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American Dreaming: Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield, The Insect Chorus, 1917

Charles Burchfield, The Insect Chorus, 1917

Temporal lobe epilepsy, or TLE, is a localized form of the seizure-inducing family of brain problems. It usually affects only that part of the cerebral cortex that processes memory, emotions, and visual and verbal semantics, without producing the spectacular fits and spasms of grand mal epilepsy. TLE can, however, produce auditory and visual hallucinations, profound religious feeling, and a behavioral symptom known as hypergraphia. Technically, this refers to a compulsion to write, but this smacks more of cultural bias than neurology. If you saw the documentary Crumb, you’ll recall R.’s tragic older brother Charles, whose own obsessively rendered comic books became increasingly word-cluttered before finally evolving into page after page of unintelligible, cursive scribbles — pretty solid evidence that it’s the mark-making that counts, not the particular symbolic system (verbal or pictorial) being employed.

While Robert Crumb’s literalist interpretation of the lives of such probable TLE sufferers as Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph (The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis through February 7) is on display nearby, it was actually a different Hammer Museum exhibit that started me thinking about compulsive visionary doodling. As far as I know, Charles Burchfield (or Charles Crumb, for that matter) was never diagnosed with epilepsy (though it’s never too late; some accounts retroactively attribute Van Gogh’s compulsive letter-writing and hallucinatory visual vocabulary to TLE), but once I reached the central gallery in Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield — the one devoted entirely to reams of the artist’s carefully scrapbooked telephone message-pad doodles — I was ready to go out on a limb.

Burchfield — an Ohio native who spent most of his career in Buffalo and environs — is best known for his midperiod landscape watercolors: nostalgic Depression-era views of dilapidated small-town architecture or already-crumbling industrial infrastructure in the style that came to be known as American Scene Painting or Regionalism. Its main proponents were Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, and it has generally (if unfairly) been regarded in retrospect as a reactionary retreat into academic realism after the initial impact of the European Modernists after the 1913 Armory show in New York. Fans of this phase of Burchfield’s artistic evolution won’t be disappointed in this show; there are a dozen strong examples, including several, such as the nearly-abstract monochrome Night (undated), in which the balance between his nervous vision and the prosaic naturalism of his chosen style tips waaay to the dark side.

If Burchfields’s career had ended there, it would have been one kind of story. Because in spite of his popular and critical success as an illustrative painter of scrap-metal yards and snowbound factory towns, he had started out painting loose, swooping, color-saturated mystical scenes of nature built largely from an abstract symbolic alphabet of his own device. At the tender age of 24 Burchfield concocted more than 200 of what he referred to as “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts”— simple, biomorphic abstract forms defined by the interplay of dark and light, each one representing a specific emotional state: “Aimless Brooding,” for example, or “Dangerous Brooding,” “Morbid Brooding,” or “Imbecility.” Smells like teen spirit!

This remarkable (and long-lost) pictographic lexicon amounts to a singular declaration of American Modernism, and it’s where guest curator Robert “Culvert-through-the-BVM” Gober chooses to begin exploring Burchfield’s oeuvre. Using his invented abstract vocabulary, Burchfield grappled with what appears to have been a tremendous angst load, transforming his units of brooding and melancholy into components of a seething, psychedelic landscape whose pervasive vitality overwhelmed any petty motivations of self-pity. Instead, Burchfield’s self-indulgence took a different turn. Between 1916 and 1918 he produced hundreds of watercolors — half his lifelong output — each one teeming with symbolic portent, decorative inventiveness and a dreamlike animism where the ominously anthropomorphic or blankly inert architecture of human civilization appears to be in a cosmic struggle with the wildly vibrating energies of the natural world. The Insect Chorus (1917), for example, affords only a background glimpse of the stylized gables of a house almost entirely engulfed in arabesque clouds of foliage, which, in turn, mutate indiscernibly into layered graphic patterns representing the songs of crickets, cicadas and katydids.

It’s not surprising that when arch-Modernist Alfred Barr chose Burchfield for the first solo exhibition at New York’s newly founded Museum of Modern Art in 1930, it wasn’t the contemporaneous work — moody Hopper-esque street scapes like Winter Twilight (1930) — that he included but rather a selection of 27 of these exuberant, intricately coded, synaesthesia-induced fever-dreams from more than a decade earlier. Yet in spite of this belated institutional endorsement, Burchfield continued to hew his path through the decidedly unmystical Regionalist swamp — as Gober details in drolly titled chronological galleries titled “Wallpaper and Marriage” (referring to Burchfield’s lengthy 1920s stint as a wallpaper designer), “Public Acclaim or The Great Depression” and “War and Doubt.” If Burchfield had died in 1942, we would be left with a narrative arc describing a troubled, gifted youth overcoming profound psychological demons and reining in the extravagances of his talent to become an accomplished, well-adjusted, contributing member of society (while coincidentally abandoning introspective European-style Modernism for a meticulously crafted, socially responsible, populist pictorialism.) But Burchfield didn’t die. Burchfield went a little crazy.

One small room in the exhibit acts as a sort of hinge between the artist’s middle and late careers — the passage Gober labels “War and Doubt.” It contains two renditions of the same landscape: a pair of mountainous forest ravines: one pouring down water and light, the other receding into murky darkness. They converge at the viewer’s POV. The first version is completed in Burchfield’s masterful mature watercolor technique, which, all questions of pictorial conventionality aside, is breathtaking. But Burchfield himself was unsatisfied with the results. Returning to an earlier version of the same scene from the inspired 1917 period, Burchfield matched the weight of the paper and beveled the edges at 45-degree angles, carefully fitting additional strips and panels of paper around the original to double its square-inch area. Then he basically picked up where he left off when he entered the wallpaper factory, extending the decades-old gestural flourishes, widening the vista into Cinemascope, amping up the vibratory index, and populating the newly created margins with plants and creatures bordering on the supernatural. 

The results are phenomenal. Several of the featured “reconstructions” are jaw-dropping: The Sphinx and the Milky Way (1917/1946) takes an already impressive nocturnal mountain silhouette and opens the sky up to a sprawling, virtuosic near-abstract depiction of the star-riddled firmament, then anchors it with a foreground band of radiant flora centered on a death’s head moth suckling at a five-petalled white blossom (datura, anyone?). It’s as startling and mysterious as anything Max Ernst’s automatiste techniques were able to summon from the collective unconscious. And that’s saying a lot.

The final, largest gallery, in fact, echoes the expansive outpouring of creative energy triggered by this strange stylistic wormhole — scene after scene of rural or wilderness landscapes glowing with auras and plasma balls, rippling with barely concealed sentience, radiating spiritual light and the promise of pagan renewal. Crazy worked for him. At the center of the room, in an oversized vitrine are stacked the final link in my diagnostic chain — 10,000 pages of Burchfield’s handwritten journals enclosed in manila folders, presented as a monumental sculpture. Alongside his compulsive doodling, his synaesthesia, his attraction to pattern and horror vacuii, and the hallucinatory animism he ultimately couldn’t contain, it’s a testament to Burchfield’s neurological difference. On further investigation it turns out he indeed suffered a bout of “brain fever” while in high school.

But so what? Everybody remembers circuit-bent kids who got in trouble at school because they couldn’t stop doodling. Ask a group of artists and half of them were probably that kid. Everybody (except maybe Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst) knows that half of what passes for art out there is opportunistic, exploitative poseurship — collectable knick-knacks from the Emperor’s New Sweatshop. What I’m suggesting is that Burchfield might not be the exception but rather the template. In an art world where qualitative criteria have been systematically stripped away for a hundred years, maybe the question of “What is Art” can be boiled down to objective physiological data. Those art-world professionals found to be lacking the art gene can be stripped of their ill-gotten riches and sent to re-education camps at Eli Broad’s SunAmerica facilities in Nevada and Utah. Hey, everybody’s gotta have a dream, right?

“Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield,” through January 3.

“The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis,” through February 7.

Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.