Tom Burtonwood: Codes and Permutations

Review / Patrick Lichty
We could say that all art, painting or otherwise, is a set of codes
designed to elicit affective responses. Done well, these codes
consist of a finely-crafted set of signifiers set in place like
a set of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Everything is in its place,
in a concise set of relations that speaks directly and legibly.
Greenberg spoke of formalism where art must be reduced to its essentials,
but this brevity is iconic of contemporary art, whether
minimal or not. “Tight” and minimal work are not necessarily the
same. But, given the work of art and the question of form, is there
a limit to how much information can be embedded into any given
piece? What systems of information can works of art investigate?
Are there techniques that can create layers of signification, or
multiple encoding methods that allow for expanded experiences that
link the viewer to sites outside work of art itself?

Tom Burtonwood employs numerous systems to embed his own cultural
codes into painting, which is not surprising in that much of his
work employs concepts of permutation and tropes like actual 2D (QR)
barcodes. The series in this book is a meticulous exploration and
expansion of a 3-dimensional form separated into a three-level projection
of layered blocks Burtonwood has distilled into a set of
59 “faces”. These paintings reminds one of works like John Simon
Jr’s Every Icon (which cycles through every possibility of a 32×32
black and white grid), the chance processes of John Cage, and the
permutations employed by Brion Gysin, as well as the systems of Le
Witt. In these 100 paintings, Burtonwood cycles through sets of
emphasis, color and articulation of the forms and faces.

This series originates from a series of sculptures that have built
on rectangular form. The first was an articulating cube entitled
Display Unit that continuously unfolds akin to a 3D origami. This
resulted in a small series of reconfigurable sculptures that fold
into numerous forms, but return to the general shape of the cube,
and this would lay the ground for Burtonwood’s interest in permutation.
The piece completely changes in form, and color as it
unfolds, revealing additional parts of it. From this, the onlooker
asks when looking at the work, “How many ways can this (un)fold?”

Display Unit Mixed Media, 8”x32”x32”, 2010










The next works that follow the Display Unit series between the cube
and the beginning of the “code” paintings are a series of 3-dimensional,
small-format wood constructions made of cubic constructions
tonally and formally reminiscent of the alluding to geometric
forms used by artists like Fernand Leger. The brightly colored
cubes grow organically off the wall, seemingly growing over time as
if a manifest vision of Conway’s Game of Life, that is a computer
“game” that simulates life using very simple rules. Or, perhaps
these pieces resemble a geometric candy lichen. Regardless, in
this progression of the work, 2d becomes 3D, the cube becomes
cubes, and forms lift off the plane.

Laser cut painted birch plywood and pastel on paper, 24”x14”x10”, 2010















The crux of Burtonwood’s system is that the work is, in essence,
algorithmic. From the origami cube to the assemblages, the
pieces follow ordered logic, but when the shift in the pieces
begins it is when they begin to resemble 2D barcodes, much like
those read using smartphones. The influence of the code creates
two effects. First, in investigating the bar code, an order is put in place. In order
to be readable, codes must follow rules of encoding that
allows for their decoding. The form becomes standardized for
the given information. Also, the use of the 2D code demands
that the sculpture be flattened, in this case isometrically in order for the form to follow
its function. Therefore in considering the work over time, Burtonwood’s
form folds, expands, then flattens, keeping the projection
of the 3D as it maintains its system, both as formal trope and allusion
to encoded data.

Burtonwood’s folding of form is a transitional state in moving
from 3D to 2D projections. The cubic forms turn into Orthographic
grids that create faces resembling Escher’s endless stairs, folding
space into impossible angles when the paintings use fields of
color across multiple faces of the shape. What might seem like a
series of shifts from the cube to sculpture to the painting retains
a conceptual continuity through its expansion and contraction, to
be developed through iteration, which appears as another kind of
folding. After the flattening of the piece, it stays stable for the
series of one hundred. But the point of stability is the form set
by the silkscreen outline of the composition, and it is this continuity
that allows other variables like color, stroke, and texture
to come into play. The composition is an allusion to layered 2D
barcodes as 3-level set of cubes. It is curious to consider what
code is embedded in Burtonwood’s image if we could read it, but
this is not possible. Since Burtonwood has defined a Lewitt-esque
system, he engages the exploration of permutation. This permutation
sets up a path of exploration that shows itself in the cyclical
development of the aforementioned aspects of stroke, texture,
and color. Here, these paintings exhaustively permute, or explore
the possibilities of combinations under certain choices.
It is this set of combinations that Burtonwood brings to bear in
terms of the way he works his restrained grammar in nearly every
possible way. Four major sets of play make themselves evident in
the work for permutation. These are color, level, stroke and color.
The most dramatic of these is color, in which a system is used
where adjacent faces on each of the nine sub-squares in the field
add up. This can include green from blue and yellow and salmon from
alizarin and fluorescent pink. These combinations writhe across
the faces/levels in progression through the investigation of the
limited faces, similar to Gysin’s poetry of “I am” expanding to “I
am I am am I am” Also, his modulation of fluorescent and pastel
gouaches create remarkable rhythms, and reflect the flatness and
bright color of excess typified in the 00’s punk New Media movement
of “dirtstyle” (Arcangel, Paperrad), and Murakami’s Superflat

Where Burtonwood’s paintings are startling is when he plays with
line and opacity. One surprise occurs when he combines two faces
at 90 degrees and combines them into one without completely breaking
the system through merging just two faces into one flat face.
This flattening creates an Escher-like space, creating an optical
dissonance that creates a tension within the pieces. On the other
hand, Burtonwood also engages visual play through the use of loose
and organic strokes that inject humanity into a rectilinear and
sometimes nearly digital precision. As the paintings progress,
modulating from hard, crisp lines to a broad, swoopy strokes create
a visual jazz that remind one that this is not only about codes and
systems, but as critic Andrew Forge would say, also human choices.
Burtonwood’s set of permutations is a series of choices where he
pins down all variables save one, like color, line, or opacity and
then modulates it before moving on

In discussing the work of Tom Burtonwood, his permutations and
folds, one needs to note the new compositions that are emerging
from this body of work. In the emergent work, he merges a more
formal version of the 2D barcode, allegorically in color, but
also with a scannable black and white one in the piece itself.
To understand this, I am reminded of the mathematical theory of
the tesseract, or 4-dimensional cube, where a fourth dimension is
folded out at ninety degrees to the three (length, height, width)
we know. The addition of the smartphone-accessible code is akin
to overlaying an entire virtual space on top of the painted work.
While I do not suggest that Burtonwood is using higher-dimensional
geometry, he actually is again unfolding form, expanding the work
into hyper(link) space of the World Wide Web. The idea is that
the patron scans the barcode with their phone, and then the linked
page comes up on the phone as a program or web content.
This completes the function of placing an additional experiential
layer on top of the painting, in a way, folding
it out into cyberspace as a fourth dimension.

Composition 5.02 Gouache on paper, 12”x12”, 2010













The aesthetic arc of Tom Burtonwood’s work is an ongoing investigation
of dimensional and parametric origami that deals with systems and codes
while exploring aspects of Modern aesthetics. Where his
last works are literally legible in terms of the bar code,
his first works reveal their legibility in form and color as well as historical allusions to
systemic artists like Sol LeWitt, and later Casey Reas, His later
color work represents itself as using the tonal lexicon of the
contemporary, and his use of line plays between the hard determinism
of the system, reminding one of the sharp lines of Mondrian,
and the looseness of Abstract Expressionism, almost to the degree
of a boxed DeKooning. Burtonwood permutates combinations between
the Modern use of systems art and formalism and the Postmodernist
ambiguity of the code and excesses of color, while folding space,
from 3D, 2D orthography, then up into a 4th (electronic) dimension.
Between restraint of form and explosion of permutation, Burtonwood
methodically paints the information landscape, grounded in traditions,
but reaching forth into a cybernetic world of information
and higher dimensionality.

~ by patlichty on August 15, 2011.

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