THIS REMARKABLE BOOK of photographs of black paintings made and exhibited by South African artist Ricky Burnett is intentionally out to mess with your mental equilibrium, but not your self-esteem. Premised with a short text written by Tracey Hawthorne, the book situates itself in art history. In confrontation with ideals of representation. But this is no ordinary art history book – or treatise. There’s no substantial guidance into how to get through each work with its individual nuances and characteristic density. You might feel lost and a little frightened.
It’s a fear sparked by the generally bad rap that visual art has gained in the contemporary press: often visual arts writing is done in such a way that if you are not armed with several degrees in a deep and obscure specialisation in the discipline, you will fear you’re not sufficiently intelligent or well-educated to engage with the core of the work. Blame it on conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp. On writers who over the years developed such an impenetrable tendency to obfuscate their writing with specialist terminology deriding plain language that they effectively chased away popular engagement.
You could even blame it on editors and sub-editors who over the years fell victim to bullying by specialist writers with complicated and seldom-used terminology and theories. But the more you look, the less you should fear these paintings in this book, for this reason.
Yes, they’re about the work of notoriously uncategorisable artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Yes, Burnett comments that the structure of the paintings is not apparent and that they hinge on Goya’s work in a way that cannot be easily traced. But he’s not really playing games with you. No, really.
In 1936, German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. A critical paean to the idea of photography as a medium and photography as a means of reproducing art, it was to become arguably one of the more important tracts on the moral and ethical issues surrounding reproduced photographs of paintings in books.
Ricky Burnett: Troubled With Goya sits strategically on the thorns of Benjamin’s argument. The photographs – taken by Liz Whitter – are of such a quality that they actually challenge the experience of seeing the art works in the flesh, in a gallery, lit in particular ways. Here, your nose is pushed against the nuances of the paint as it is lit in a certain way. You can almost smell the paint as you gaze into its peaks and valleys that the artist as created on the canvas.
But further to that, this is not only about photography and painting. It is also about printing. Published by Palimpsest International and printed in Malaysia, this book offers a richness which you can taste. It doesn’t suffer from a tendency to be muddied and sullied with fingerprints tainting the surface of the glossy paper.
The book does, however, have a downside. But it’s a downside that you could take and stretch across a whole swath of artmaking, should you be so inclined. And that rests upon its abstraction. If Liz Whitter and the Palimpsest International team had focused their considerable skills and acumen in photographing a patch of soil after a rainstorm, or the underside of a piece of rock, they would yield something as varied and as rich, and abstract and as magical as Burnett’s paintings of Goya’s work. Does that mean that we who feel sucked in by these images in this book, down to our very toes, are beguiled and foxed by tricks and nuances that have nothing to do with the real world? Not really. This book isn’t about the underside of a rock or a piece of soil. They’re about Ricky Burnett reflecting on Goya. And there’s their rub of brilliance.
Ricky Burnett: Troubled with Goya (Palimpsest International, Malaysia 2016) Visit www.rickyburnett.com