Gallery  March 15, 2024  Megan D Robinson

Tom Burckhardt Show Explores Figurative Abstraction

Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, Three Quick Looks, 2023. Oil on linen. 70 x 59 inches

New York-based abstract painter Tom Burckhardt has an exciting solo exhibition, Ulterior Motif, at George Adams Gallery. Known for his witty wordplay, Burckhardt’s exhibition title is unsurprisingly thought-provoking. “I often use punning or spoonerism* (look it up!) in my titles,” Burckhardt told Art & Object in a recent interview, creating “words that have what one might call mouthfeel.” He added, “Sometimes they seem absurdly poetic, sometimes just dad jokes. For Ulterior Motif, I was playing on the more common ‘ulterior motive,’ but now referring to the visual design implied in Motif.”

Always interested in the intersection between abstraction and figuration, Burckhardt uses this exhibition to explore large-scale works and wider compositions, shifting from the smaller individualized “portraits” of his previous work towards constructing a “society” of relational elements within his abstractions, creating social groups of abstract forms on predominantly much larger canvases.

Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, Shabby Lingo, 2023. Oil on linen. 70 by 60 inches.

His last series of work deliberately suggested a conglomeration of colored lines and shapes might be a person in profile. His new series expands figurative abstraction in both scope and size. Explaining this shift in focus, Burckhardt says “It was a feeling that I was ready to make the previous paintings, which seemed individually head-like (a covid-era solitariness) into more complex works that described relationships of persona.” He adds that adapting to working on a larger surface was surprisingly easy, “I kind of play-acted the role of a ‘Big Works’ painter until it came true. I found I scaled easily and it felt very natural.”

Burckhardt grew up in a renowned artistic family. His father was Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt, who was known for his photographs of the hand-painted billboards of the 1940’s and 50’s. Burckhardt’s mother was painter, print-maker and educator Yvonne Jacquette, who created elaborately detailed, intensely colored aerial landscapes and had a distinct pointillist technique. Already transitioning to larger works, Burckhardt’s change of scale was also influenced by his mother’s unexpected death last April. Jacquette painted on linen rolls tacked to her studio walls. While working on Ulterior Motif, Burckhardt decided to use the remaining linen rolls and paint tubes from her studio.

“I claim that it was a rather practical influence: free paint and linen!” said Burckhardt “I was conscious of the need to lower the stakes if I raise the scale.” Because using larger canvases is more expensive, removing the initial expense of pre-stretching all the canvases helped Burckhardt “Feel free to make mistakes and not worry about these large stretched works, with the investment of money and space,” he said. “So for the first time, I worked with the linen just tacked on the wall, (something my mom did…) figuring I can invest in the stretchers for the ones that work out. I claim I did these things not for sentimental reasons relating to my mom…. I’m probably not fooling anyone on that. Seriously, she was so motivated as an artist and I get that from her.”

Tom Burckhardt, Ulterior Motif, 2023. Oil on linen. 64 by 55 inches
Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, Ulterior Motif, 2023. Oil on linen. 64 by 55 inches

Tom Burckhardt, Pave The Way, 2023. Oil on linen, 64 by 55 inches
Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, Pave The Way, 2023. Oil on linen, 64 by 55 inches

Tom Burckhardt, A Pointed, 2023. Oil on linen, 64 by 55 inches
Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, A Pointed, 2023. Oil on linen, 64 by 55 inches

Tom Burckhardt, Recog, 2024. Oil on linen, 20 x 16 inches.
Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, Recog, 2024. Oil on linen, 20 x 16 inches.

Tom Burckhardt, Peeping Tomorrows, 2023. Oil on linen. 60 by 48 inches
Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, Peeping Tomorrows, 2023. Oil on linen. 60 by 48 inches

Tom Burckhardt Limelight, 2024 Oil on linen 20 x 16 inches
Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Tom Burckhardt, Limelight, 2024. Oil on linen 20 x 16 inches

Color is integral to both their work, and using her leftover paint set up a resonant dialogue. “I wouldn’t call it a collaboration exactly, but a relationship was built,” said Burckhardt. “I don’t think my color in the general sense looks like hers, which was very depictive, but a lot of her colors in the tubes were just slightly mixed off of full saturation–And I do that as well–weird mustardy yellows or turquoise with an overtone of red, for instance.”

The works in Ulterior Motif continue to expertly use pareidolia—the tendency to impose meaning on random patterns, such as seeing animal shapes in cloud formations—to create fascinating tableaux of figurative shapes. Using bright swathes of color and patterns of repeating lines, geometric shapes and biomorphic forms, Burckhardt creates dynamic groups of abstract beings, visually suggesting the curve of a chin, the jut of a nose, the bend of a knee, or a curling lock of hair. 

Burckhardt obviously had a lot of fun creating these bright gatherings of abstract figures, and wants viewers to know that the “most obvious message radiating off the paintings should be that I enjoyed myself terribly while making them.” He also hopes that “viewers are engaged enough to mentally build or complete the threads of abstract formal activity in the works into a recognition, maybe of a rudimentary figuration. Re-cog-nition–a great word–where we think-see-again.”

* Spoonerism involves switching corresponding consonants or vowels between two words in a phrase, intentionally, or unintentionally, and often results in a play on words. Ex: "A well-boiled icicle" instead of “a well-oiled bicycle."

Tom Burckhardt: Ulterior Motif is on view at George Adams Gallery through April 6, 2024.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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