Perry Burns and the Politics of Seeing

Mr. Burns merges the traditions of Islamic pattern with the all-over surfaces of Abstract Expressionism
Perry Burns in his East Hampton studio. Mark Segal

    Perry Burns’s East Hampton studio is far from Sarajevo, and even farther from Beirut, but Mr. Burns’s paintings and photographs bridge those cultural distances in unexpected ways. Although he grew up in Connecticut, during a recent conversation Mr. Burns cited a trip to Lebanon at the age of 13 as an important influence on his artistic development.

    “My uncle was a naval attaché there,” Mr. Burns recalled, “and I went over just before the civil war broke out. Going from Greenwich to Lebanon blew my mind. I had been to New York City, but it was like New York multiplied exponentially, with such an intensity of sights and sounds and smells and languages.”

    Mr. Burns explained that his painting has always been influenced by the Islamic sensibility. “In Islam you see patterns and rhythmic repetition everywhere, because they believe pattern is a visual representation of your spiritual life.” Mr. Burns merges the traditions of Islamic pattern with the all-over surfaces of Abstract Expressionism, thereby “crossing the boundaries of culture, history, race, religion, ideology, and politics.”

    Mr. Burns remembers being so immersed in a painting at the age of four that by the time his teacher got his attention, all his classmates had left for the day. Though involved in sports and acting growing up, he knew by the time he was in high school that he wanted to concentrate on art. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, from which he earned a B.F.A. in 1988, before moving to New York.

    After two years in the city, he had had enough. “I was mugged and beaten up, I saw somebody get stabbed, and one of my friends almost got killed — all within a single week!” When two friends told him they were renting a house on Buell Lane in East Hampton, Mr. Burns asked if he could join them. He has been on the South Fork ever since.

    Though he majored in both painting and illustration at RISD, when he realized he would rather teach than work as an illustrator, he enrolled at Columbia University Teachers College and earned an M.A. in 1994. Coincidentally, around that time he met Jonathan Snow, who was involved in the establishment of the Hayground School in Bridgehampton. When the school opened in 1996, Mr. Burns was hired and found a studio on Fireplace Road in Springs. He taught at Hayground for eight years and returns as a visiting artist from time to time.

    While he has been painting abstractly for 20 years, a second body of work that incorporates photographic images has developed since 2011. “After 9/11, in the back of my mind I wanted my artwork to be more socially and politically poignant, but it took almost 10 years to figure out what I wanted to do and how to do it. I looked at my abstract paintings and saw the marks were like pixels.”

    For the large representational works, Mr. Burns first stretches the canvas onto a large metal framework affixed to the floor of his studio. “This allows the canvas to remain taut as I glue the pieces onto it,” he explained. “Otherwise, the canvas would end up like a big potato chip.”

    Once the canvas is stretched, he prints a photo out in large sections and glues those to the canvas, aligning the pieces to create one large image. “And either before or after, or sometimes both, I’ll add pieces of painted or printed paper to create the pixelated look.” The result is to partially obscure and transform images familiar from mass media in ways that refresh them and encourage the viewer to reflect on their content.

    All the paintings, whether purely abstract or incorporating images, are constructed of layers. “I build them up, then sand or use paint stripper to strip them back. I realized after painting for 20 years that a painting has a memory. You can go back and see its history by unearthing the layers.”

    One of the pieces in the studio, “Peshawar,” the background of which is a photograph of a protest in Pakistan, is 84 by 120 inches. “When I put pixels over an image like ‘Peshawar,’ I’m asking what messages are we as Americans getting from the media about Islam. Are the images in the newspaper negative or positive? I want people to think about issues, to wrestle with whatever the images provoke, whether it’s emotional, spiritual, or intellectual. I have my own leanings, but in my work I don’t take a stand on one side or the other.”

    In another work, a large black-and-white image of a rally in Nazi Germany is partially overlaid with colored squares, the pattern for which was taken from an Ellsworth Kelly print. Mr. Burns likened working with the squares to a sliding puzzle, which requires moving the pieces to arrive at the solution.

    In the most recent pieces, he is moving away from the grid. “Sometimes when you’re watching television, you get these sudden digital disturbances, where the pixels morph and some parts of the image are clearer than others. In some cases I’m putting the pixels down first, then applying the images.” One work-in-progress contains images related to Wall Street, while another incorporates photographs taken by the artist at a political rally on a recent cross-country trip.

    Mr. Burns travels widely and often, gathering images from a variety of contexts. On the cross-country trip he photographed at locations freighted with social and political meaning, among them Detroit, Selma, Ala., and along the Mexican border. He also attended Foundry Photojournalism workshops in Istanbul and Sarajevo, which are open to professional photojournalists and “semi-photojournalists, like me.”

    Mr. Burns’s time in Sarajevo was especially difficult. “I was interviewing survivors of the war and I really wanted to capture in images what it’s like now. Even today, 14 years after the war, most of the buildings are still pockmarked from snipers’ bullets. Because the younger generation has grown up without memory of the war, there’s a vibrant new youth culture. But the older people really look haunted, as if they have lived five lifetimes and witnessed more than they can bear.”

    During the siege of Sarajevo, the Yugoslav army surrounded the city with snipers who would target the intersections, where there was no cover for pedestrians. One man told Mr. Burns that when he and his wife had to go out, they would pause before each intersection, pray, and then run across as fast as they could. On one occasion, his wife was shot and killed. “Those people’s stories are devastating.”

    Mr. Burns is married to Jolie Parcher, the owner of Mandala Yoga in Amagansett. They have two sons, Baxter, 18, a senior at Pierson High School, and Kai, 14, who will be a freshman at East Hampton High School in the fall.

    Mr. Burns maintains a blog that includes artwork, photographs, reflections on his travels, and the following statement: “My work is most fundamentally about the politics of seeing, and how the act of seeing affects, shapes, and informs our experience of the world both personally and publicly. The act of seeing is at once personal, public, and political, and profoundly so at every level.”

    “Galaxies,” an exhibition of new abstract paintings by Mr. Burns, is on view at Cheryl Hazan Contemporary Art in New York City through March 29.