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Luke Burton

by Hardeep Singh Dhindsa
Articles / Artist profile • 14.06.2024

Does painting politics make a painting political? Who is allowed to feel at ‘home’ in Westminster? Such questions pervade the recent work of Luke Burton (b.1983). His solo exhibition Westminster Coastal at Bosse & Baum, London (8th February–2nd March 2024) FIG.1, conveyed the complexity of the titular area, where the artist has lived for the last three years. Westminster has a multifaceted identity: variably an ancient archaeological site, a symbol of governmental power, a borough where people live and a tourist destination. Objects staged around the paintings created the tableau of an archetypal office space: filing cabinets, suspension files, desk chairs, discarded fruit from boardroom meetings, a Lion bar wrapper, a packet of Monster Munch. But, upon closer inspection, it became clear that this searing pastiche of the banality of office life was immortalised with a Byzantine façade. Empty food wrappers and discarded drinks cans were in fact covered with brass tesserae and jewel-like vitreous enamel FIG.2; and in Burton’s large-scale paintings FIG.3, allusions to Westminster Abbey’s intricate Cosmati Pavement are juxtaposed with the Home Office building on Marsham Street, Celtic artefacts, besuited civil servants and empty crossword grids.

Burton’s golden and enamelled objects FIG.4 were secreted around the gallery space: in corners, atop fictitious printouts from various departments in the civil service and nestled inside open drawers. However, unlike the awe-inspiring mosaics of Ravenna and Rome, where emperors and apostles mingle amid curtains of gold, these mosaics are devoid of identifying features; they are pure pattern. In his application of such patterns to everyday detritus, Burton conflates the distinctive and conscious production of medieval decorative art with the consumption of soulless, packaged goods. Many of his miniature enamel works balance precariously on stacks of Twiglets, which from afar appear to be cast bronze or copper. Some are enamelled portraits FIG.5, reminiscent of those found in lockets. This sentiment vanishes rather quickly, however, upon noticing that the suited men stare out with a blank disinterest, more akin to the photographs on staff ID cards. An intricate and deeply personal medium is rendered entirely dispassionate. 

Burton’s installation reflects the claustrophobia and anonymity of the corporate office space. During the opening, as the gallery became increasingly crowded, the scene resembled an unfolding office party. The tired-looking chairs were transformed from props into meeting points, people manoeuvred around precariously piled papers and document folders and the desks exhibited newly pressed liquid rings from cans and bottles. The result of this immersive installation was a complication of sociocultural and political boundaries and identifiers. The public had made themselves at home in the private world of the Home Office, forcing an encounter between bureaucratic anonymity and personal identity politics – a confrontation that is ever present in Burton’s work.

In 2014 Burton introduced his audience to Ambivalent Man, a character who recurs frequently in his practice.1 With a head of curls, a boyish clean-shaven face and an abundance of chest hair, he could be equally comfortable in a Caravaggio painting and a 1980s home exercise video FIG.6. In part inspired by mid-century French Modernism and Athenian pottery, Ambivalent Man is characterised by a decorative two-dimensionality and solid inked lines, opening the door to endless repetition. For Burton, the decorative nature of painting is a central tenet that allows him to question the binary classifications of political and non-political artmaking. Incorporating visual motifs that seem to relate purely to aesthetic ‘style’ and ‘ornament’, he asks: if everything is political, then what politics does each specific work of art express?

Although not a self-portrait, Ambivalent Man grew out of what Burton describes as a ‘chronic condition called ambivalence’.2 The artist links this widespread state of mind to painting itself, particularly that which can be described as merely decorative or aesthetic. For Burton, ornamentation becomes a way to signal ideas of privilege and complicity. It allows him to both acknowledge the preconditions of the system of representation within which he works and afford it a renewed critical agency. This also manifests in the presentation of his work, for example in his use of hinged, double-sided screens. In his solo exhibition Becoming Sweet New Styles at Bosse & Baum in 2018 FIG.7 FIG.8, Ambivalent Man adorned screens erected in the gallery alongside references to Victorian pattern books and archetypal images of ornamentation and excess, such as peacocks, vases and fountains. This ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage curation questions the totality of his selected objects and their relationship to decorative embellishment.

In 2023 Burton undertook an Abbey Fellowship at the British School at Rome FIG.9. The archaeological past of the city paralleled his fascination with London’s medieval history, connecting seemingly distinct buildings, such as Westminster Abbey and the Basilica di S. Giovanni in Laterano. Burton’s time in Rome is perhaps best characterised by his frequent trips to S. Clemente, a basilica in nearby Monti famed for its tiered complex of buildings, which have been repurposed and transformed over centuries. The present basilica dates to the eleventh century, underneath which is another from the fourth century that was originally the home of an ancient Roman nobleman. In the first century CE the home was the site of clandestine Christian worship, and subsequently the basement briefly served as a mithraeum.

This vertical structure and layered history served as a framework for Burton’s output during the residency. He turned to the ‘inherently flat and sculptural’ medium of the flower press: ‘I liked the idea of taking a fragmented index of these mosaic floors, which are themselves made up of spoliated stone fragments of other Roman ruins, and piling them on top of each other or compressing them into my painting-object which included newspaper collages – a kind of paper mode of mosaic’.3 The flower press is a tool that evokes many wider concerns in Burton’s practice: at once a depository for research, a way to archive his own presence in Rome, ‘a model for painting that sits between dimensions, and a way to quite literally flatten objects into images to explore this Mannerist space in a direct way’.4

This series of work also points to his site-specific research in Anglo-Italian cultural exchange. The inclusion of pages from La Gazetta dello Sport, for example FIG.10, is as much a nod to British sports culture as it is to Italy’s. In a regular segment of the programme Football Italia, which aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and early 2000s, the presenter James Richardson would read out and translate the headlines from La Gazzetta dello Sport. As Burton notes: ‘Aside from the formal qualities of the newspaper, which I love, there is something oddly poignant about the image of a British journalist casually reading Italian newspapers to football lovers in the UK’.5

The relationship between text and image is a central facet of Burton’s work. This is often allegorised in the unsolvable crosswords that float on the surface of his canvases FIG.11. Grouped with objects and patterns that he describes as ‘incredibly robust’, the crossword becomes a motif that can be stretched and distorted in a Mannerist way, and yet still retain its essential identity.6 He also identifies a pleasure in disrupting the perfect symmetry and structure of the grid through the intervention of loose lines and enlarged squares. As a symbol, the black-and-white checkerboard draws together a number of Burton’s concerns: games, depictions of gridded shrouds from the ancient Greek Geometric period, Minimalism and artistic perspective. His wide-reaching references trace the persistence of such a style of ornament, which remains identifiable despite the artist’s deconstruction of it.

Burton’s incorporation of the empty crossword grid also alludes to the ‘insolvability’ of the painting. Both literally and metaphorically black and white, these puzzles necessitate a correct answer. Yet, there is a certain poetry to the solved puzzle’s illegibility; even when completed, they do not ‘mean’ anything outside of their specific purpose. They also recall the artist’s use of tesserae in his enamel sculptures, for the crossword is in essence a series of individual tiles that come together to form a whole, creating a challenge for the solver. Thus, in Burton’s paintings text and image become ‘adversaries that are circling each other in the work […] all the time’.7

His most recent exhibition, Press-gang at Gerald Moore Gallery, London (22nd April–18th May 2024), brought together works made during a residency at Eltham College, where the gallery is based. The title is indicative of the artist’s interest in disparate source material and the mutability of language. In addition to the explicit reference to the media that stalks Westminster constantly, Press-gang also alludes to the similarly titled 1990s children’s television show about a newspaper run by a group of school pupils, and the act of impressment in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. It also speaks directly to the artist’s continued use of the flower press in this body of work.

In the gallery a comically oversized lanyard and staff pass was propped against the wall, blocking the route into the following room FIG.12. The man depicted on the pass stares out at the viewer with indifference. All of his potential identifiers are encoded by placeholder Lorem Ipsum text; we know nothing about him. The manipulation of scale is a characteristic element of Burton’s work. What happens to the functionality of a handheld object when it is blown up in size? Does it retain its potential use as an identification marker when it is bigger than the person it represents? Do we still feel the same desire to kinaesthetically engage with such items when they are made alien through augmentation? Or, more widely, is the lanyard a reminder that the visitor is encountering an exhibition in a venue at a private school, which is dependent on Burton’s own access?

Press-gang grapples with the relationship between private and public spaces in London, informed by Burton’s residential life in Westminster. How does one feel at home in a neighbourhood where the public cannot enter certain green spaces, where police officers roam the streets twenty hours a day and media outlets set up camp outside at the hint of any political scandal? It is an area in which thousands of civil servants and tourists occupy the same areas, and yet remain strangers to one another. The enlarged pass is a reminder that access to many spaces relies on this physical system of plastic and technology. The fabric of the lanyard cut across the space, encircling the legs of a vitrine that housed delicate pressed flower works FIG.13; one must be mindful of their step.

Across his practice, lived experience is a key methodology for Burton, who uses it as way to reflect on his own understandings of identity and communication. At its most fundamental level, this self-narrative invites a holistic vision of events. For example, regarding his incorporation of pages of the London Metro newspaper into the flower press works, the artist explains: ‘It’s not just the Metro newspaper, and it’s not just the crossword section of the Metro newspaper, it’s the fact that I’m travelling on a train’.8 In addition to the familiar pages and black-and-white grids, therefore, the curved windows of commuter trains also find their way into his practice, often acting as a framing device. Burton’s use of the daily newspaper also finds an affinity with his interest in ambivalence, allowing as it does for the juxtaposition of mundane and horrifying events – an emphatic reminder that even in the most uneventful of days, the reader is forced into this state.

Burton’s work sits in the flexuous space between the public and private. But it is a keen awareness of his selected medium, and its perceived relationship to political artmaking, that defines his output. Through his use of repeated symbols and patterns, he parallels sociopolitical and economical ambivalence with one that relates to painting. The works simultaneously question how much agency such painterly forms can have, while articulating a desire for them to hold just that. Burton raises issues that, of course, cannot be easily resolved, but in doing so, he plays with the inherent tension that lies in the function of painting as a critical medium. 


About the author

Hardeep Singh Dhindsa

is a scholar and artist based in London. He is currently undertaking a PhD in Classics at King’s College London.


See also

Patterns and Pictures: strategies of appropriation, 1975–85
Patterns and Pictures: strategies of appropriation, 1975–85

Patterns and Pictures: strategies of appropriation, 1975–85

by Jenni Sorkin • Journal article

Beth Collar
Beth Collar

Beth Collar

08.12.2022 • Articles / Interview