by elle curry
Gary Burnley, a collage artist from St. Louis, Missouri, is an unassuming man, his voice a soft ribbon of velvet against the rough and gruff of the High Plains. He enters the room with a sense of wonder on his face, and quietly perches himself on the stool at the front.
When he addresses his viewers, it’s casual, like he’s chatting with a friend, and he holds an air of gentle humility that you may not expect after experiencing his exhibition “Stranger(s) In The Village,” which is on loan at AMoA until March 26.
This is a collection that may be seen as social commentary on African American identity in the United States, but he is clear that this was not his primary intention.
We live in a world where everyone has something to say, has been encouraged to say it and polar opposites have been empowered to scream their social and political messages in every medium available. As the lines between what one can and cannot say are more boldly drawn, in many ways we are left with blurred understandings of right and wrong, living in an existential crisis that is the struggle between the world we grew up in, the world we live in and the world we want to build.
In listening to Burnley discuss his work over the course of two days, he was consistent in stating that this collection was not made to invoke any specific idea or feeling from the viewer; the work was created as a study of himself for himself.
The entire collection is his struggle to reconcile between what was, what is and what could be in his own reality. We are just fortunate enough to be witness to it all.
Experiencing the work of Burnley encourages you to ponder what it means to be “the other,” a concept he was not shy in discussing. Stating that this is a common theme in contemporary works that often feels forced, Burnley’s practice is to bring the opposing pictures together and let them speak their truth in order to blend together the worlds that “the other” exists in.
This kind and soft-spoken gentleman, an MFA graduate of Yale and recipient of multiple artist fellowships, focuses on light, shape and contrast by the joining of classic or folk art and various vernacular photographs.
Though we blur the understandings of right and wrong with our bluntness, he reminds us that this moral understanding goes deeper than a political agenda or social war. It touches the understanding of self in each individual experience.
His work is an expression of struggle between how to be seen and still see yourself, and the building of a new world where the differences between this one and “the other” are not blended, but accepted simultaneously as a reality.
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