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July 10 - September 30, 2003 at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood

by John O'Brien

One of the most crucial aspects of Hans Burkhardt's achievement as a painter was his decisively, even obstinately humanistic and poetic content. Whether or not a given work was lyrical or epic, whether it was about a perennial subject or tied to events of the day, Burkhardt approached the task of painting from the point of view of a deeply ingrained humanity. Not surprisingly, he choose a primarily figurative, symbolic and expressionist mode to convey his sentiments, thoughts and feelings. It is true that the multiple styles of expressionism he worked within pushed the limits of recognizability to an almost abstract level, but Burkhardt never let the paint become so abstract as to just be about itself. It was in part self-referential (and there are marvelous textures and mixtures to attest to his exhilaration with paint), but that painterly transport was coextensive with positing a heartfelt position about subject matter placed in a life, in a time, and in a place.

The commitment of Hans Burkhardt to painting as a means of diaristically recording, in the residue of paint on canvas comments about our existence in the world and our emotional reaction to it, has left us with a very extensive legacy of works. Quite a few are reactions to the ongoing wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Burkhardt began painting about the ravages of war in the late thirties with works about the Spanish Civil War, and the theme continued through every conflict that followed right up until 1991’s Desert Storm and world events occurring around the time of his death in 1994. His mute testimony is persistently anguished, severe, haunting. Burkhardt most often worked with the edges of death wreaked by war, using landscapes and multi-tiered symbols to address its horrors and its associated "collateral damage." His figurative glyphs show up again and again as the process of war strips them down to bloodied bones. Burkhardt wasn't afraid to name names or specify accusations in his titles, and rather than bogging images down in topicality, his titles lend images even greater poignancy. Although he stated repeatedly in interviews that he was fundamentally an agnostic painter, a strong and enriching undercurrent of spirituality complements any overt political content.

“Red Flowers,” 1990, oil and
collage on canvas, 32 x 42”.

"Lang Vei," 1967-68, oil and
skulls on canvas, 60 x 72"

"One Way Road," 1945,
oil on canvas, 22 x 31"

"The Extra Sripe," 1993, oil and
mixed media on canvas, 60 x 48".

Because Burkhardt never embraced the Greenbergian model of modernist purity, his daily task of personal expression through painting (in other words, his studio practice) was, according to the dictum of form for its own sake, 'contaminated' by the temporal. Pouring out an influx of information about the sentiments, thoughts and feeling of a sentient being are at the core of Burkhardt's artistic credo. These war (rather, anti-war) paintings do function on a purely formal level of color and composition as well, but it is to his first-person narrative that the viewer is finally drawn. Considering periodic political efforts to regulate the use of the image of the flag in the United States, one wonders if Burkhardt's repeated reference to fields and stripes in his denunciations of the atrocity of war might reveal a profound connection of art to life.