• An extract from the essay published in the catalogue accompanying Edging West – new paintings and ceramics by Brendan Stuart Burns, Osborne Samuel, London, 2019
For more than half his lifetime now, Brendan Stuart Burns has been drawn to the Pembrokeshire coast, specifically to the area around St Brides Bay, to which he has returned constantly, in all seasons and in all weathers. The spectacular drama of this coastline results in large part from its diverse geology, much of it comprised of volcanic rock and sandstone, its cliff faces, stacks and arches sculpted by the sea over millennia. The shoreline is ever changing, the calligraphy of its flotsam and jetsam rewritten with each turn of the tide, in a perpetual sequence of revelation. Burns finds solace in his solitary journeys, often returning to the exact same spots, to a particular corner of a beach, or an individual rock; to what he refers to as key points, likening his re-visitations to a rosary, or lament. Whilst walking he enters a process of sensory meditation: ‘breathing and being’, imbibing both the physical and the metaphysical. And over time, he has developed an intimate relationship with this coastline, to arrive at what he describes as: ‘a point at which place becomes about yourself; it becomes a mirror for your refracted self.’ Driven by a need for deep human connection with nature, and an attendant awareness of its fragility, this existential communion with the land has enabled him to map the contours of his own physical, emotional and spiritual life, and in doing so to form the wellspring of his art.
Burns has stated that his work is: ‘underpinned by the central issues of absence, isolation, mortality and the spiritual.’ Stemming from personal experience, these themes have applied since student days, and continue to resonate within his practice. Though brought up in the Catholic faith, he withdrew from the church whilst a young adult. Subsequently, there gradually grew in him a longing for the spiritual, a striving ‘for something bigger than God’. And eventually this became reflected in his work, notably in the compositional sparseness that developed in his painting around 2005/06, where it served as a metaphor, signifying both absence and questioning. The artist compares this to the contemplative minimalism of a Zen garden, equating it also to the question of the relationship between figuration and abstraction in his work. Burns’ sources are in both the natural world and in a philosophical life of the mind, resulting in paintings that operate at points somewhere between abstraction and representation. Whilst categorisations may in the end prove unnecessary, he clearly works within a tradition of British artists inspired by elemental landscape, a richly diverse lineage in which Turner’s romantic sublime is but one example. Among contemporary British painters whose concerns are comparable to those of Burns, Ian McKeever – an artist he much admires – is perhaps closest. Like Burns, McKeever renounced his family’s Catholic faith whilst in his teens, though went on to become deeply concerned with the spiritual in nature, with notions of time, and with the act of painting as meditative process, for as he has stated: ‘To have religious beliefs and to believe in painting both necessitate an act of faith’; a sentiment Burns would doubtless agree with. [i]
Burns’ work then relates to both the tangible and the metaphysical and in this, perception – of both eye and mind – is fundamental. One’s peripheral vision is less focussed, less guarded, and therefore perhaps more sensitively attuned. As Burns has explained, for him: ‘sometimes the peripheral vision is stronger than clarity of focus.’ And one sees how this idea informs his paintings, for instance in the way in which forms at the edges of his canvases sometimes dissipate or dissolve: amongst examples here are the evanescent dark petals in both Rush and Glimmer. Elsewhere, the artist interrupts the visual field more determinedly, as in Blink, where he has wiped away passages within its variegated dark greens, leaving behind smears of algae-like seepage. Though spatial recession sometimes occurs towards the canvas edge, Burns deliberately avoids any implication of horizon, for he is keen to prevent suggestion of a more literal, less allusive space. In point of fact, many of his canvases are composed so that their painted shapes lie parallel to the picture plane, as though it were held up like a quivering veil or membrane.
[i] From a letter from McKeever to Jeremy Lewison, dated 3 November 1996: quoted in Paintings 1990-96 Ian McKeever, 1997, Angel Row Gallery, Nottingham and Porin Taidemuseo, Pori, p6.
The full essay can be found in the online catalogue: http://read.uberflip.com/i/1182942-brendan-stuart-burns/0?
Edging West – new paintings and ceramics by Brendan Stuart Burns.
Osborne Samuel, London, 28 November to 20 December 2019.