New York

Kristian Burford

I-20 Gallery

In his first solo exhibition at I-20, Kristian Burford remained committed to a methodology inspired by elements of the work of Hans Bellmer and Marcel Duchamp. The most direct precedent for Rebecca . . . , 2006–2007 (the full title is rather longer), as with every previous piece this young artist has shown, is Duchamp’s Etant donnés . . . , 1946–66, which sets a figurative sculpture within an environmental mise-en-scène that can only be viewed from a fixed, restricted perspective. Likewise, Burford demonstrates an interest in the process of reducing the concrete materiality of sculpture to a virtual condition. Likewise also, he precisely locates the fault line between the outlying material world and the internal “life of the mind” in the sexual imagination. Burford’s works are essentially fantasies shaped into aesthetic propositions.

Appropriately, the work’s point of departure is a narrative that the artist relates to us by way of highly literary titles, Rebecca’s running to five paragraphs. Rebecca, it begins, has returned to the house in which she grew up to convalesce after waking from a coma three months ago. This once-athletic woman has been completely paralyzed in a diving accident, Burford goes on to relate, in a passage that treats the moment of impact with the water’s surface as a metaphor for the viewer’s own troubled encounter with the picture plane. Thus primed, viewers followed a darkening corridor leading to the back of the gallery. There, the gap in a slightly ajar door looked onto the supine figure of a woman on a bed. Shown alone—or seemingly so, as Burford suggests (in the title) that someone else is hiding there—Rebecca has been literally “dolled up” by the youngest members of her family to resemble a ballerina in action. “Inspired by a favorite picture book” of scenes from the Royal Ballet, her pose appears at once strictly determined and lax. As Burford articulates it, the pose of Rebecca’s body stubbornly resists the illusion of suspended movement intrinsic to the photograph, only to assert the more complex sculptural illusion of inertia, a will that has been physically incapacitated. Just like a doll, she seems to have been tossed callously aside, yet her expression is ambiguous.

Lining up for an optimal view like the audience at a peep show, we are drawn, one by one, into this fantasy world. Entering this scenario, one certainly feels a sinister charge, yet the narrative rationale of Rebecca gradually gives way to allow for objective consideration of the scene’s construction. The underlying play between the image-based nature of the painterly tableau and the actuality of its sculptural parts—a signature element of Burford’s work—is here further complicated by references to photography and dance.

The artist’s decision to include a tabletop display of studies for Rebecca at the entrance of the installation proper is similarly novel and reminds us that, amid this collection of found bric-a-brac, the only thing that is made from scratch is the figure itself—this body that is not simply cast but first molded with skill and empathy by another body, becoming the point of convergence of a series of increasingly complex associations between art and life, modernity and history, the symbolic and the real. Although at a voyeuristic remove, we are clearly implicated in the long-standing artistic tendency to twist the female form for avant-garde ends. But Burford is less interested in leveling a moral judgment or reproach than in raising the stakes of looking. The body of Rebecca is our plaything, yet a hint of self-satisfaction curls her lip, suggesting that, in art at least, one is never quite sure who is in control.

Jan Tumlir