Kristian Burford

by Zona Gale

“A talisman of an imagined world”*—Where sculptor Kristian Burford emails himself during his august 2015 interview with Nailed magazine

Specializing in large-scale figurative sculpture, Kristian Burford’s work places the viewer into scenes fraught with tension that leave one with more questions than answers. Hailing from a small town on the Murray River in South Australia, Burford has lived and worked in Los Angeles since moving there to study in 2000.

Past pieces have played with themes of privacy and voyeurism—Burford’s meticulously staged scenes are often accompanied by text, one such, for “Kathryn,” (2001), begins, “It is nine o’clock on a November evening. Kathryn is staying after school at her grandparents’ house. She has escaped their company to play with her grandmother’s cat, named Lucy, by moving into the sunroom of the house. After some minutes of happily petting the cat it has turned on Kathryn, penetrating the skin of her left index finger with its fangs and raising three lines of skin on her left wrist with the claws of its left paw.”

Peering through gaps in gauzy curtains we see a young woman slumped against a couch in a comfortably, if antiquatedly furnished room. She is dressed in nothing but a pair of white underwear, and a pained expression. By engaging in the act of looking on Kathryn, we as viewers become voyeurs to a moment of pure privacy. Kathryn would be mortified to be seen in such a state, and we become increasingly guilty of trespassing on her innocence the longer we look.

In his correspondence with Nailed Arts Editor Shenyah Webb, herein partially fictionalized, Burford addresses the theme of privacy through the lens of his 2002 work “Christopher:”

From: Shenyah Webb

Date: Sun, 19 July 2015 12:17–0800

To: Kristian Burford

Subject: Re: Interview for Nailed Magazine

Is this element of privacy instilled into your installations meant to break through the barrier of the social norms we inhabit with each other as humans?*.1

From: Kristian Burford

Date: Mon, 20 July 2015 08:23–0800

To: Shenyah Webb

Subject: Re: Interview for Nailed Magazine

The anonymity of the viewer raises the question of voyeurism, which most would consider describes a one-sided power dynamic but, in the case of art, I see it differently. As the audience we can play the role of the imaginary spectator cast within the fantasy of the character, as we are for “Christopher.”*.2

Leading up to the opening of Burford’s recent exhibition, Scenes, at Samuel Freeman Gallery in Los Angeles we visit the artist’s studio several times to document his process.

Burford has chosen a path of creating work that necessitates time and care, hence the rarity of the show. On our first visit there are decrepit human forms strewn around the dimly lit space: clay remains of sculptures, which have since been cast in more resilient materials. In the middle, one elevated figure in rough clay: our boatman. Even in its rough form, the work is unsettling in its vraisemblance. By the next visit, the boatman has become a clean human form that is clammy to the touch. Burford has smoothed the rough edges of the figure in preparation for the mold, the making of which destroys the original. We broach the topic of artistic precedents—when is reference copying, where do ideas come from—“No one knows where I come from. I’m not certain of it myself.” Burford says, “I don’t think of my artistic genealogy in terms of an historical order. The many things that have affected me are too deeply buried in the totality of my experience to be independently drawn upon as I work.”

The first time we see the finished boatman is at the opening of Scenes. He is positioned on the stern of his craft, pissing into the central courtyard of the gallery. “This normally private act is on full display,” reads the Samuel Freeman press release, “Frozen and proffered, carefully held at a distance through the permanent closure of the glass doors.” He is of course ultimately freer than we are; we the viewers are now the ones encased.

From: Shenyah Webb

Date: Sun, 12 July 2015 22:08–0800

To: Kristian Burford

Subject: Re: Interview for Nailed Magazine

Do you have fantasies of what [the audience] may experience or how they would react being alone with these stories brought to life in your installations?*.3

From: Kristian Burford

Date: Tues, 14 July 2015 12:50–0800

To: Shenyah Webb

Subject: Re: Interview for Nailed Magazine

I think that this state is common to us all: we are all alone in our struggle to establish the fact of our own existence. Most of our motivations, our fears, our ecstasies, are inspired by the pervasiveness of this alienated condition and perhaps our greatest fantasy is to overcome it: to connect with, and so become, the world beyond us; to fall in love.*.4

Upon returning to the studio after the opening at Samuel Freeman, the destroyed clay model lies forgotten in a corner. We talk about the practice of pulling back the curtain on an artist’s process; Burford is not a subscriber to it. All materials serve a purpose and needn’t be poeticized, he feels—it’s clear that the purpose of the clay man is to provide the form for the finished man. In a world where one family has achieved what can only be described as royalty, through revealing all their cracks and imperfections on television, a world where voyeurism is no longer frowned on, but encouraged, Burford’s work is a fresh reminder that the basis for our less savory tendencies is, in fact, love.

“Only connect,” says E.M. Forster, “Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”*.5

Photographer: Caitlin G. Dennis at caitlingdennis.com

*.1 Ibid.

*.2 Ibid.

*.3 Ibid.

*.4 Ibid.

*.5 Forster, E. (1910). Howards End. London: Arnold.