LOUIS BERNARD BURROUGHS JR.: THROUGH THICK AND THIN / PAINTING TOWARD A BETTER WORLD
I was surprised by Louis B. Burroughs’ works on canvas, after seeing photographs of a few of them in catalogs and on the painter’s website. I knew they were big, but it’s hard to imagine the impact of a large painting in real space. Several mural-like compositions, each ten and twelve feet long, were displayed down one side of the studio. They made the 1,200-square-foot, multi-pillared factory space with its banks of windows seem small. And here in person, the tumult and drama of their subject matter shouted at the eye from across the room, reverberating with historical echoes. This was ambitious art, powerful and foreboding even from a distance.
Burroughs himself is a relatively quiet, composed man, projecting inner peace (or at least the sangfroid of a good poker player). But his paintings are a different matter. They threaten, whisper and crash, measuring their impact in yard-long increments of pain and tumult. Burroughs manages to invoke hope and suffering, modeling the psychic flesh of history. And that was just the view on one side of the room. On the left, a bank of somewhat smaller paintings sang different, but not always quieter, songs about life and love and the foolishness of human beings: hard ballads about contemporary America’s racism and environmental abuse.
Burroughs’ downtown painting studio in Cleveland wasn’t exactly easy to find. I ventured along a narrow back alley and finally located the right unmarked steel door, with Louis behind it, after which we climbed some stairs and continued upward in a rickety freight elevator. The building itself is one of those massive industrial structures of brick and concrete, punctuated by acres of unwashed glass window panes, constructed in Cleveland’s manufacturing heyday about a century ago. Like other buildings in that neighborhood, it makes for a pitch-perfect old-school art studio experience. And in fact, many of the city’s best artists live and/or work within a stone’s throw. Louis Bernard Burroughs himself is an increasingly notable American painter, based primarily in northern Ohio, although he also has homes in Florida and Ontario.
As a practicing art journalist, I’ve made note of a few of his large and small paintings and sculptures, but haven’t had occasion to write about them. More recently we became acquainted when we worked together on a remarkable writing project (Middle Passage: The Artistic Life of Lawrence Baker by Louis B. Burroughs Jr., 2013), and I learned more about this unusual man. At last, a couple of months ago I was able to see a considerable portion of his mature work firsthand.
These days Burroughs is not only a writer and visual artist, but also an active presence at several significant African American museums. President of the board of the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro, Alabama, with collections and programming that chronicle civil rights activism in the central part of that state, he also has ties with the Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum in Clarksburg, Ontario, where the history of families who escaped to Canada prior to the Civil War is preserved and revealed to contemporary visitors.
His dual passions for history and art have been in place since childhood, when he showed considerable artistic talent. Burroughs grew up in a predominately black community on the highly segregated East Side of Cleveland. Glenville in those years, as he has written, was an upwardly mobile community, and his primary education and early cultural experiences were well beyond the ordinary, for that era especially. His family home was located near Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, not far from the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and a number of other University Circle institutions. His interests in visual art, music, and literature continued during the early and middle years of his maturity, as he pursued an activist-oriented career as litigant and consultant.
Then in the late 1990s, he began his return to the practice of visual art. The natural trajectory of his life, along with the lives and careers of many other young people growing up in that time, had been interrupted at the outset by the Glenville riots of the late 1960s, followed by the racial tensions and intermittent violence of succeeding decades. Inevitably those events became integral to the emergent subject matter of his new paintings. Some of these were conceived on the model of great politically-inspired history paintings by artists like Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, and Francisco Goya.
Moving into the realm of twentieth-century influences, one very striking painting is an elaborate homage to Picasso’s declaration of modernist independence, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In Burroughs’ Demoiselles de Cleveland (2006), the “ladies of the night” are not so much prostitutes as handmaidens of death and transfiguration, mythic figures which incorporate not only elements derived from African sculpture, but also a human skull and a cow skull. These are renderings of actual artifacts, as it happens, which are still casually on display in Burroughs’ studio, along with a silver chair also seen in the painting—a throne of electric moonlight.
In general, Burroughs’ mature, usually mixed-media paintings are aesthetically and intellectually ambitious, executed on a scale to match. One of the largest is Katrina (2014), one of the mammoth paintings I had glimpsed—a rain-colored litany of disaster, commemorating the politically-fraught aftermath of the 2005 hurricane. Another panoramic work nearly as big is Nine-One-One (2018). Katrina has a New Orleans-gothic tone, dominated by a snarling mother-figure nestling an infant in the crook of an elbow while pointing powerfully with her other, outstretched arm—as if hurling imprecations at the distant Bush administration. By contrast Nine-One-One is predominately abstract, constructing and deconstructing the unforgettable horror of that day in angular gestures as it depicts a plane wedged among the grid-like shards of the falling towers. The apocalyptic horror that Burroughs’ painting evokes extends far beyond the horizon of that isolated act of terrorism. Burroughs says, “For me 9/11 has come to symbolize church bombings and burnings in the South.” The two paintings, juxtaposed as they are in Burroughs’ downtown Cleveland studio, are parables and warnings laying bare the destructive energies that have so far characterized 21st-century American history.
First Family of Color (2018) is a considerably smaller (30 inches × 36 inches), still powerfully explosive work which Burroughs painted not only to honor the Obama family, but also as an ironic response to the much-ballyhooed official portraits of the President and First Lady by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, unveiled in February 2018. Burroughs’ painting disdains the self-conscious gravitas of those history-conscious works, finding its way into a type of vision and a sphere of significance quite different from hagiography. Sedimentary layers of paint accumulated on Burroughs’ canvas give an ongoing account of painterly actions and reactions, hits and misses. Now, he says, “it’s like tree bark,” roughly grooved, resistant to comfortable interpretations or any but the least facile, most bluntly expressive depiction. The square of canvas has become a theater where something more important (even) than a picture of a president speaks aloud, truer than any mere likeness. First Family of Color—splintered and thick with handling and usage, marred by disinformation, ambiguously underwritten by doubt—tells of a trust shaken at its foundations. Then there is the fact that the work is, also, plainly beautiful, telling a subliminal tale of the interlocking, ongoing power of love.
Burroughs paints on canvas much of the time, using oil and acrylic paints and less conventional materials, like wax and clear acrylic gel—substances that carry their own optical and tactile potencies. His mid-size work Lead Paint Poison People (2019) presents a Phillip Guston-like complex of values and volumes rendered in an appropriately murky palette of grays and browns. But surfacing through this painterly vision, a kind of reef made up of semi-transparent congealed acrylic chunks catches the light, sparkling with unnatural radiance. The painting almost seems to shudder, as this streak of deadly-looking jewels pricks its skin.
Burroughs’ tendency to expand into the third dimension is fully realized in an extraordinary series of works made of carved polyurethane foam. Among the influences he has cited in his writings about his art, Jean Dubuffet and Thornton Dial come to mind as precursors here. (Like Burroughs, both men were self-taught, eminently self-directed artists who worked in diverse materials, often employing found objects.) Painted black, these rough figures sometimes loom overhead, or are closer to doll-size, but each conveys a sense of gravity of its own, fallen into Burroughs’ hands from another dimension. Like cinders, they’re lighter than they should be, as if they circled a different star. They are, clearly, burnt and disfigured, like victims of horrific racist hate crimes in our own era. And more than passing reference to the historical depth and transcendent strength of African art echoes in these blocky shapes; medieval and Renaissance visions of the Last Judgment also come to mind—writhing figures modeled by the aging Michelangelo, and by Rodin in the Gates of Hell.
Louis Burroughs is a prolific artist and a man of broad experience. Though much of his painting addresses themes that reinforce and continue his life-long commitment to black history and community, his work deals with even more, expressing much about our American contemporary world in all its complexity, mixing painterly beauty and humor into the visual tales he tells. Burroughs’ essential subjects transcend simple anger and speak of the continuing necessity for a universal spiritual revolution in political and personal life. In that sense he is a painter of hope, or of the foundations of hope. He is a painter for the future.