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Calvin Burton and Javier Piñón at Branch Gallery

Longing for landscape: Two artists light out for the territories in different ways

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Calvin Burton: Canopy;
Javier Piñón
Branch Gallery
Through Feb. 23

Calvin Burton's "Westwards" (2007). Oil on canvas, 74 x 98 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRANCH GALLERY

Canopy is the name of an exhibit of Calvin Burton's paintings at Branch Gallery. It is also the name of one of Burton's six works in the show. The notion of "canopy" succinctly serves as an entryway into Burton's work. The idea of an overarching entity can be read as both physical and conceptual, can be used to describe both naturally occurring and manmade enclosures. The word "canopy" hangs over this show quite effectively.

In each of the works on view, Burton plays up the dynamic between abstraction and depiction, attempting to bring a transparency to his process. In many of Burton's works, the surface of the painting services impulses in multiple directions, challenging the viewer to sustain the tension of a "both/and" viewing experience.

The painting entitled "Canopy" (2007) sets forth levels over levels. One encounters an A-frame structure in center, poised above a window or mouth or cave through which a distant mountain is seen. Girder shapes battle and jut along the upper reaches of this work, which seems to be built precariously, sky over sky. A single cloud can be seen at very top of the painting, floating on a crude pale green horizon. In the section above the A-frame but below the top of the piece, shapes that suggest tents hang in the space, made more complex by the presence of both soft and angular geometric stripes, non-literal, theoretical.

"Close Encounters" (2007) is reminiscent of the early work of Lynn Foulkes, a yellowish green painting interrupted by a rich pink rush of color cutting across the center. The pink is the backdrop (and sky) that surrounds a displaced snow-covered mountain top. Red drips spray across passages of the yellowy green. Pink overtones are reflected in the white of the snow, as if to somehow prove the existence of an impossibility (bubblegum-pink sky). Pink reappears in many of Burton's paintings, as if it were a place where he goes to reinvigorate the impulse to travel in several directions at once.

The tower of an iconic Art Deco building points upward from the base of "Westwards," off-center, rising up against a pale green background. In the upper regions, a non-specific passage spans horizontally across the work from end to end. Lettering makes an appearance here, signaling something unreadable, and yet qualifying itself as an event. Here browns and darks are punctuated by bright pink highlights. One green strip angles downward from the event, serving as a kind of connector between the building and the rest of the piece. Another blue strip extends upward to the very edge of the top of the piece, opening up the possibility of a process set in motion. "Westwards" reveals itself as a mechanism, a function, an energized, self-contained system.

Burton harnesses his paintings' surfaces as staging areas for a range of actions, but somehow always in the direction of landscape, a new or different sort of landscape, one with a set of exigencies known perhaps to Burton, but known absolutely to the entities of the paintings themselves. Burton seems to want his painting to carry the idea of landscape, to serve as evidence of a landscape, the landscape you dreamed about, the landscape you read about, the theory of landscape, the Platonic ideal of landscape, the wild landscape just outside your town that is being invaded and irreparably altered by something called "progress," the mythos of landscape, the longing for landscape. And in all directions.

Javier Piñon's "Untitled" (2007). Collage, 10.375 x 8.25 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRANCH GALLERY AND ZIEHERSMITH GALLERY
  • Photo courtesy of Branch Gallery and Ziehersmith Gallery
  • Javier Piñon's "Untitled" (2007). Collage, 10.375 x 8.25 in.

Also on view are voracious collages by Javier Piñón. These works are constructed of found photographic imagery that circulates around archetypal rodeo cowboys and the epic conflict between inside and outside, domesticity and rugged, outdoorsy types. The works (all from 2007) are labeled "Untitled," a strategy that (in this case) serves to unify the group and frame it, to some extent, as an installation.

In each of these works, cowboys are tossed, tumbled, perched, balanced—in kinesthetic reference to the bucking broncos from which they were no doubt lifted. But Piñón has reconfigured the rodeo construct and in a surrealist tour de force resituates the cowboys teetering atop unstable stacks of kitschy vintage chairs. In some instances, we see our cowpoke heroes swinging from chandeliers, hanging on for dear life. In the largest work of this group of 10, Rodeo Guy swings on a chandelier hung from a heavy-link chain that cuts across the composition at a diagonal as he rides across the white abyss. There is a hallucinatory terror in the depth of Piñón's white spaces, made more haunting by the inevitable déjà-vu associations to the found imagery.

Piñón's work feels like the result of this crazy recurring dream he keeps having, equal parts violence, absurdity and eroticism, which he insists on replaying in an almost compulsive manner. Piñón has succeeded in generating a body of artwork that is athletic, iconic, strange, fresh. The collages are hilarious; they are hysterical in every sense of the word—the visual equivalent of hyperventilation.

Branch Gallery is located at 401c Foster St. in Durham and is open Wednesdays-Saturdays noon-6 p.m. For more info, call 918-1116 or visit www.branchgallery.com.

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