Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Frogs and Cherubs at Chefas Projects

Laura Burke's solo exhibition "Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow" is a feast of color and charm. Jason N. Le reviews.

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Laura Burke, Lovers Banquet, 2022, 40 x 26 inches, color pencil and oil pastel

Long-stemmed poppies lilt in the breeze. A pair of rosy-cheeked cherubs with hair parted down the middle tickle their own toes. Pears, apples, persimmons of all shapes, sizes, and colors tumble about. A nonchalant frog and a trapped butterfly perch atop a blue brick wall. These are but some of the almost-real, menagerie-like scenes encountered in Laura Burke’s solo exhibition, Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow, presented by Chefas Projects. The nineteen works on both paper and canvas frolic in a space somewhere between painting and drawing, delighting in the limits and potentials of medium.

When drawing on paper, Burke’s goal is typically to fill a blank page, taking advantage of the fact that colored pencils, unlike paint, require no drying time. In Floating Hope, every pear, fish, and flower petal has been carefully knolled, a pictorial organization strategy of arranging objects in relation to each other, claiming space. One typically thinks of floating as an act of suspension, a tactic of defying gravity in the three-dimensional world. Burke instead plays with suspension in two-dimensional space, organizing the elements without overlap so that flatness is self-reflexively acknowledged. The result is a smattering of flat objects confined by the edges of the paper, as if looking at a messy dining table from a top-down view or opening an old book to a page of dried, pressed flowers hastily tucked away by a lover trying to preserve a fleeting memory.

Laura Burke, Floating Hope, 2022, 26 x 40 inches, color pencil, oil pastel, and crayon

Painting is a relatively new prospect for Burke, who began working with the medium in June of 2022. She graduated from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2015 with a BFA in printmaking, focused on screenprinting and drawing, which gave her great ease with pencil and paper. The transition to painting, now, seems like a natural progression, a sidestep that has allowed her to further develop her unique style. Two paintings in particular, Dr. Seuss Forest and a similarly-sized untitled work, show Burke’s embrace of the new medium. Both compositions are filled to their edges with strokes of rich, opaque pigment that seems undiluted, as if applied straight from the tube. 

Laura Burke, Dr. Seuss Forest, 2022, 28 x 34 inches, acrylic on canvas

While most of the works in the exhibition are not pure paintings, they are a display of Burke’s swift adaptation to the medium in an approach that befits her best. Angel Tea combines softly smeared and blended oil pastel atop geometric washes of acrylic paint, a blurred Impressionist-like rendering of wind-blown leaves caught mid-action. An untitled larger composition found in the corner of the gallery’s partition wall collages petal-like swatches of blended color, dry-brushed marks of thick paint, and textural oil pastel crayons in a scene that confuses recognizable flowers and a single human figure with near-psychedelic gestural action. The visible texture of the crayon and pencil next to the soft gradient of the paint take these works into a space somewhere between drawing and painting, both embracing and challenging what the materials offer to the artist.

Laura Burke, detail of Angel Tea, 2022, 15 x 22 inches, color pencil, oil pastel, acrylic on paper

This in-between medium tip-toes the border between drawing and painting and reflects Burke’s anxieties in contending with the long history of painting. Being one of the more traditional and recognizable mediums of the art academy tradition, painting comes with its own expectations of what it should be, and Burke is aware of this. Of course, it’s not that she doesn’t look at the history of painting—she cites Pierre Bonnard, a Post-Impressionist French painter from the turn of the twentieth century, as one of her most beloved inspirations. The French painter’s oeuvre, however, often defied normative expectations. The boldly saturated colors ignore the confines of the natural world. 

Burke’s homage to the painter, For Pierre Bonnard, honors his influence over her own style with a clever Venn diagram-like tactic. The Bonnard-esque domestic scene of overflowing gestural color swatches that ignore the black-line contours of recognizable objects occupies the lower portion of the work, butting against Burke’s own knolled style of carefully arranged flower petals, fish, and a wine glass, rendered in more blended than flat color, that offers the natural tone of the paper to emerge in the in-between as visual relief. The two meet in the middle portion of the canvas—a rectangular painting-within-a-painting of an elaborately decorated vase filled with fruit—combining into a visual mashup of still life and abstraction, balancing overwhelming color and cool negative space. She is trying to find her own way to walk down a well-paved path.

Laura Burke, For Pierre Bonnard, 2022, 26 x 40 inches, color pencil, oil pastel, and crayon

But to talk strictly about Burke’s formal approaches would do no justice to the stories that the work holds. Painting on canvas has forced Burke to slow down and deeply consider her compositions and imagery, finding herself with more time to think about the fictitious relationships between the objects—even if they continue to crowd every inch of the work. What is the narrative conjured with the frog and a trapped butterfly in Pick Your Poison? Are they friends, lovers, enemies, or something else?

Sponsor

Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

The exhibition’s title, Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of Tom Bombadil (who, according to Burke, is one of the best characters ever written by Tolkien) in his classic fantasy novel The Fellowship of the Ring. With fantasy comes an air of magical realism, the literary idea that the everyday has the potential to be special. What makes us more important than a rock? Who says that a piece of fruit can’t be as precious as a cherub? Grin can either be two spent plates on a green table decorated with candles and a vase, or it can be a gentle, goofy guy, happy to have shared dinner and a moment in time with us. It is simply up to us to notice life’s silliness, its specialness. Here is where the magic emerges in Burke’s almost-realism: she invites us to hold curiosity with arms outstretched, to suspend reality and see the excitement in what feels like the mundane. 

Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow shows promise for the future of Burke’s career, whose style continues to be sharpened and honed into something uniquely hers. The work is visually captivating, offering little rest to the eye in a pleasurable way. It’s hard to look away when each piece teases you with its bright colors, supple imagery, and quiet humor. They beg for dialogue; they crave conversation through contemplation. They want to giggle with you and talk about art and life and whisper secrets back and forth with you. They want to be your friends.

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Chefas Projects is located at 134 SE Taylor Street, Suite 203. The gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 12-6 pm. Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow is open through March 17th.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jason N. Le (they/them) is a Vietnamese American writer, thinker, and curator based in Portland, Oregon. Their academic background lies in art history and critical theory, focused on postwar American art, identity politics, performance theory, and the genealogy of arts criticism. They hold degrees from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Portland State University, and their other critical arts writing can be found at Art & About PDX.

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