Imagine lying in the tall grass in a meadow, the slender blades swaying softly around you. It’s an intimate, untroubled world aglow with tones of autumn: flaming umber, burnt orange, crimson, and pale green. That’s the idyllic landscape that artist Charlie Burk creates in his paintings.
For most landscape painters, the immediate foreground is rarely the most important feature. For Burk, the foreground — the gem-like range of flora teeming with color and complexity — is the focal point.
“You don’t need sunsets or windmills to have a painting be interesting,” he said. “The interesting thing is in the most mundane surfaces.”
Burk was among the first artists to show his work at Winterowd Fine Art when the gallery opened in 2004. A show of the painter’s new work, Journey in Abstraction, opens at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 22. Burk will be signing copies of his new monograph of the same title, which was published by Fresco Books in 2018. The 42 full-color reproductions capture what Winterowd Fine Art owner Karla Winterowd describes in her introduction as “an inner sanctum of an untouched world rarely explored.” Nick Abdalla, professor emeritus in the art and art history department at the University of New Mexico, writes in his foreword that Burk’s work contains “the magic of the overlooked.”
From a distance, Burk’s oil paintings look like near-photorealistic depictions of tall grasses as you would see them if you were in their midst, eyeing them at ground level. But a closer look reveals that they are, in fact, abstractions. In these lush, textural compositions, every blade of grass is vividly realized. They are also gestural, multi-toned, and like a pointillist composition by Georges Seurat, not so meticulously rendered as they at first appear. The key is in the texture Burk creates by layering blade upon blade — or rather brush stroke upon brush stroke. The overall effect of the entanglement of hundreds of reed-thin strokes is a lyrical and harmonious symphony of naturalistic color.
“Remember the old four-color printing process?” he asked. “If you look at one of those prints with a magnifying glass, you see all the separate dots of all the separate colors. If you mix blue dots and red dots, your eyes see purple. It’s kind of the same idea with the complicated surface becoming more simple.”
Burk was born in Albuquerque — where he still lives — in 1947. His father, William Burk, was an architect and sculptor who taught art and architecture at the University of New Mexico, where he eventually became head of the architecture department. As a teenager, Charlie Burk worked in his father’s private firm as a junior draftsman.
“My first paintings were based on realism because I learned from doing production drawings and renderings in the architecture office,” he said. “My first ones were very tightly constructed, and it took me a long time to get over that.”
He began the first of two stints at UNM in 1965 with the intention of studying architecture, but he found the curriculum uninspiring. Anticipating getting drafted into the Vietnam War, he abandoned his studies temporarily and enlisted in the Navy Reserve. His draft notice came just one week later. Burk was stationed in California, assigned to a submarine tender in San Diego Harbor, and never had to go overseas to fight in the war. In 1971, he re-enrolled at UNM as a fine-arts major.
Despite the emphasis that UNM placed at the time on conceptual art practices, Burk painted with watercolors in a realist style. He worked from photographs and from memory. As he explains in his 76-page monograph, he was fascinated by the relationships between objects more than by the objects themselves. He was interested in the juxtapositions between the natural world and the human world. Influenced by his experience with architectural renderings, his early compositions were tightly controlled. He found that oil painting allowed for more spontaneity. Even as a watercolorist, he was drawn to fields of tall grass as a subject, dazzled by the complexity of the textures and the challenge of capturing the interplay of grassy forms. Oil painting, which he took up in 1999, permitted him to explore the subject more abstractly and on a larger scale.
In his paintings, Burk explores the interaction of positive and negative space, the contrast of darks and lights, and the relationship of colors. He starts with a color field of dark tones, against which the vibrant colors of the grassy forms pop. He takes a right-brained approach, layering the forms in an unpremeditated fashion. “The background has to be dark so I can bring out the texture and give it depth. It’s very reactive. It’s not planned out like a traditional painting where you’re painting a specific subject. With this, it’s like there’s a big purple area there, and I’ll put this color next to it intuitively. It just grows from there.”
Even in the more abstract paintings on exhibit at Winterowd, such as Chorus and Tribute (both from 2018), grass is the most obvious reference or allusion. But Burk never aims to render actual species of grass. He isn’t painting from observance the way a plein air painter would, and he no longer works from photographs. Many of his compositions retain a horizon line, which is typical of a traditional landscape. But even in those works — such as After a Soft Rain (2018) and Unfolding Splendor (2018), in which a glimpse of a meadow or a distant hill can be seen — the backgrounds are mostly hidden from view. Features of the terrain — like the tall, dark forms of a nearby wood — lack detail and are blurred, as they would be if your focus were on objects closer in: the dominant blades of grass.
“It’s important to me that they’re abstracted and not just nostalgic scenes or places, because they’re not places in real life,” he said. “They’re places in my head that I just make up. People always ask me, ‘Why don’t you put a critter in there?’ Even if I put a building in there or a fence post or something you would recognize, to me that makes it kind of a snapshot, instead of something that has a meaning that’s about more than just a certain place.” ◀
▼ Charlie Burk: Journey in Abstraction; through April 10
▼ Opening reception and book signing 5 p.m. Friday, March 22
▼ Winterowd Fine Art, 701 Canyon Road, 505-992-8878, fineartsantafe.com
▼ Signed copies of Burk’s monograph are available at the gallery: paperbound edition ($35); limited hardcover editions, which include 11 x 11-inch original painting ($1,200) or 11 x 11-inch giclée print ($350).