Relentless flooding is the new normal. Hurricanes ravage the land, and rivers overflow, destroying property and infrastructure, killing people, wild animals, and livestock. Our government’s response through FEMA is a reactive one. We spend billions of dollars after the fact, but very little on preparation and prevention. The reality is, our climate has changed. Indeed, Hurricane Florence is the most recent devastating storm to hit the southern states, bringing winds and unprecedented quantities of water—in some places over 40 inches of rain. The floodwaters rise and rivers pour out, turning hundreds of square miles of America into a flood plain.
After the 2016 election, in “This Post-Election Pain Is Good, At Least for Art” (New York, November 14, 2016), Jerry Saltz wrote, “Trump’s victory is a crucible of possibility for a new generation, who will do what artists have always done in times like these: go back to work.” In Saltz’s imaginings of what might manifest from this “crucible of possibility,” he opines, “I can imagine the typical arty gestures of sparseness art giving way to another kind of organization, marked by extremes of gesture, things more homemade,unpredictable, vulnerable, bizarre.” This brings us to Tom Burckhardt’s Studio Flood, most recently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine.
Studio Flood, comprised of brown corrugated cardboard and black paint, was a walk-in re-creation of a dimly lit studio, roughly 18’ x 24’, positioned at an angle in a large, rectangular exhibition space at CMCA. Ominous black shapes, like sharks’ fins, protruded from cardboard overhead, painted with black swirls, indicating water. The open windows revealed inverted buildings, trees,and upturned light sources.
Viewers entered a space that was literally and figuratively upside down. We walked on the “ceiling” and saw the corners of black canvases above our heads floating on a plane referencing the indifferent floodwater’s invasion. Black canvases filled upside down racks. The surface beneath our feet looked like the 19th century tin ceilings embossed with squares, so common in New York artists’ lofts. Tools and paint cans, postcards and brushes, books and a human skull, all deftly made of cardboard, sat on shelves or hung on the walls, upside down.
Studio Flood was disorienting. It was like walking into a cartoon or a fun house. Because we human beings are accustomed to viewing the world by standing on a ground plane and noticing spaces and objects converging away from us, Studio Flood’s inverted artist’s studio was confusing. Our brains wanted to get it right, according to all of our experiences, but the existential reality did not permit it. Here we have the crux of Burckhardt’s work—just as Studio Flood is upside down, so is the world. We expected everything to be familiar, the way it used to be, but it wasn’t.
The meanings of Burckhardt’s Studio Flood arise in its “crucible of possibilities,” its capacity to function as a complex metaphor. Studio Flood is at once personal and universal, humorous, and visually surprising; it is created with low-tech materials found in the unglamorous shipping world—cardboard, utility knives, hot glue, and black paint. It is a comment on the importance and value of labor and skill in an art world that favors deskilling. At the same time, Burckhardt’s project seems absurd, and as Saltz says about imagined art after Trump, “homemade, unpredictable, vulnerable, bizarre.”
Burckhardt’s installation is also a reflection on and about the origins and meanings of art and artists. When all the canvases are black as in Studio Flood, references to Art about Art, Ad Reinhardt, Malevich, Stella, and even Goya’s black paintings come to mind. “Is Painting Dead?” is also at issue. The black rectangles, in their horizontal and vertical, geometric grid-based form, may represent culture in collision with the fluid, organic, impersonal, floodwaters of nature. There is also a sense in which the black canvases signify, not only the flooded circumstance, but also the increasing threat of the death of painting and by extension, the death of art.
Burckhardt witnessed the flooded studios and damaged artwork in New York City during Hurricane Sandy, and knew many artists and galleries that lost valuable work. He became increasingly concerned about the planet’s ecological disasters. In response, he turned to personal experiences rather than attempt to express his concern in some obvious political critique. Nevertheless, Studio Flood is a political critique, its content prima facie evidence of our planet’s dire condition.
We bear witness to terrifying evidence of global warming in Burckhardt’s installation. Any of the natural elements—floods, fires, tornadoes, or mudslides—have the potential to destroy the evidence of an artist’s life. In our historical moment, the precarious status of our planet’s environment and upside down world are real and present dangers. The planet is getting warmer and with it comes all the hazards of an environment gone wacky. Everything is upside down, from politics to climate change.
According to an article in the Washington Post, on Wednesday, June 20,2018, President Trump ended an eight-year-old policy to protect the oceans. The policy, established under President Obama, responded to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a vivid reminder of the planet’s vulnerable marine environment. Plastic waste is piling up after China made a decision to stop accepting it from other nations. The ice in the Antarctic region is melting faster than scientists predicted.
Burckhardt’s Studio Flood resides at the nexus of the deadly serious and the strange. He willfully undermines his substantial skill, invites the dangerous and the destructive into the conversation, and pulls apart the Art question. His work challenges our perceptions and assumptions about art and the world. Is this project a painting, sculpture, installation, performance, or are we witnessing absurd theatricality? Is it a joke, subversive or serious? Perhaps, all of the above.
Although the ultimate meaning of Studio Flood and its black canvases is up to the viewer, Burckhardt has said, “If the floating canvases symbolize the endlessly advertised ‘end of painting,’ the flood seems to answer, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’”
By creatively confronting the monsters that artists face, and making his own fear and anxiety his subject matter, he consumed the energy of the “enemy” and used it for his own creative purpose. In Studio Flood, Burckhardt also addressed pressing and timely political and global crises—universal monsters that all humans on our planet earth are facing. Burckhardt’s Studio Flood is prophetic and could not be timelier.
Tom Burckhardt’s Studio Flood was on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland, Maine, from June 9 to October 7, 2018. Both Pierogi Gallery in New York in fall 2017 and The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, Kerala, India, in 2016 exhibited iterations of Studio Flood.
About the Author:
I am a painter, printmaker, and writer, Professor Emeritus of Purchase College, State University New York, where I taught painting/drawing in the School of Art+Design. In 2015, I moved to Maine where I maintain a studio and live in Westbrook. I am currently writing a book about painting, drawing, and perception.