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Ricky Burnett was born in Birmingham, England, in 1949, and he moved to South Africa at the age of six. He attended Wits University, where he studied Medicine before switching to a BA degree in the Humanities. It was after discovering the work of Cezanne that he decided to become an artist: he was struck by the merging of thought and feeling in Cezanne’s work, the capacity to order experience while remaining emotionally connected to the world.
In 1972, he met Bill Ainslee and within a year he was making art objects. Almost simultaneously, he started to teach – and found an aptitude and passion for teaching that remains with him today. His remarkable talent for curating also emerged soon afterwards: he curated two exhibitions for the Foundation, one at Gallery 101 and the second at the Market Theatre Gallery. These were followed by two solo exhibitions of his own work at the Market Theatre Gallery and the Enthoven Gallery. Gail Behrmann described the metal sculptures as ‘extraordinary abstract drawings in space that caught the eye of Anthony Caro’.
For several years, Burnett would remain associated with the Art Foundation and write reviews for the Rand Daily Mail. A major turn occurred when he started the BMW Tributaries project, which involved collecting artworks throughout southern Africa. Andrew Vester wrote:
‘Ricky Burnett has put together the most exciting collection of South African art ever seen. The show is unique for it brings together works from so many different sources … His journey took him to art schools and teaching studios … to community centre workshops, to museums, to opulent collections, grass woven beehive huts, city centres, barren settlements, and some very pretty villages.’
Following the success of Tributaries, Burnett moved to London in 1985. There he worked on what would eventually become the famous Brenthurst Collection, now on permanent loan at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
In 1989, Burnett returned to South Africa to curate a ground-breaking exhibition of Jackson Hlungwane’s work. The following year, Burnett and Mary Slack set up Newtown Galleries. This gallery was the first in the country to exhibit new work from the rest of continental Africa. Burnett curated around thirty exhibitions during this period.
Ricky Burnett moved to the United States in 2001, near Seattle, where he continued to teach and make art before returning to South Africa in 2007. He soon re-established himself as a teacher and curator – and curated the celebrated ‘Horse’ at the Everard Read (Johannesburg) and CIRCA. A series of ground-breaking exhibitions also followed: ‘Margins’ (Everard Read Johannesburg, 2008), ‘Resurrection Cycles & On Skin’ (smac, 2009), ‘Damascus Gate’ (Gallery 2, 2014), ‘Troubled with Goya’ (Everard Read Johannesburg, 2015) and ‘Goya Adaptations’ (Everard Read, Johannesburg, 2016).
In 2016, Palimpsest Press published a book about Ricky Burnett’s recent work. Titled Troubled with Goya, it features photographs by Liz Whitter and contains Ricky Burnett in conversation with Tracey Hawthorne. The book is available for sale at: https://www.palimpsestinternational.com/troubled-with-goya
Ricky Burnett has always been interested in abstraction and non-figurative image-making. He has drawn inspiration from Cezanne but cites Rembrandt and Goya as artists of great tenderness who also worked with the painterly quality of paint. His recent series have been inspired by Goya’s etchings and paintings, but the paint soon takes on a direction of its own. Often Burnett will use the pivot points in a particular composition of a Goya image as a starting point for a work. The works develop a surface tension that is derived from looking at the Goyas – so the final paintings become a derivation rather than a representation. Often all that remains of the Goya source is the whiteness of a page, the suggestion of pencil marks, the red from the bloody bullet holes on a white shirt or the colour of someone’s red garment.
Burnett likes to quote the Sung Dynasty poet Yang Wan-li:
“Now, what is poetry? If you say it is simply a matter of words, I will say good poets get rid of words. If you say it is simply a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask, ‘without words and meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply, ‘Get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’ ”
This was Burnett’s first exhibition after his return from the US. The works featured marks, words, phrases, objects and shapes on abstract planes filled with a dense absence. Often the picture plane is invaded by a phallic object with feelers or eyes on stalks that Burnett referred to as ‘the Thing’. The Thing felt separate from its creator, something that came unbidden and pursued a life of its own. Of the exhibition Ivor Powell wrote:
‘The cycle is startling and effecting in its simultaneous viscerailty, mimeticism and narrative expressionism … What Burnett has achieved is a direct and immediate communication, not so much of emotion, but of a failure of emotion; a pile-up of inchoate and synaptic collisions … the cycle speaks most poignantly of loss.’
RESURRECTION CYCLES & ON SKIN (2009):
This exhibition continued the juxtaposition of words, suggestive mark-making and images on a vacant plane, but here shapes and forms were repeated across a series of four panels – creating a stronger sense of narrative progression. The works are intimate and private and yet they move into symbol and metaphor. Intimations of death, the void, are juxtaposed with images suggesting growth, the garden, regeneration, sex, connection. Richard Beynon stated of these cycles:
‘I can’t help likening this cycle to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The hero descends into the underworld … he learns to feel again, create again, become once again a compromised member of the human community…’
DAMASCUS GATE (2014):
This exhibition marked a significant shift in Burnett’s work. Here the images are more abstracted and simplified and they are rendered in thick, layered, sensuous, internally vibrant bands and strips of oil paint. The colours are more subdued, consisting predominantly of whites, greys, earthy umbers and ochres - with the occasional emergence of verdant greens, deep blues and dark crimson. The shapes are balanced, classically proportioned, but bursting with suggestion and vitality. Some of the works are also derived from compositions from Bellini or Giotto – in the latter case, pivot points or markers of tension are reduced to crimson or black marks or dots. Gerhard Schoeman wrote of the show:
‘The paintings are nothing more than paintings, the remainders of hours of solitary labour and craft, and it is precisely this that gives them their presentness: grace revealed in exile, absconding, loss and longing.’ And elsewhere: ‘Their sense of balance derives from an inner logic … Thresholds. Burnett finds patterns the way an astronomer finds images in the stars. Both explore the spaces between, which, if you look closely, form luminous constellations in the dark.’
TROUBLED WITH GOYA (2015) and GOYA ADAPTATIONS (2016):
These two exhibitions, both at the Everard Read Johannesburg, feature works inspired by Goya – the first exhibition resulting in the ‘dark’ canvases and the latter exhibition featuring predominantly greyer works, or ‘ivories’ – although there are also red-brown works in the Spanish Gentleman series. Here Burnett lets the vacant space, or the ‘ground’ consume the image or the figure: he lets the sublime consume the beautiful. The sea in Turner’s late work that is pulling down the ruined ship is here victorious, triumphant, its inexhaustible absence made potent and present. The dark works are about the end of the physical world, the entire abnegation of the individual that has been so central to western art since the Renaissance. But this apparent apocalypse also provides a space and an opportunity for different kinds of reflection: the mystery of presence when surrounded by the void. We dwell in a place provided by the paint – a place that can only be provided by paint – where the richly textured, restless surface of the ground has recently devoured our humanity – the primordial soup out of which, ironically, new life can again become possible. As Thomas McEvilley has written in a different context in Sculpture in the Age of Doubt:
‘This is the actual subject matter of [modernist] art from Malevich to Mondrian to Newman. The art of the abstract sublime – the portrayal of the living force of the ground rather than the figure – was an art of the end of the world. It is no co-incidence that it arose at the time of the First World War – nor that Einstein’s Special Theory appeared in the same year as [Malevich’s] Black Square.’
Ricky Burnett has worked extensively as a curator locally and abroad. Important exhibitions include Tributaries, Jackson Hlungwane, Horse, as well as around thirty exhibitions when he ran Newtown Galleries with Mary Slack. Michael Gardener recently wrote of Tributaries:
“In its inclusiveness and its admission of the exhilarating complexities of art and artmaking in this country, this show brought together those presences which politicians, tribalists, academics, scientists and bureaucrats throughout the centuries had laboured insistently to keep apart. As such, Tributaries was a stunning act of conceptual defiance of the deepest roots of apartheid.”
Jackson Hlungwane was first featured in Tributaries and his solo exhibition with Burnett was a fitting sequel. It established Hlungwane is one of the most significant and exciting South African artists of his generation.
At Newtown Galleries, Burnett was the first curator in the country to bring in art from all over continental Africa, although artists such as Vyakul from India and Basil Beatty from the UK were also included. Memorable exhibitions included Urban Artifacts, an exhibition of Geoffrey Armstrong’s sculptures, as well as work by Kay Hassan, David Koloane and Pat Mautloa for Africus ’95.
Burnett’s exhibition Horse at the Everard Read and CIRCA also brought together a collection of contemporary South African artists who were not traditionally associated with one another. It became one of the most memorable exhibitions in the gallery’s history.
Ricky Burnett runs classes for four and a half days of the week from his house in Saxonwold. He states: 'My task is to assist students to find elements of their uniqueness and to develop strategies which might reveal and consolidate this uniqueness. Good work is authentic work and rewarding, even if it is hard won.'
Text written by writer and curator, Craig Higginson, 2016.
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