Columbus painter Christopher Burk debuts a series of flood-inspired works while six other artists portray Ohio's rural and urban sides in a new show at Brandt-Roberts Galleries

Six years ago, painter Christopher Burk moved back to Columbus from New York City and started on a body of work that explored local neighborhoods from a bird’s-eye view. But Burk wasn’t happy with it, so he scrapped it.

Instead, he turned to urban landscapes, painting quiet street scenes with rooftops and moody skies that are often crisscrossed with utility poles and telephone lines. In Burk’s paintings, a street lamp can act as an elegant spotlight for an unassuming trash can in a back alley. In 2017, Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North gathered this body of work for a show titled “Stillness: Nocturnes by Christopher Burk.”

“[Burk] came to me and said he wanted to do this series, and a lot of the paintings were Dumpsters. And I said, ‘OK, we have to talk,’” said Brandt-Roberts Galleries owner Michelle Brandt. “But as he talked through it with me, I understood that he was very intentional about what trash receptacles were like in urban areas, and what he sees when he's walking at night — all of those things. And I thought, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And every single one of them left with somebody.”

Still, the idea of painting a scene from a bird’s-eye view lingered in the back of Burk’s mind. Last year, while watching footage from Hurricane Florence, the interest resurfaced. “I don't usually watch the evening news, but I happened to have it on one night, and they were showing these aerial helicopter views,” said Burk, who found himself drawn to the images. “It was more about the patterns and all this stuff that was happening when you were looking at it from that vantage point.”

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Normally Burk paints real scenes that one could come across on an evening stroll, but as a starting point for painting a flooded landscape, he found archival photos of partially submerged houses in Ohio during the Great Flood of 1913. In “Flooded House I,” Burk sets a bright blue, hyper-realistic farmhouse with rusting metal roof against a solid-brown background for a minimal, abstract twist on those familiar aerial views captured by TV news helicopters.

“It's one flat color, where the water is serene. It's after the chaos. There's no debris. The water is super calm,” Burk said. “I tend to look for the quietness in things.”

While Burk’s new work pairs tranquility with chilling undertones of disaster (while also hinting at environmental questions surrounding extreme weather and climate change), the six other Ohio artists featured in “There’s No Place Like Home” — opening Sunday, Nov. 10, at Brandt-Roberts Galleries — explore various aspects of their home state’s multifaceted personality.

“When you step outside of Columbus, in 30 minutes you're in Madison County. It's amazing to me, particularly in the last 10 years, how metropolitan you can be, and then immediately you're in rural America. You don't have to go far,” Brandt said. “I think that’s actually a gift for these Ohio artists.”

The exhibition’s 40 pieces reflect that push and pull between urban streetscapes and rural scenes. Rich Lillash’s oil-on-canvas, post-impressionist “Olentangy River, Fall” pops with autumnal shades of yellow, orange and red, while Cody Heichel’s “Overcast, Broad and 3rd” depicts an everyday intersection in Downtown Columbus. Jolene Powell, a professor of art at Marietta College, highlights Southeast Ohio’s Hocking Hills in a series of contemporary/abstract work.

Cows show up in Marianne Miller’s oil painting “Coming Home,” which Brandt said would have been a no-no in Columbus galleries several years ago, when collectors wanted to stay away from anything that would play into the city’s supposed “cowtown” image. Now, though, Brandt said Ohio artists and collectors alike are more comfortable with the state’s multidimensional personality, bovines included. 

Burk, meanwhile, is diving further into aerial landscapes of flooded areas, this time in the plains. “There's no man-made elements whatsoever, so they're very abstract,” he said. “We see it a lot in this country, and it's not just flooding. Look at what's going on in California. It's on fire. I mean, you see it.”

Whether Dumpsters or floodplains, Brandt encourages her artists to push themselves out of their comfort zones. “Anytime an artist puts themselves out there and tries something new, it's always a little risky,” she said. “But that's what artists do. Artists take risks. Otherwise you're not going to be an artist.”