New York

Tom Burckhardt

Caren Golden Fine Art

Things, identifiable and otherwise, run amok in Tom Burckhardt's work, all on pretty much equal footing. By the artist's standards, a Greek amphora is as neat as a wheelbarrow is as cool as a quivering mass of dots is as super-duper as faux-historical furniture and bamboo, plaid, and swirling patterns. The painter creates gloriously nonsensical, lushly colored and composed fantasias that, aptly enough in a post-“ism” era, defy categorization and resist interpretation.

The twenty paintings in the artist's latest solo show came in four basic sizes: small, medium, large, and a new, tall and skinny “totem” format in which abstract forms and concrete objects are building blocks for precariously balanced towers. In one such piece, (I Wish I Could Write a Great) Pop Song, 2002, a red line seems to be squirting like liquid from a gasoline can, yet somehow it's solid enough to support a blue-and-white Chinese vase, from which spews a yellow toxic-looking cloud. Similarly, the squiggles emerging from a vessel in Why Don't They Play Waltzes in Hip-Hop No' More?, 2002, are apparently as “real” as the metal coil depicted beneath them. Among the objects and abstract forms they support are a yellow cabinet, a gray slab, a small rocklike blob, a crisscrossing passel of blue stripes, and another gaudy urn—all of it capped by a New York School–style mini-maelstrom of painterly brushstrokes.

Among works in other formats, A Late Monsoon, 2001, is a large vertical diptych with a grand air about it; raindrops fall onto a rocky waterfall that splashes over into a row of paint drips. The entire scene is rendered in different shades of the same blue—a reminder, perhaps, that all painting is artifice. The title of a medium-size work, Phlip-Phlop, 2001, more aptly describes Burckhardt's perpetually oscillating sensibility in several senses. For example, the artist playfully shuttles between representation and abstraction. Walls and buildings and even entire cityscapes take on a traditional role of abstraction as a decorative framing device, bending around the edges of his compositions or serving as logo-like accents, as with the pair of sandals in Phlip-Phlop. Meanwhile, Burckhardt borrows dots, stripes, and swirls from Surrealism, Op Art, AbEx, and pointillism; yet these motifs take on lives of their own, and sometimes even quasi-human quirks. For instance, I Was Born in a Coal Mine, 2002, includes a cascading swirl of blue, a dolly cart, and a road construction marker with a halo of scallops; the arrangement is energized throughout by flicked strokes of dark red, as if this agglomeration has fused itself into one being and is perspiring from the effort. In other works Eastern “exotica” like lotus leaves, carved-wood screens, Great Wall-esque architectural details, and even flip-flops (which belong more to Chinatown than to China) is countered by Western workshop materials like a metal cabinet, ladder, and stool. Finally, the paintings' glossy enamel medium and rich colors play off the zany informality of their compositions.

Burckhardt is a bit of a ham who imbues his paintings with a cartoonish, almost manic energy, but the bravura is highly calculated, so that a sense of both the smart and the slapdash comes through. Is this serious art, or is the artist just out to show you a good time? Phlip-Phlop, indeed.

Julie Caniglia