Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 04, 2017 7:37 pm 
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The martyr exhibitionist masochist art idol whose fame has lasted and whose work never stopped evolving

One key to the credibility of the artist Chris Burden is his early boldness and guts, another his serious, painstaking, and pleasing later sculptural works: the fact that he never burned out, just moved on.

Billy Al Bengston, one of a string of famous California artsts who taught Chris Burden, says his UC Irvine graduate thesis of locking himself in a 2'x2'x2' school locker in a crummy art classroom for five days was "about as fucking dumb as you can possibly be," and he's no doubt right. But Burden, who had wanted to be an architect, then switched to sculpture, then adopted "pieces" engendering motion, then pieces causing shock, was uniquely determined, patient, and gutsy. The pieces weren't quite as tough as they seemed. Five days in a locker is. But when his friend shot him in the arm, he was really supposed to barely graze him. The broken glass he crawled over a long distance nearly naked wasn't the hardest, sharpest kind of glass. The nails driven in his hands were placed exactly not to do damage or cause too much pan. Nonetheless Chris Burden, who became famous young, deserves credit for cojones.

Brian Sewell was an English art critic and media personality who died in 2015. He declares Burden's early seventies pieces "rubbish," "not art. Just something silly people go and see," with nothing in common with the traditional forms of painting, sculpture, dance. Sewell is known for "his acerbic view of conceptual art and the Turner Prize." Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker says he doesn't want to say it, but the word "sadomasochist" keeps coming up, and there is "something sinister" about Burden's early work. He was bolted to the floor naked in a gallery with two buckets of water with electrical cords in them near his head. He was nailed naked to the waist to a VW bug. When he came to Chicago to do a piece Roger Ebert said "My impression was that if this was art, so was World War II."

What you can say is that the seventies was a time of conceptual art, and that is when Burden began. You can also say there is something disturbing about him, and it worked: it gained him fame, and with his fellow artists, credibility. (Also lifelong management by the powerful Gagosian Gallery.) His Irvine classmate Charles Hill says: "He would sit around and smoke a lot of dope and think all day. That's what he would do. He would plan these things out forever."

He did many pieces in the early seventies but he got out of performance art around 1975 because he would have become what he was criticized for. Or, like Evil Knievel, whom he was compared to, but as he said was just a trickster without ideas who repeated the same stunts. But Chris Burden's first big pieces out of performance art were close to it: giant spinning wheels so heavy that if they broke loose they'd destroy everything around them. He called one "a Neanderthal atomic bomb." But had Burden really given up performance art when he got a giant truck to terrorize Alexis Smith, his girlfriend who'd left him, or went around in the early eighties wearing an Uzi? He was extreme, he did too much drugs and alcohol, and his life was a violent reality show at times.

The film also shows Burden at his big Topanga Canyon studio with his assistants and his dogs, talking, the project of meshed old Los Angeles street lamps under way, a calm and precise piece, a great deal of work. It becomes clear that he is easygoing and straightforward talking about the place and his work, but is mysterious about his private life, which has included many women, loss of siblings, and difficult periods in the eighties. But in the later two decades, it's clear that he settled down a bit, and continued to renew himself as an artist in interesting ways, making spectacular works, like the joyous and mind-bogglingMetropolis II, that read as monuments and continue to give pleasure. You will find more about Burden's personal life in a 1992 LA Times article.

Burden, born in 1946, died in 2015 of melanoma, 18 months after being diagnosed, just five days before the opening of his last great piece, Ode to Santos Dumont, a large, delicate and beautiful balloon that flies around in circles in a large gallery. Alberto Santos-Dumont was a Brazilian pioneer pilot who flew a dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in 1901. The piece is a poetic final monument to Burden, an artist whose father was an engineer. This is a good artist documentary, one of the best about an eccentric California artist since the 2013 one, also 88 minutes, Lynn Foulkes: One Man Band.

Burden, 88 mins., debuted at Tribeca Apr 2016, showing at half a dozen other international festivals, and opening theatrically in NYC 5 May 2017 at the Metrograph (also on the internet and in the UK - see article), released by Magnolia Pictures.


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