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I first spotted artist Fred Burkhart’s advertisements for nude female models plastered around local Chicago hippie, vegetarian, artist hangouts. I was 16 years old. The ads said something like: “Nude models needed for figure drawing class at Burkhart Studios. We pay $60 for three hours. Must be 18 years old.” I was ecstatic about the prospect of earning money by just posing nude while a bunch of artists drew interpretations of my body, and so I called up Burkhart and told him that I was available for modeling. I lied about my age. When I showed up 15 minutes before class started, Burkhart didn’t ask me for an ID, but he must have known that I was too young to model.
I only modeled for Burkhart’s figure drawing class twice, because after he proudly showed me an up-close-and-personal interpretation of my labia that he drew, I decided that I should probably keep my clothes on. I did continue to drop by the weekly coffeehouse, Burkhart Underground, an alcohol-free Sunday evening series of open mics, poetry readings, and art exhibitions that ran from 1998 to 2005. In the lair-like underground space, smoke from cigarettes and incense tangled under dim red lights while folks relaxed, drew or scribbled on sketchpads while listening to a poet, musician, or performer read their latest masterpiece. This was all part of Burkhart Studios — Fred’s home, artistic center, and communal gathering place from 1986 until 2005, when the gentification powers that be pushed him out.
Burkhart’s Underground is also the name of the beat artist’s current solo exhibition at Alibi Gallery. His 58 black-and-white photographs of derelicts, drunks, hippies, queers, KKK members, children, and fetishists play out like a photo album of all the various people living on the margins of society whom Burkhart encountered during his life. Besides them, he also ran into Jack Kevorkian, aka Dr. Death, who believed in a terminal patient’s right to die by physician-assisted suicide, and the first female neurosurgeon, Toby Goldstein; both of them appear in Burkhart’s photographs. Burkhart now lives with the “Jesus people” in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, where he is dying of bone cancer. The doctors say that his bones look like Swiss cheese. In August 2012, they gave him six months to live. This exhibition is his first in a formal gallery setting, and will most likely be his last.
The show is organized into three distinct series: a menagerie of homeless folks, hippie drifters, drunks, derelicts, and burnouts that Burkhart encountered while living in Venice Beach back in the ’60s and ’70s and after his move to Chicago in 1986; children and young people, including his daughter, Trinity; and a collection of folks who truly lived on the margins, ranging from the LGBT community of the early-to-mid 1990s to fetishists whom Burkhart staged in scenes in his studio, to even haunting hate group the KKK. Yet even in shots of the harshest, most impoverished or vulnerable people, Burkhart lends a twist of humor or a touch of sentimentality, thus shedding light on what interests him most: the human condition.
In “Burnt Out Hippie (Sunset Terrace), Venice California” (1970), we see a young man with long blonde hair crouched in front of a wooden, shack-like building that went up in flames; a surviving door to the man’s right is slathered with an image of Dr. King wearing a woman’s crown, the text “DEATH” repeated over and over again, and an American flag. A sign with the words “SUNSET TERRACE” runs horizontally below where a window may have once been. In his photo titles, Burkhart enjoys playing with puns — the “burnt out” in this photo might refer to the hippie, the edifice, or both. “Old Red Eye” (1986) is a photo of a man with a white beard lying down next to a bottle of liquor, and “The Perfect Recliner” (1997) depicts a homeless man on a bench, sound asleep. Drunks, derelicts, and hippies were some of the first marginalized people that Burkhart encountered in his meanderings. He, too, found himself in and out of jails and dangerous situations until he turned 40, swore off the hard stuff, picked up a pen, and started drawing.
On the second wall of the exhibition, we see just how much Burkhart adores children. In “Welcome to my birthday party, Mister Burkhart!” (1989), he captures a young African-American girl smiling in her thin summer dress and birthday party hat. The background is all blurry, a mess of out-of-focus adult legs. Her gaze wanders off to the side, not quite making eye contact with the photographer. Burkhart reveals her quiet shyness, capturing this little girl in the moment of birthday party excitement. We also see quite a few photographs of his daughter, Trinity, as in “And God created…(breathed into us the breath of life)” (c. 1997). Her hair is white-blonde and her blue eyes so light they seem almost translucent.
The third wall of the show brings to the fore politicized, racist, and sexually charged subjects. As in the previous two series, people are always the focus of Burkhart’s photographic eye. Here, he captures the KKK, subjects engaging in fetish acts, and the LGBT community, both from pride parades in the early ’90s and the Dyke March. The most fascinating photographs in this series, and the show at large, are by far Burkhart’s astounding documentation of the KKK. The story goes like this: Burkhart went to protest the KKK at a rally, and in the process became fascinated with the Klan and ended up following them around and documenting their doings for a few years. The photographs both humanize this centuries-old hate group and reveal truly horrifying moments of the Klan expressing its beliefs in white supremacy, white nationalism, and anti-immigration. Burkhart experienced their hate firsthand: after documenting them for a few years, the Klansmen asked him to join them. When he declined, they beat him nearly to death in a motel room.
In “Hmmm… was it the right hand or the left to go to potty?” (1993), a Klanswoman kneels in her white satin robe. Her pointed cap is lifted, revealing her face, and her two young boys flank her on either side, raising their arms in the “Heil Hitler” straight-armed position. A Confederate flag hangs on the front of the house behind them. In “Under the Sheets” (1993), Burkhart captures a Klan couple kissing, their hoods rolled up above their faces. The title of this photograph makes these hate-preaching people seem more accessible and human, but in another photo, “Only in America are we this free to say so” (1995), we see a black man holding photography equipment, kneeling in front of two Klansmen who are looming, standing tall in white and black hooded costumes. These identity-less figures stand as a symbolic reminder of the racism that the Klan still represents today, even though its membership has drastically decreased to between 3,000 and 5,000 as of 2012.
The third wall is also home to religiously infused fetish photographs such as “Joan of Arc burning with relentless and passionate visions” (2001), which depicts a woman standing against a wall, nude and blindfolded with a rope around her neck; in front of her, two leather-clad butch dykes kiss each other. Burkhart employs stark shadows and high contrast in this highly charged sexual image of one of France’s patron saints. In his reimagining of St. Joan of Arc, visions veer into leather-clad S/M sexual fantasies of the lesbian variety.
Burkhart’s last series shows a deep connection with and appreciation of the LGBT community. Through personal connections with the people in the photos, Burkhart sheds light on LGBT politics. One photograph called “Gays in the Military, Approximately 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C.” (1993), shows a gay man marching in a parade, wearing tights, heels, and a military shirt and skirt — a blatant challenge of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that was in effect from 1993 to 2011 and required gay people in the armed forces to stay silent about their sexuality. “Mister Wisconsin Fantasy” (1997) shows a bearded man wearing a long black dress, the top of which is bound by S/M chains; he wears black boots on his feet and black gloves on his hands. A black sash with the words “MR. WISCONSIN FANTASY” is draped across his right shoulder. As the story goes, the man was murdered the day after Burkhart shot this photograph of him.
Burkhart’s photographs recall Diane Arbus’s documentation of the freaks she encountered while out exploring the urban landscape and Dawoud Bey’s street portraits series — though Bey’s lens makes all of his subjects look proud and stately. Burkhart’s work could be likened to a twist on a Life magazine photography series, except that Burkhart is in some way connected to all of the subjects he shoots. Rather than keep a documentarian’s distance, he joins in the community, activity, or ideology (the KKK being an exception).
In organizing this exhibition, Alibi stayed true to Fred’s original, street-fair-esque framing, documentation. and overall organization process: each print is encased in its own black frame, which is often times held together with black duct tape. All of the photos in this show are resin-coated prints save for two gelatin silver images. Not every piece is dated, and it’s unclear how many editions Fred has printed of each shot. But that’s not what matters here; Burkhart’s photographs are about people and their stories. And if nothing else, his own life is one long story that, thanks to these images, will be told again and again.
Fred Burkhart: Burkhart’s Underground is on view at Alibi Fine Art (1966 W Montrose Avenue, Chicago) through March 23.