This article originally appeared on October 18, 2012 in The Alamedan. Michele Ellson, editor.
When David Burke returned from a year and a half in Thailand last year, he felt a “fracture.” While there, “I gave myself permission to indulge myself with the landscape, made paintings that celebrated the beauty of the landscape,” he says. “During that time I reconnected with the natural world and fell in love with it.” Upon his return he found himself “mourning the loss of it.”
Burke, who currently resides in East Oakland but grew up in Alameda, moved into a studio at Autobody Fine Art on Park Street in the spring of 2011 and began work on his “Hungry Ghost” series. He explains that in Chinese Buddhism that term describes “spirits that have an insatiable appetite for unhealthy, addictive behavior.” A recurring motif in this series is a gas mask, its hose like the proboscis of a malevolent elephant. A gas mask would be necessary in the toxic world he paints.
“Even looking at the air quality of the paintings, they almost have a claustrophobic feeling to them,” he says. They have a “chemical taint” like that in Ray Bradbury’s post-butterfly-effect world.
The mask is also a reference to the respirator Burke was forced to wear during a decade of painting with toxic polymer resin. While in Thailand he struggled with the disconnect of creating “these overly indulgent images of the environment” while using such unhealthy material. So when he started “Hungry Ghost” he ditched it in favor of non-toxic acrylic ink.
Watching his paintings take shape is like watching rain drop from a leaf into a pond. He drips ink onto Dura-Lar, a polyester-based film, creating rippling concentric circles. “There’s this control and chaos while I’m making the piece,” Burke says. “I’ll let it go, and then reel it in.” He has said that his materials have an “inherent wow factor,” presenting the challenge of “trying to make a very quiet painting with very loud materials.”
He exhibits these paintings in “Pump & Dump Prosperity,” a solo show that opened at Autobody on Saturday. Autobody formally closed its doors as an exhibition space in February 2011, but has since presented a handful of shows.
“Pump and dump” usually refers to a form of fraud in which the value of a stock is artificially inflated. Burke says that in his work there are multiple meanings. “It is the pumping of oil and the dumping of waste,” he continues. “The idea of pump and dump prosperity, talking about fraudulent stock exchanges and false prosperity, it relates to these (Hungry Ghost) spirits … that have this appetite for unscrupulous or devious behavior, or a behavior that undermines the greater good.”
His work responds to disasters both manmade and natural, and the confluence of the two. “In some of these paintings you have a tenuous balance between the natural world and the manmade world,” he says. He painted “Lambent Waters Brood,” a reference to a line from James Joyce’s poem “Flood,” after the tsunami in Japan. “Right around the same time we had the oil spill in the gulf,” he says. “And I was thinking about natural disasters and manmade disasters and the relationship between the two … like the Earth pushing back.”
Burke doesn’t see himself as just another artist “critiquing mankind and its assault on nature.” Rather, his paintings are “more of a celebration of the perseverance of the natural world … The Earth is finding new ways to replenish itself.”
Pump & Dump Prosperity runs through November 5, with a closing reception from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. November 3. Autobody Fine Art is located at 1517 Park Street. They are open Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. http://www.autobodyfineart.com, (510) 865-2608.