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New exhibition, Ties That Bind, by Brian Burke on display at ArtZone

Review by Michael Oliver

Ties That Bind 2002, oil painting by Brian BurkeOn probably the coldest evening all winter, Brian Burke's new exhibition Ties That Bind began its run at ArtZone Gallery in Charlottetown. The weather seemed appropriate for viewing paintings so austere and bleak and disconcerting.

Famous for his figurative canvasses displaying human desolation with expressionistic candour, Island artist Brian Burke will easily extend his reputation with the new oil paintings in this exhibition. All eleven medium-sized works show figures who confront the viewer through the blackened sockets of their eyes, the smudgy textures of their faces, and the lack of feeling on their lips.

Although they are completely static, all Burke's figures seem somehow to threaten us, relentlessly, with their uncanny consciousness, a mode of knowing absolutely alien to us. Much like the stumbling corpses in the movie Night of the Living Dead, these figures seem to need us in some way, and yet they seem oblivious to what we think.

To realize that almost all these figures are of women is surprising. In the past Burke's figures were quite often male, and now and then he has been criticized for seeming to equate humanity with masculinity. What this new exhibition illustrates is that, regardless of their sex, Burke's figures are the same. It is the emptiness of human life that he is painting, not the politics of male and female.

A couple of the paintings in the show display this sense of absence with ironic wit. In Shared Experience two women sit together at one margin of the canvas staring all the way across the painting at a wide expanse of nothing. In I'll Always Remember This As Something I'll Never Forget a woman stands alone beside the margin, claps her hand across her mouth, and stares, again, at nothing. These are stories, though, and nowhere near as eerie as the looks upon the figures' faces. Burke's true strength is portraiture; in fact, he represents a weird postmodern parody of Robert Harris.

Ties That Bind, the title painting of the show, depicts four women, stout and middle-aged and bland, all linked together-arms crossed holding hands, an arm across a shoulder-no doubt sisters, or a mother and three daughters. What they have in common is a sour blank expression-here the paint itself is smeared like putty-and the coal-black eyeless stare with which they greet the viewer. Who knows what is on their minds? But they look strange enough to make us turn away.

Perhaps the strangest painting in this show is Wake Me When It's Over. This depicts a woman lying on her back. A sheet is covering her body, and her hands are folded on her chest. Her glasses look like ice; her lips are slack and black. When we observe the outline of a room behind her (rare among these paintings), suddenly we realize this woman is not sleeping but is laid out at the morgue. The title, then, is meant to be macabre. All the paintings in the show were based on common photographs "translated" into art-this one shows how freely.

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