Editor’s Note: This essay is included in the forthcoming catalog on Bruce Burris’s solo exhibition A Shrine for a Shrine on view in Ashland at the Schneider Museum of Art. The catalog was made possible by a generous grant from the Ford Family Foundation of Roseburg.
Many young minds of the generation to which Bruce Burris belongs gained some of their political awareness while in their basements listening to what was then considered radical, socially-conscious rock and roll music. And while this music was available to purchase in record shops, “underground stations” found on a sparsely (at that time) populated FM dial provided that music in bulk.
One genre of note was the rock opera and its epic stories, often critical of the society in which we found ourselves: “S.F. Sorrow” by The Pretty Things is the story of a working-class war veteran and “factories of misery”; The Who’s “Tommy” is as much about a dysfunctional family as it is overcoming disadvantages and abuse; Paul Kantner and Jefferson Airplane’s “Blows Against the Empire” is a futuristic, somewhat anarchistic story of revolution in space after the environmental and political corruption of Earth; and we must also include David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” which a bit later opened eyes and heart to alternate lifestyles. Yet there was a lesson afoot that some listeners might not have anticipated, even though the evidence had already shown itself.
While some credit might be due to the Flower Children for helping to stop the Vietnam War, supporting civil rights issues and feminism, in reality a vast part of the world, including expansive parts of the United States, went unfazed and persisted in the slow crawl to late capitalism.The term “Long Hair” went from a pejorative to a mere fashion choice that had nothing to do with one’s politics. Many proponents of “do your own thing” morphed into libertarians. Dead Heads became futures traders on the Chicago Board of Trade.
Yet, there were some folks who “kept on keeping on.” Bruce Burris is one of these holdouts.
If you sit with Bruce Burris for a couple hours, you will discover that he is a storyteller, and this manifests in his artwork: his chronicles or diaries play out on canvas and whatever other surface he can find to work on. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ye Are One with Stoner Creek (2014). The amount of written text is almost overwhelming; to read it all might require a couple hours of free time as well as a magnifying glass. (In a perfect world, a young art student might transcribe the whole of the text for class credit.) The collaged-in rock stars (e.g., Diana Ross, Mick Jagger and Bowie) act as places where one can rest the eyes while the text swims around. There are also areas where the paper has been left blank, presumably because this is an ongoing story or Burris no longer resides in the area. Still, more sheets of paper could be added should the story ever require it. And it hypothetically might, because Stoner Creek is an actual body of water that traverses through a sizable geographical region east of Lexington, Kentucky. Add to that the generations of residents in the area, and one realizes this story is far from complete.
Stoner Creek is also a good place to start when considering Burris’s aesthetic and its points of origin, The swirls of writing echo the paisley print attire for both men and women of the 1960s as well as the rock concert posters of the time. And while Burris uses ‘60s-era psychedelia as a means to adorn his collages, the absolute cacophony that occurs around contemporary issues —social media, cable television and any other platform for an expression of ideas and opinions, including political rallies and insurrections—his pandemonium of designs and images relay a frenzied urgency that make this approach wholly appropriate.
Burris’s sensitivity to societal ills goes deep, and so does his sensitivity to the range of emotions one might feel after collective tragedy—nevermind the multitude of perspectives on how the misfortune came to be. In Some Ol’ Logga Said Every Finger Tells a Story (2020) the mangled green hand echoes the title, and alongside it is a proclamation, “We was dealt this fer shit hand.” Add to that the banner proclaiming, “Here we come stand aside mudders we have pitched a tent.”
Above these proclamations, is a collaged-in image of a man with a large stitched-up area across his face. On his forehead, where a “third eye” might be found, is an image of LaVoy Finicum, one of the more high-profile occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the only fatality among the protesters from that event. The case Burris makes is that their sardonic wit readily turns into anger from perceived oppression, which then builds until it leads to violence.
Burris has addressed the 2016 Malheur Occupation a number of times. As with all protests, this one was performative, full of bravado, yet it also involved fantasy roleplaying with land-moving equipment and assault weapons. The spectacle was such that Burris saw fit to make Last Caddle [sic] Drive (2019), and in an ironic gesture plastered a banner across the top proclaiming, “SOME OL’ ROCK OPRY.”
The story lines in operas are often driven by a loss of face, treachery, infidelity, or even simple misunderstanding. They are morality plays for which the lesson from the ensuing tragedy is a call for greater understanding and compassion. Otherwise, corrective measures are doomed to failure, the end result being that a main character, whether protagonist or antagonist, guilty or innocent, dies, largely because of his or her foibles.
Rather than making his own political leanings apparent in pieces like Some Ol’ Logga and Last Caddle Drive, Burris lays the drama out. He attempts to represent the perpetrators’ troubled worldview, albeit fancifully, using their own words to establish their mythos. In doing so, he makes us “listen” to the opposition, for how else can we make an informed opinion about what is true suffering and what is an imagined or self-inflicted victimization? How else will one know if it is right to rail against the transgressions of one’s perceived enemy while ignoring the ways one might also be complicit or equally responsible?
Instead of a direct and reactive critique of social, political and environmental wrongs (which Burris does do in his Protest Signs), he recognizes that when two-way conversation is absent, only mutual blame and recrimination remain.
This is what sets Bruce Burris apart as an artist activist.
- Bruce Burris: A Shrine for a Shrine is open through December 9 at the Schneider Museum of Art, in Ashland. The museum is open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Face coverings are required.