New York

Victor Burgin

John Weber Gallery

The influence of Victor Burgin’s work has rested in its quiet insistence on a rigorously critical art practice, informed by interdisciplinary cultural studies, that recognizes Modernist painting as yet another encoding of capitalism’s master narrative of egocentric individualism. Burgin’s concern is with the relation between the individual and the social, and, in “Office at Night,” 1985–86, with those “subjective” responses to an image that escape critical analysis. Drawing on Roland Barthes’ reflections on the “obtuse meaning” of affective but nonverbalizable image details, Burgin speculates that such cryptic meanings are linked to the work of unconscious fantasy, where the subjective and the social are intimately related. According to psychoanalytic accounts, subjectivity is a formation by the social structure in the field of desire that begins in the Oedipal scene, a scene thereafter constantly restaged according to the particular biographical cues that initially informed it.

In “Office at Night,” a group of seven photographic works, Burgin retranslates a scene of desire invoked by Edward Hopper’s eponymous 1940 painting of the same title. The scenario is restaged using a female model dressed in a prim tailored suit of ’40s design (a temporal cue important to the artist’s own “scene of origin”), office props, and back-projected fragments of the Hopper painting. Each photograph is juxtaposed with a field of color (possibly referring to the emotional key of the painting), and a panel reproducing one or more Isotypes (symbols from the International Picture Language, developed by Otto Neurath in 1936). The Isotype was designed to be an unambiguous and universally legible sign, but in conjunction with the Hopper details it becomes an ambiguous signifier of what language attempts to elide. The Hopper painting itself is an unnerving tableau of sexual fantasy as it is inscribed in the capitalist dyad of “boss” and “secretary’ ”working at night“ In one of the most resonant of the seven photopieces, Burgin takes a striking element from the painting: the woman standing by the filing cabinet. One is indeed struck by the exaggerated outline of her body, a serpentine curve that also appears in the billowing window blind and cord. ”Something" invades the lighted interior from the darkness and comes to rest on her body—a movement also inferred by the open cabinet drawer that Burgin aptly describes as a Pandora’s Box. As Burgin has pointed out, the boss, bent over his papers, appears indifferent to her, absolved of any responsibility in the sexual relation. But in the staging of a fantasy, the desiring subject may occupy various positions in relation to the event, and there seems little doubt that our command of the scene is that of the boss. By the same token, whether we choose to assume the role of master or slave—wherever the model is placed in relation to the signifiers of power—the other is always subordinate.

In Burgin’s Office at Night #1, a “critical moment” is represented by the projection of Hopper’s eroticized secretary with Burgin’s seemingly prim photographed model, together with Isotype figures of an open box and negative and positive silhouettes. While this scene may suggest the disparity between unconscious fantasy and conscious reality, as another subtext it illustrates a cultural difference operating in the rendering of the eroticized feminine body “Office at Night” reflects a transparent eroticism: an eruption in the act of an elision. The control exerted on the formation of the work is a submission to the organizing imperatives of language, even as there is a desire to decipher the cultural meanings produced in language: both a disavowal and a deconstruction of the unconscious fantasy that forms the subject of the work, confirming what the artist says of the constancy of its effect.

Jean Fisher