Christopher Burk finds beauty amid the ash
The Columbus artist’s new series ‘Quiet Settling’ opens at Brandt-Roberts Galleries on Saturday
Last year, a photographer friend sent Christopher Burk a series of pictures taken in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, following the Eldfell volcano eruption of 1973. The photos depicted homes buried halfway up or more in deep piles of volcanic ash. “And I thought there was something interesting and graphic about the images,” Burk said in a recent interview at his Blockfort Studio. “Something interesting was happening there. … So I saved a bunch of the images and let them percolate in my mind, like this could potentially be something, could be a body of work.”
To the painter, the images felt like a natural extension of previous series he’d done, including one containing submerged houses and a follow-up focused on aerial shots of flooded landscapes. Houses have long featured in Burk's work, denoting ties to family, to childhood and to comfort — a feeling that is under direct threat in his more recent pieces.
“I think a lot of it is the time that we live in,” said Burk, referencing the increase in environmental disasters brought on by global warming, as well as the social and political landscape of recent years, from the rise in Trumpism to the onset of the pandemic. “Typically, in the past, my work has not been very political. It’s just something that I think everyone is experiencing now on some level. … Being a citizen of the world, you see it every day, and I think that is what has crept into the work a little.”
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For the volcanic series, which is dubbed “Quiet Settling” and will be on display at Brandt-Roberts Galleries beginning Saturday, Oct. 2, these experiences reveal themselves in everything from the pandemic-era sense of isolation captured in the paintings, each of which contains a single house, to the enveloping blackness of the ash, which threatens, at times, to entirely swallow the canvases. “There’s obviously darkness there, which is something I think we’ve all experienced the last 18 or so months,” Burk said. “I tend to be a little bit of a dark person, and not always a positive thinker. … And sometimes it’s harder to be a positive thinker after everything we’ve been through the last four or five years.”
Working with the large patches of black presented a technical challenge for the artist, who didn’t want the ash to read as two-dimensional. The artist skillfully avoided these pitfalls, with shadows and light giving the ash depth, making it appear active in places, as if it had fallen and subsequently been shifted by the wind. Burk further balanced these dark expanses by including pops of color, whether the blinding white of the sun hitting a home’s exterior or a rust-hued roof growing mushroom-like from the ash.
While Burk’s work has continued to evolve through the years, from his city landscape paintings, which depicted Dumpsters and close-ups of electrical lines, through his more recent environmental disaster series, there’s a through line where the artist allows his eye to linger on something from which many would feel an initial compulsion to turn away. “I think with a lot of my work it’s maybe initially unattractive to some people,” he said. “But then there’s some beauty to it once you let the images sink in. … There’s a beauty in the unorthodox, if you will.”
In “Quiet Settling,” there are more direct allusions to past works, too, with barren electrical poles standing sentinel amid the destruction, harking back to the electrical lines Burk painted in great detail after moving back to Columbus from New York City nine years ago, a series of works he described as instrumental to uncovering his artistic voice.
“In earlier works, some of that [voice] was there, but I hadn’t worked through it all yet,” said Burk, who was born in Columbus and grew up with a mom who worked for an insurance company and an electrician stepfather, which might account for at least some of his interest in power lines. “Then I got to the point where I was pleased with it, where it felt like mine and there weren’t a lot of [influences] in there competing with it. It was kind of that Magic 8-Ball coming together and all of those elements aligning.”