Art history is important to Elijah Burgher. So are music, myth, and humor. In an artist talk delivered in Kresge earlier this week, Burgher explained how these influences come together to effectuate his intricate colored pencil drawings of young men and occult abstractions.
Near the beginning of his talk, Burgher explained his interest in Renaissance and Baroque illustrations, as well as his interest in early photography—in particular, its engagement with the supernatural. Although vastly disparate, these art historical influences marry in his drawings to communicate a pursuit of enlightenment. Like early modern illustrations, Burgher executes small-scale, brightly-colored drawings that focus strongly on the details of his subject matter. His goal, similarly, is a type of comprehension—not comprehension of nature or science, but comprehension of desire and spirituality. Describing his engagement with 19th century photography, Burgher specifically cited “guys vomiting ectoplasm.” These photographs, which are obvious to the modern viewer as hoaxes, indicate a period when photography was a tool used to understand mortality, death, and the supernatural. Like the influence of Baroque illustrations, Burgher’s interest in ectoplasm photography underscores his pre-occupation with the pursuit of knowledge, but this time emphasizing an unearthly, spiritual knowledge.
Burgher’s remarks on ectoplasm photography additionally revealed his reliance on humor in his practice. His amusement over the use of cheesecloth in lieu of spiritual energy demonstrated an absurdist influence that marks the point of departure for creating work. (Ghost Vomit, a handle Burgher works behind, is both a reference to ectoplasm and Coil, a musical influence that is discussed later on.) Indeed, much of Burgher’s work finds its genesis in irony and dry humor. His notorious “anal swastika,” which has become a repeated motif and sigil (a symbol used in magic), was a result of doodling superimposed swastikas and observing the ensuing symbol’s resemblance to a puckered asshole. Yet, Burgher’s work moves beyond humor to an obsessive exploration of myth, power, and magic through illustration. Through repeated drawings and scrutiny, the anal swastika mutates from rudimentary doodle to potent occult symbol and sigil.
The queer, occult ritual in Burgher’s work also indicates his engrossment with subculture, a pursuit that is further reinforced by the immense influence of music in his work. Burgher explains that in his early teenage years, he found comfort in listening to Bikini Kill, a pioneering female-fronted punk band that advocated sexual liberation and feminism. As he framed the parameters of his practice, Burgher would draw inspiration from avant-garde group Throbbing Gristle, and more significantly, Coil, an industrial band engaged with magick subculture. What Burgher aspires to, is to create the “visual equivalent of the music.”
Ultimately, Burgher’s work is about intimacy, abjectness, and the social outcast. The use of colored pencil in his works suggests a primitive, childish obsession, and highlights the expressive quality of vibrant colors. The small scale of the drawings further imbues them with an inward, intimate quality that is comparable to viewing personal photographs or pictorial vignettes of a person’s life. To probe into this psycho-territory and internal space, Burgher carefully interacts with the history of art, queer culture, counterculture, and other socially deviant arenas. What struck me the most about Burgher’s talk, though, was his brief comment that “art might have some sort of magical efficacy.” The volume of Burgher’s impassioned, repetitive work, with its multifaceted influences, indubitably affirms his overarching quest for this efficacy.