Elijah Burgher delves into the symbolic and uncanny in his one-man show Friendship as a Way of Life b/w I’m Seeking the Minotaur at Western Exhibitions. Large, painted drop cloths act as psychic doorways into an ancient universe of strange magic. On the other side, a confident series of colored pencil drawings feature unknown icons, nude men, or both.
Excremental Philosophy Illustrated, Vol. 1 (2013) is a lexicon of invented symbols arranged over fields of vibrant color. A row of simple forms in the upper portion of the image begins with a circle, a square, and a triangle, then progresses into more varied combinations of geometry, arrows, and wheels. The rest of the composition is broken up into columns of varying width that contain increasingly complex groupings of coded signs. Some look slightly familiar, like stylized eyes, beach balls, or an Apple computer’s “spinning wheel of death,” maybe even a doorway or window. Those associations are mostly subjective, as Burgher’s imagery betrays no obvious referent.
These ambiguous symbols feel old and new at the same time. Originally, I associated them with Roman and medieval banners, alchemy, the Buddha’s Wheel of the Law, and the occult symbols from Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album (you know, the one with “Stairway”). In the show’s press release, Burgher’s symbols are described as “sigils,” which are signs associated with different forms of magic dating back to the Renaissance, and maybe earlier—there’s really no hard limit to the historical record when it comes to magical thinking. There is also no standard catalog of sigils; they are custom-designed for the personal wish fulfillment of whoever made them, though formally, modern sigils are often derived from mixing diverse iconographic sources like family crests, the Kabbalah, Eastern philosophies, and the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Excremental Philosophy Illustrated, Vol. 1’s symbol combinations and saturated colors exist somewhere between a new illuminated manuscript, a map of spells, and a child’s board game with no clear instructions.
With the concept of invented magic in mind, “excremental philosophy” becomes a critical pun about shit ideas, shit values, and shit beliefs. The homophonic possibilities of a piece titled Sick Sun, Sick Sun (2013), one of the large, canvas drop-cloth paintings hanging in the center of the gallery, suggest both a radiating orb of illness and the existential damage of boyhood. The stained banner looks like a faded tie-dye blanket that someone backed a car over. The upper half is marked with a black, circular sigil surrounded by hooks or question marks. The lower half contains another circle divided into four wedges of color. If the artist’s titles are slightly tongue-in-cheek, his commitment to exploring the formal possibilities of invented iconography is bona fide. Bachelor Machine, From Behind and Below (Guyotat Version) is a looser sketch of symbol ideas and color combinations. Burgher’s vocabulary of signs and symbols is fully formed and still feels fresh—at the same time meaningful and abstract.
Nude men are the only common representational theme of the show. In a drawing titled In the Horny Deeps Below Finding (2013), two highly rendered figures occupy a sparse interior with large sigils covering the walls. Psychologically and physically, the nudes appear estranged. They stand on opposite sides of a doorway and their gazes do not meet, though one man rests his hand on a nearby wall in a gesture that suggests longing. Bachelor Machine (2013) plays toward more obvious eroticism. Here, a grid of colors, shapes, and symbols serves as a backdrop for a full-length reclining nude with an erection. Burgher’s detailed description of men’s bodies, articulated right down to the hair on their legs and bellies, suggests a level of care and consideration that the pictures struggle live up to. Oddly enough, the artist’s commitment to realism (in a show about magical thinking, nonetheless) suffocates the mystery within these pictures.
By comparison, two portraits—one of a sweetly rendered blond boy ironically titled Lucifer (2013), the other reclining with the profile of an idealized Roman emperor called Portrait of Jhon Balance as Talisman Against Suicide (2013)—carry a smoldering erotic charge. Descriptive without getting academic, these pictures speak through emotion with strangeness worthy of Piero della Francesca. Their heads become symbols themselves, more like ideas than people. The show is hardly perfect. But in his best pieces, Burgher digs into something old and deep to break the connection between seeing and knowing.
Friendship as a Way of Life b/w I’m Seeking the Minotaur is on view at Western Exhibitions in Chicago through December 7, 2013.