at dinner a while back. Over cheese, Judelson told me about this artist I “had to see” because, I was told, Burford is Australian, living over here, and making the kind of subversive visual images that compel writing (at the time “here” was the United States, pre-Covid, before Australia’s borders effectively closed). Now, perhaps wisely, Burford is home. We’re chatting between New York and Darwin, then Los Angeles and Darwin, as he settles into his practice on domestic soil for the first time in over two decades. 

Burford’s absence from Australia can be accounted for by the Samstag Grant – that is, the Anne and Gordon Samstag Scholarship – a substantial endowment that landed him a place at California’s Art Center College of Design in 2000. The artist had “a loose idea” that he wanted to make the move, but his decision was largely swayed by the encouragement of the scholarship’s director Ross Wolfe. “I wanted to go to America but honestly didn’t have a lot to base my decision on and to a large extent my options were determined by who would have me,” remarks Burford. “I was only accepted to Art Center’s graduate program after [Wolfe] contacted the program’s chair and explained that I was the recipient of a nationally awarded scholarship – I later learned that my submission had been dismissed by a British faculty member because ‘Australians only see art in magazines.’”

The inauspicious start didn’t matter. After graduation, Burford was quickly taken up as an emerging talent. The writer, curator, and teacher Jan Tumlir included a work in a significant group show, Morbid Curiosity, 2008, where it appeared alongside contributions by J. P. Munro, Tom Allen, and Julian Hoeber. The exhibition started in Los Angeles, then traveled to New York. Solo exhibitions followed in North America and Europe, so Burford stayed put and worked.

Since that time, he has carved a cult following – and with it, a great deal of collecting cache – for his cinematic tableaus, which are reminiscent of arthouse film takes. They register as verité, $2 tabloid tear-outs, paraphernalic debris floating in time. The scenes suspend a certain mood, unsettling in a visual culture that consistently elevates scrolling, clicking, and browsing. They repel, or more accurately, repulse; they are scenes to command attention. Oddly, they reproduce well on the page.

The sculpture in question is made in clay but will eventually be cast into resin, like many of Burford’s works. The artist explains that the study has been shown in a number of exhibitions and that “it always elicited responses that interested me.” He further notes that “I’ve come to see this act as a gesture toward the hermaphroditic body, which I’ve long appreciated for its capacity to collapse the symbolic tension created by the binary of gender.” 

When I mentioned the cinematic quality of the work, Burford clarified that “I’ve always accounted for the comparison of my work to cinema in practical terms – the consequence of a similarity in method involving sets, props, and lighting. The difference, which I think the tension involving mortality that you identify draws attention to, is in the actors. In sculpture the players only become present as the result of an invocation – the forms that represent them are inanimate and lifeless so they must merge with death in order to inhabit the material that describes them. A narrative of this merger is woven into the stories of the beings that populate the works. The man in Hotel, 2011, has been infected with a disease that was terminal at the time in which the work is set. Rebecca’s paralyzed and unconscious body, 2006, re-emerges at the surface of the murky water into which she dived. She awakens from a coma months later, reborn as sculpture – a life-size talking doll that her nieces manipulate.”

These dark scenes feel dwarfed, in a way, by the current [COVID-19]  crisis. I wonder how it will affect the reading of Burford’s clay figures and their coitus, which are invariably seen on the other side of countless solo orgasms, digital masturbations, and, later, the renaissance of intimacy that will accompany mass vaccination. I know that Burford cares deeply about this; the relationality of his subjects and the semiotic pull of those characters; how they, these artworks, affect others. As human figures, they are always socially directed – so too, they reflect more anthropomorphic modes of creative practice. As Burford puts it, “each work is a unique story with unique beings for me to develop relationships with.”

Still, the pandemic has been a growth moment: “One redeeming aspect has been a generalised reduction in activity that’s allowed me to entertain a fantasy of a less frantic, more conscious world in which we consume less and see more. Within this possibility is the affirmation of an art that exists purely for experience.”

In the weeks following our interview, I keep an eye on the Australian news. There’s a groundswell for “the jab,” and a less vocal one against it. I read about Howard Springs and its dongas (small rooms); the heat and the sunsets of the place. Some residents are caught hooning (Wheelie Bin Joyride, reads the headline); another jumps the fence in plain sight. Booze is forbidden but, thanks to an arrangement with the local shops, Vegemite remains possible. 

This last detail strikes me as tender and uniquely Australian, even while I question whether I still know what that is. It had been over a year since I’d seen my family, and I could relate to Burford’s decision to go back, while knowing that the practicality of a return remained daunting, even impractical. I thought about taboos – what it is to shock and be shocked – and the lines between shock and entertainment, comedy and vulgarity. I wrote down notes on contagion, virality and going viral, and the viscous, permeable acts of Burford’s cast. I wonder who made the rules. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021.
Images courtesy the artist and Rose Vickers.

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