Every now and then a risky and idiosyncratic artwork comes along that seems both deeply compelling and stunningly apt, maybe even essential: the right work at the right time. Tom Burckhardt’s “STUDIO FLOOD” (2017)—the principal piece in his new exhibition of the same title—is such a work: the perfect piece for a precarious time, when so much seems scrambled, upended, confusing, and flat-out dangerous.
Burckhardt is primarily known for his quirky and intelligent abstract paintings, which sometimes make use of unusual materials and occasionally incorporate representational imagery, but for “STUDIO FLOOD” he’s gone all out with an elaborate architectural installation, purporting to be a painter’s studio, made of bare-bones materials: cardboard and black acrylic paint.
The anonymous painter who inhabits this studio, one deduces, is in a crisis. Perhaps addled by Ad Reinhardt, he or she has painted himself or herself into an ideational and aesthetic corner, composing black monochrome after black monochrome, and nothing else, obsessive, even ominous canvases you can see stored in a rack. This is painting at a null point, from which all other possibilities have been excluded.
The radical twist here is that this to-scale structure, with its pieced-together yet exquisitely detailed walls, ceiling, floor, bathroom, windows, shelves, tubes and jars of paint, black paintings, coffee cans, books, tools, and sundry other items —all the usual stuff of an artist’s lair, and all fashioned from cardboard by hand —is an overturned artist’s studio.
Look through a window into the bathroom. The toilet is high overhead. Look through another window at the city outside. Skyscrapers are upside down, also a car. Look at the rows of books, their handwritten titles on the spines, or the striking, upside-down cardboard skull nestling at the end of a shelf. Look down, and what should be the pressed tin ceiling (demarcated solely by black outlined squares) is now the floor, while what should be the floor is the ceiling, which is covered with swirling and curving, almost cartoonish black marks indicating coursing water. As indicated by the title, this is a studio overwhelmed by a flood.
Here some clarification is needed. Burckhardt began this cardboard opus long before the recent spate of hurricanes and floods in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean, and many other places ( the ones we don’t hear much about in America, especially when, like South Asia, they are far away), meaning that it is not topical, although it certainly fits in with these severe weather events, as if it had anticipated them.
In fact, Burckhardt had been crafting the work for months, and had predicated it on two antecedents. Full Stop (2004-2005) — which debuted to considerable acclaim at Caren Golden Gallery in New York in 2005, and has been exhibited several times since (most recently in 2014 at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio) — is an elaborate, trompe l’oeil, right-side-up cardboard rendition of an anonymous American artist’s post-World War II studio (but one that includes facsimile versions of many famous paintings). A blank white canvas in the middle of the room is unnerving — is the artist in question poised to begin work on a new masterpiece, or devoid of inspiration and ideas?
A few months ago, with flooding on his mind, Burckhardt made the first version of “STUDIO FLOOD” for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi, India. Kochi is in the coastal Indian state of Kerala, where floods can be devastating, and they’re getting worse given climate change. New York is also a coastal city threatened by global warming, and Burckhardt was severely affected by Hurricane Sandy, along with many of his artist friends, as large parts of the East Village where he lives were inundated.
Burckhardt’s new “STUDIO FLOOD,” which incorporates elements of the previous version, is more detailed and worked out, more architectural and immersive. It’s a tour de force artwork with a willfully scruffy, DIY look, and after prolonged looking it remains quite astonishing that it is made from cardboard, one of the most ubiquitous and humdrum materials around.
From a distance (that is to say, as soon as you enter the gallery), this rickety, brown and black extravaganza seems to be a plausible rendition of a studio. It is also frankly marvelous (and more than a bit wacky), but if you look closer, you will register that something is seriously amiss. A bucket of joint compound juts from the “ceiling” as does a big can of salad oil; both objects are hand-lettered and, like everything else, made of cardboard. The gritty brick façade (Burckhardt simply painted brick-like shapes onto the cardboard) sports the kinds of urban details that accrue on many New York City buildings: an advertisement for a locksmith; a sign announcing 24-hour surveillance; graffiti; leftover wheat paste posters from the last presidential campaign (Vote Trump) and I’m With Her) alongside another sign succinctly announcing #Not my President. And over at one side you see: Resist.
As you scout around the interior — a vertiginous, but also wonderful experience — you find that there is always more to discover. Various paint tubes and cans lined up on shelves seem about to plummet, as do the paintbrushes soaking in solvent. Stacks of black monochrome canvases dangle downward like painting stalactites. The handwritten titles on the book spines provide clues to the anonymous artist’s interests, from Hilma af Klint, Ad Reinhardt, and Ritual Art of India, to Storm Surge, Adam Sobel’s book about Hurricane Sandy, and The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert’s chilling study of human-induced mass extinctions. (Reinhardt aside, you wonder why a painter with such eclectic interests would get so boxed into making only black monochromes.)
Nearby are two prints of past artworks, both concerning the destructive power of water: Thomas Hart Benton’s painting Flood (1951), with a woman and man desperately trying to rescue a second woman from being swept away, and Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodblock print “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” (ca. 1830-1832, also called “The Great Wave” or “The Wave”), with its gigantic and destructive wave surging toward the coast.
The books, prints, and the political posters on the façade are important elements as political and issue-oriented indicators, but they are also mercifully understated, to the point of being overlooked. In what purports to be a Daily News front page affixed to the wall, you read: “Trump Taps Oil Man for E.P.A.” Another newspaper article has the title: “Climate Deniers Have Administration’s Ear.” Burkhardt’s handwriting in a slightly wavering script and his small images of politicians slow things down, which serve to make this shocking information even more shocking and infuriating, that is, if we are still capable of shock in the Trump era.
In her great poem that begins “Tell all the Truth” Emily Dickinson wrote something really wise: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies.” That, to me, seems close to what Burckhardt is up to in “STUDIO FLOOD.” He doesn’t blatantly announce his political opposition and moral indignation but instead conveys both in slanted ways, via hints and suggestions, while the overturned studio becomes emblematic of a whole society gone terribly awry, a topsy-turvy work for a startlingly topsy-turvy era of hypocrisy, ignorance, cronyism, and corruption.
You move through Burkhardt’s STUDIO FLOOD and emerge into the gallery proper. Multiple black monochromes, in stacks, casually lean against the wall. There is something really disconcerting (and also hilarious) about seeing such paintings with roots in Suprematism, Minimalism, and Ad Reinhardt composed on rinky-dink cardboard.
On one wall is a salon-style display of mostly small works in ink on paper. In one, “Flooded Bookcase” (2016) a bookcase and its books are inundated by rising water, while “Black Monochrome (Suprematism)” (2017), depicts black monochromes, freed from a studio via a flood, bobbing in the water like shark fins. The works here are partly humorous, partly dire, and wonderfully eccentric.
Far from limiting itself to one type of work, Burckhardt’s dynamic and engrossing installation melds painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, and text-based works, along with copies of both consumer objects and paintings, while simultaneously alluding to theater sets, natural history dioramas, and maybe even museum period rooms. As it does so, it convincingly addresses pressing political and environmental concerns, especially, but not only, global warming and its deadly effects.
As politically aware as they are, the brilliance of both “STUDIO FLOOD” (the architectural installation) and STUDIO FLOOD (the exhibition) lies in the motif of artistic crisis: a painter with no new ideas and, presumably, frozen in anxiety and fear. Through the making of the work, Burckhardt has transformed and transcended this crisis And this is what makes the exhibition so exhilarating to experience.
Tom Burckhardt: STUDIO FLOOD continues at Pierogi (155 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 8.