Jane Burton: Shadowlands - Art Collector

Issue 28, April - June 2004

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Ashley Crawford delves into Jane Burton's psychological dramas and primal landscapes.

A young woman stands nude at the window, wistful, bathed in light, as dark fingers of foliage creep around the edges of the frame. A cloud hovers, surreal and strangely threatening at the moment between day and night. The world of Jane Burton’s photography is a morass of mystery, nostalgia, potential threat, sense of place, spirituality and sexuality; a world of dread and desire, beauty and melancholia.

Burton has, in recent years, become renowned for her nudes, which in the past have been situated in dilapidated rooms, shrouded with curtains and shadows. In her most recent work she has taken the camera outside, while the figure appears in a window in an act of exhibitionism or defiance, awaiting a lover or a voyeur and the shadows of trees reach out to the window frame.

An obsessive key to Burton’s work is the location chosen. She prowls suburbia, seeking out empty houses, peering through lace curtains, a voyeur of emptiness, seeking a stage for her tableaux. Alternatively she drives the coast and country, camera at the ready to capture a stark tree, a looming rock, an abandoned car, a violent wave.

In her last four shows this balance between the exterior and interior has been met; the meandering forms of nature juxtaposed with the gentle curve of the female form.

“I find working with the nude endlessly challenging,” Burton says. “It’s very difficult because it’s been done so much, and often so badly and often so well. It’s very loaded. I find it harder to do the nude than anything else. So much has been done and you want to avoid what’s been done, but somehow the body can be made new again. It’s amazing.”

“The nude is the body stripped back, anonymous,” Burton says. “It’s like a blank slate to work with. One can construct her identity. Quite often I will conceal the face to further objectify the body.”

The subject involved is, in a way, a self-portrait. “I think all my photographs could be read as self-portraiture,” says Burton. “The images of landscapes, houses, trees and so on reveal an emotional and psychological condition. I tend to select models who, to some extent, resemble myself, so that the end result is closer to a real personal experience for me. After all, the act of photographing a naked woman in an empty house is experienced for real. I think that I do photograph scenes so that they may exist – almost a document of proof. So that the world I feel can be shown to be real.”

“I mean I am interested in myself, therefore I am interested in the female form as a vessel of a psychological condition.”

Rather than seeing the encroaching shadows of foliage as threatening, Burton suggests that they represent “nature as a savage, primal urge,” of which the subjects are aware. “She’s almost enveloped in that primal, dark nature.”

Over the years Burton’s work has changed dramatically. She studied at the University of Tasmania and amongst her earliest works were a suite of images from the Royal Derwent Hospital. Her deserted wards, empty beds and yawning baths are chilling, gothic affairs; the ghosts of the patients only just out of sight.

She moved onto stark, shadowy nudes portrayed in car parks. She dabbled in colour and then black and white and then back to colour again. In early 2003 she was curated into the group exhibition, Anxious Bodies: Jane Burton, Pat Brassington, Jane Eisemann at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, to rapturous response.

“Jane Burton presents the female figure in unusual and isolated environments, constructing a kind of psychological drama where the future is unsure,” curator Natasha Bullock wrote for the show. “Her moody and filmic photographs are imbued with a sense of mystery, where the body denotes an unspoken desire. Each series is presented as a quasi-narrative as the photographs are linked in look and content with female forms placed alongside black and white landscapes, empty interiors, deserted car parks or glowing orange public telephone boxes.”

At the same time she exhibited at Dickerson Gallery, Sydney, inspiring critic Peter Hill to include her show in his round up of best exhibitions for the year. “If your passion is photography, then Jane Burton is a rising star whose work is selling fast,” he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.“The Other Side IV… mixes the erotic with the intimate and is part of an unfolding series of interiors in which the space is flooded with light through gaps in curtains or netting.”

In 2000, she was selected by Australian Art Collector (issue 12) as an Undiscovered Artist worth watching. Her work has shown at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, the Centre for the Arts, University of Tasmania, Hobart, and in 1998 she was included in the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Over the duration of her career there have been attempts to place her work in the context of feminist art, erotica, surrealism and pop, but the work slides through easy definition. “To keep the work challenging I have to be constantly breaking my own rules and not stick to conventions that have worked in the past,” she says.

The most recent landscapes strangely recall the work of Caspar David Friedrich, however instead of portraying the lone figure staring out at a protean wilderness, Burton herself is the witness to another world.

As feminist critic Lucy Lippard has noted: “Both landscape and place can be broken down into their local components, the vortices where people and place work on each other. But place is where we stand to look around at landscape or look out to the (less familiar) view. The word place has psychological echoes as well as social ramifications. ‘Someplace’ is what we are looking for. ‘No place’ is where these elements are unknown or invisible, but in fact every place has them, although some are being buried beneath the asphalt of monoculture, the ‘geography of nowhere.’ ‘Placeness’, then, may simply be place ignored, unseen or unknown.”

More than simply a physical positioning, Burton in her landscape work takes a conceptual vantage point, the desire for an overview, an opportunity to view the unknown. She recognises, in part, that what we see is contingent upon the position from which we look, in a physical, intellectual and emotional sense. They also reference Friedrich’s employment of the Rückenfiguren – the back of the sole figure gazing over a daunting landscape in such famous works as Wanderer Above the Mists (1818). Burton eschews the use of the figure, but shares with Friedrich’s painting the use of a topography obscured – an unknown and unseen landscape.

The core issues at play with Friedrich’s work and the Romantic movement in general and which apply to Burton’s photography are well summarised by J L Koerner; “…a heightened sensitivity to the natural world, combined with a belief in nature’s correspondence to the mind; a passion for the equivocal, the indeterminate, the obscure and the faraway (objects shrouded in fog, a distant fire in the darkness, mountains merging in the clouds, etc) a celebration of subjectivity bordering on solipsism often coupled with a morbid desire that that self be lost in nature’s various infinities … a nebulous but all pervading mysticism; and a melancholy, sentimental longing or nostalgia which can border on kitsch.”

With her film-noirish shadows, it is obvious that cinema is also a major influence and inspiration.

“I admire directors who have a strong visual style and are adept at creating mood and atmosphere. The power of the film-still; narrative, atmosphere, emotion can be contained within this frozen moment, suggesting far more, something beyond the frame. Cinema beautifully manipulates.”

The elements of mystery and suspense in cinema is amply reflected in Burton’s work, most especially when she tackles such structures as a boat shed – a mundane subject that takes on an air of peril, suggesting an imminent discovery that the beach goer does not want to have. It begs the question: What’s inside?

“I know what that image is about,” says Burton. “It’s about the grave, the coffin, the closed box.”

In 2001, Burton’s brother, Harry, a photo-journalist with Reuters news service, was killed while working in war-torn Afghanistan. For some time her work became painfully melancholic. While most of the recent work has an optimistic, or almost celebratory, air, the boat shed, taken in late 2001, was the last expression of mourning in her imagery.

“I think the recent the work is more optimistic,” says Burton. “I’m allowing myself to feel happier.”

Regardless, there remains a decided sense of unease in these works. “I can trace my attraction to the gothic aesthetic back to childhood,” she says. “Growing up in the countryside of rural Victoria in an isolated farmhouse, my siblings and I created myths and fantasies about our surroundings. These were fed by my father’s eccentric collection of books – Saki, Edgar Allen Poe, The Brothers Grimm, BBC dramas like Dr Who, old Hammer-Horror movies. A move to Tasmania, a truly gothic landscape, reinforced my darker aesthetic tendencies. No one can escape the influence of that landscape and its history. It’s like being haunted.”

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Burton eschews becoming overly involved in high-end technology with her work; avoiding computer enabled fictions. “Obviously with photography you can control the tonality and the depth of colour, but I am very much into keeping things as true as they were in reality. I’m very much into truth and detail. There’s so much information there already, so there’s no way I’m going to clean it up or remove it. I’m into capturing the truth of the moment.”

“My truth.”

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