Denise Burge is an associate professor of art at UC’s DAAP College of Art. I visited her on a warm late summer day in her studio in Northside where I found her working on the beginnings of a new series. Burge is known for her work with quilts as well as more recent video and multi-media work with the group Maidens of the Cosmic Body Running (with artists Lisa Siders and Jenny Ustick), and animation with the collaborative group the Dozens. Her work has been shown at venues ranging from the Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati to the House of Blues in Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Dallas. A piece from her new series is currently on view in the DAAP faculty exhibition “Variable Proportions” in the Reed Gallery at UC, which runs through October 4, with a closing reception Oct. 1 from 5-7pm.
Susan Byrnes: What kind of artist are you?
Denise Burge: I work in so many different media, installation, video, drawings, paintings, and now back to quilts. For me, it’s more about the idea than the medium.
SB: What inspired your transition from quilts into media-based work?
DB: I think I’ve always had an interest in photography as a concept, but the deeper concept that I work with is our relationship to nature as an identity, as an idea. The thing that I was interested in with photography was the photographer and the relationship with the thing being photographed, especially with landscape. The work that I did in video was very much about distancing oneself from nature as a way to increase a romantic relationship between oneself and nature. The photograph creates a sort of substitute for the real thing. The real thing’s a lot more complicated than an image of the thing – you can gaze at an image of a thing and fantasize about it, and make it into whatever you want it to be without having to deal with the reality of it.
The natural world, or the spaces that we inhabit, has been the subject that I’ve worked with since I started making art as a teenager, fantasizing about spaces that I either miss or imagine or long for in some way. The (early) quilts were really about the part of the country where I’m from, which is North Carolina, the Appalachian region, and our romantic attachment to that region. The quilts showed images of land manipulation – road building, park building and all this artificial manipulation of the natural material that we do in order to make it more ideal for our habitation or our gaze at it – we sculpt landscape to make it a pleasing image for us to look at.
SB: Can you tell me about the strange language in your videos with Maidens of the Cosmic Body Running? Who did the writing?
DB: It was collaborative but I did the lion’s share of it. I’m very interested in all of that language of self-help. I’m really interested in America as a place that is very grounded in this do-it-yourself, create-your-own religion, kind of place. It felt very natural to me, because I grew up on books by Norman Vincent Peale and EST and all of these crazy movements that are very independent-minded. There’s a great book called “Occult America” that traces from the pilgrims forward this sense of “we are different, we are not grounded in history, we can remake things”. I think of the Transcendentalists in the 19th century and how they believed that personal experience was the thing that would save you.
SB: You said you are going back to quilts. What are you working on now?
DB: I went on a trip to India in January. I wanted to go to Varanasi in particular, it’s the city where they burn the dead. It’s one of the holiest cities in India. If you get to Varanasi you’re supposed to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth, so there is this constant flow along the Ganges of people coming in with their relatives and burning the bodies. The city just blew my mind because everywhere you look, in every nook and cranny, there are these little shrines. It’s the city of Shiva, so a lot of the shrines are a lingam. The symbol of Shiva is a lingam, which is the phallic shape, and a yoni, a vaginal shape that goes around it. I loved looking into these little holes in space, it might be a tiny hole in a wall, that has a tiny little thing in it with some flowers strewn on it.
My relationship with mortality is something that I have been working on. I have a complicated relationship with it because I lost my father when I was six, and I think underlying a lot of this relationship with natural spaces is not just a concept in my head, but something very emotional for me. This spring and summer, I think because of the influence of India and these spaces that are sacred and everyday at the same time, I’m reengaging with specific spaces in my own memory that are very emotional and bring up comfort but also have a quality of death around them. It’s death and fecundity at the same time.
I have started working with memories of two specific places. One is the graveyard where my father is buried. I remember going there and hanging out with my mom, it’s kind of an open space, a modern cemetery, not like Spring Grove, with weird little areas. There was one platform that was a giant sundial, and I remember wondering what it was and feeling the stillness and the mystery of it at the same time. Another space I’m primarily working with is a place I used to go to as a kid in South Carolina called Brookegreen Gardens. It’s this sculpture garden that’s very lush and mysterious and ancient feeling, even though it was built in the 1930s. It has all of these sculptures, a lot of them are figurative and mythological, traditional sculptures for the 1930s. There usually aren’t many people there. I’ve gone in the summer when it’s been very hot and still, and everything feels frozen in time.
So now I’m working with these open arid spaces, weird spaces with a sense of still, frozen quality to them. It’s hard to say more about them than that because I’m just beginning, and I think the trip to India started that up in me. It’s still the same idea that it has been; I’m creating spaces that have a narcotic effect on me. They’re places of comfort, places that have a certain mystery, and sort of an erotic quality too. The working process has really slowed down. The process now is very painstaking. If it’s not just exactly right….. it would be fine if it were just improvisational, putting something up and responding to it, but this work is much more emotional, and has to have a specific quality. I honestly feel like what I’m working on now, even though it’s not as flashy as the Maidens work or the Dozens, is much more important to me. It has to do with death and sex, and my relationship with these particular spaces. I’m excited about it but it’s much harder to get it right.
SB: Do you have any of this work up now?
DB: The piece I put in the (UC) faculty show is called “Euphoric Recall”, which is a phrase that addicts use to describe how certain sensations can trigger a memory of the effect of the drug. I found that phrase perfectly relates to what I’m doing because I’m very much interested in the reverberating, hypnotic effect of space, and if I can make that happen in a piece then it’s a success for me.