2 March 2024

Review in Garageland Magazine

Review in Garageland Magazine

This is an excerpt of this article on Garageland Magazine.

Jennifer Caroline Campbell: Exploring your installation has a slight feeling of trespassing. It makes me think of some kind of normcore / gammon version of Kafka, and maybe Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Like opening a door in a corridor, that you aren’t really allowed to open, on the way the toilet perhaps, unexpectedly finding it unlocked, and daring yourself to have a nosey. Did you feel like a trespasser (/sneak/imposter) when you were living in Westminster? Did you feel inside of, or outside of, the political machine?

Luke Burton: I have lived in the borough of Westminster for three years, just a stone’s throw away from the Home Office building on Marsham St depicted in one of my large paintings, in an Edwin Lutyens estate owned by the council, though many if not the majority of the flats in the estate are privately owned now. So the ‘political machine’ – the historical conditions for my housing, the current architecture of the Civil Service and Whitehall, along with their workers, are all very much in my everyday experience of living there. That said, I very much feel like an observer rather than an actor in this context, apart from when I am part of a protest or rally perhaps. I think your question about trespassing is interesting because it speaks to the feeling that so many people in London have of not feeling as though they have the means, and therefore the right, to live in the city. There are myriad political and economic reasons for this of course but this idea that you can be a trespasser in your own home, that you can have both the feeling of intimacy and comfort while at the same time an overriding knowledge of your own contingency and precarity is very real.

And going back to the exhibition and installation, I wanted to suggest a space that felt both theatrical and hyper-formalised – decorative even – but also on first pass, a space that could have the whiff of authenticity. So, people might take a minute to figure out the dynamics of the space, somewhere between a crime scene, a civic office, an archaeological dig, and a gallery space. I wasn’t that interested in sustaining any one of these illusions but rather having an awkward synthesis of these different kinds of spaces, with them becoming dialled up or down as you processed the various elements of the exhibition.

JCC: That’s such a great point about the trespasser-feeling connecting to the normalised precarious modes of living in this city. It makes me think about a book that I just read called Replace Me by Amber Husain. I’m now thinking about the disposable mass-produced elements in the show, especially the junk food packets and the way you have adorned them, or perhaps crystallised them, with your vitreous enamels. The whole installation, but perhaps particularly this choice, to add precious surfaces onto cheap discarded packaging, is seriously playful. As in, it feels like you are inviting us into your pretend-game, and this pretend-game is full of winks and a kind of childish mischief, yet at the same time it is deadly serious.

I think many artists now are struggling to find ways that their practice can respond to the weight of global, political, and ethical concerns. It is a fine line to walk, and easy to get wrong, yet it feels urgent to connect with these contexts though the language of our practices. I am inspired by the way you have managed this in Westminster Coastal. The work is an engaging and a rich development of your ongoing practice, and it is quite blunt in some ways, yet it avoids the pitfalls of becoming too didactic or illustrative. How did ‘process-led’ and ‘idea-led’ approaches play out for you in the run-up to this exhibition?

LB: That is a very generous analysis of the work. I’m glad you used the term ‘seriously playful’ which conjures up an ongoing attitude I take with work (as so many artists do I would contest).  In my mind it is also associated with the German Romantic Schiller’s idea of ‘Spiel’ – a very serious kind of play which describes the complex conditions of making art. And you only have to look at very young children’s faces to see that play is an incredibly serious activity! Something about delight and total, sincere immersion in an activity.

I often see the vitreous enamels like counters in a game, the rules of which I paradoxically invent but somehow don’t know. They present so many ‘problems’ of presentation too because their scale elicits so many possibilities. I have used them in boxes, on shelves, on the wall, within architectural niches and in clusters or singularly. I’m either resigned to their modularity and variability being a condition of showing them or resigned to my own indecisiveness! I was just having a conversation today with the critic Sacha Craddock where we both felt the way they sit within the scenography of the installation allows them to exist without too much discomfort alongside the paintings. In recent exhibitions I have been amused by the awkwardness of these two media being shown together. It’s hard to describe but they often feel like odd bedfellows…the enamels being related to miniature paintings or jewels and therefore somehow too close and not contrasting enough. But by having the enamels on a horizontal plane and embedding them within the ‘architecture’ of the Twiglet plinths or office furniture or indeed encrusted on to three-dimensional objects, their inherently sculptural qualities are privileged, and they suddenly sit in contradistinction with the paintings in a productive way. I mean, they are still quite bonkers, but something feels resolved in their display which allows you to rest with the different elements of the exhibition.

I really relate to the struggle of responding (or not) with so many incredibly complex global, ethical and political concerns. I think this show is as much a response to particular questions around these issues such as state violence both home and abroad as it is to the wider (im)possibility of responding at all. I have thought a lot about a spectrum of directness and indirectness that the work plays with in relation to the complex political landscape. Civil servants were a kind of sweet spot of both being fundamental to the machine of government whilst simultaneously being anonymised and culturally opaque – a kind of faceless bureaucracy. This contradiction really interested me and so they became a kind of keystone in terms of this tightrope of directness without wishing to be didactic. A lot of the other material and conceptual choices followed on once I had found the civil servants.

In terms of process-led or ideas-led dynamic of the practice. I find it impossible to distinguish between the two. Sometimes ideas seem to crystallize out of ‘nowhere’ but they always feel like they are a solution to a problem I never knew I had. There is often a psychoanalytic dimension to these moments on reflection. And sometimes material contingencies in the studio show me the way with a kind of clarity that borders on contempt! But most of the time it really feels utterly synthesised and just a kind of ugly-beautiful cat-and-mouse game.

JCC: The toughness and weight of the enamels seem more present in this installation than in previous incarnations that I have seen. I can imagine them clinking down onto the glass, pressing down on the flimsy food wrappers and ripping them, cracking the twiglets. You have really activated their materiality. But equally, they are also still handmade pictures.

I read some of the enamels as shards of picture, as if they grew like crystals from within the painting’s depicted space and ended up being shed into our ‘real’ space. Perhaps they were generated within the oversized chandelier droplets that feature in some of the paintings. These multifaceted droplets feel like monstrous opulent glitches that have grown out of a slow-motion absurd snowball effect, perhaps originating in a slight misalignment in the mechanism of Westminster. Maybe they embody the interpersonal violence of the day to day of politics somehow? Could you tell me how you found this particular motif?

LB: I agree the enamels have much more weight to them than previously. This is partly a technical thing of having layers of added copper cut-out sections on top of the first layer of enamel, which are then enamelled themselves. There are also a lot of embedded copper wires which is my crude version of cloisonné, an ancient technique of separating space for different sections through cellular structures using wire. So there’s a bit more going on with the surface of these works than before. And then there is the material thinness of the crisp and chocolate wrapper foil which produces this contrast.

You are right there are echoes of the enamels in the large chandelier droplets. Their lozenge forms for one thing. Also, their material, both being made from glass. But they are also oddly contrasting as one is an imperfect representation of a perfect symmetrical crystal and the enamels are extremely asymmetrical, wonky but hopefully formally just-so. I have always wanted to have this interplay between the enamels in the paintings but have struggled to figure out how much to dial up their reflections…I like that you see the chandelier droplets as monstrous because I have been thinking a lot about Mannerist and Baroque art and the many examples of heavily distorted and amplified forms. The monstrous and the decorative being entwined with the idea of the ‘misshapen pearl’ of the Baroque – this twinning of violence and decoration being a red thread through the show. The droplets, in the process of painting, also turned into grenades or dropping bombs but that was so horrendously on the nose it had to happen in the unconscious rather than by design. It’s too blunt for me though I didn’t change it once I saw it.

I came to these forms partly because I have always wanted to paint chandeliers and chandelier droplets because of the repeated lozenge forms. And paint them lovingly and loosely. I have a great painter friend Allan Rand who once said the pleasure of painting a grid loosely was enough of an excuse for a painting. I think all artists have these fairly simple drives based on something physical, like a hunch that there will be enjoyment in the process and that’s enough. But I had the idea way back in 2016 on a residency in Baku, Azerbaijan, where there were loads of chandelier shops to provide interior decorations for all the newly built mansions popping up. Neo-classicism was as much the rage as hyper-capitalist glass towers, but I made a series of failed attempts at the time and abandoned the idea until now. I was thinking a lot about the very august spaces of Whitehall and how in reality much of government space is modern, very corporate and functional. So this contrast of opulent classicism and aesthetic conservatism running next to the expediency and pragmatism of the office interested me.

JC: Final question: what is your relationship to monster munch?

LB: Haha, best question ever. I love Pickled Onion. And Beef flavour. But also they are wild little things. Monster hands and feet. The monster with its mouth open wide on the front of the packet depicts a kind of species-on-species cannibalism. Or are the snacks supposed to be human hands? I think I was quite restrained with my use of them in the show as they could derail things by virtue of being too silly. But I kept them in because I liked their connection to our previous themes of the monstrous – aesthetic histories and political figures and the monsters we all make of others for political convenience. But also, they are stupid damn things – comic and visual shorthand. Another kind of visual style to play with.