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Out of the Attic and Onto the Canvas

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The sensuous, densely layered paintings Bob Burdette is showing at Ann Nathan this month combine text and image in a way that recalls Rauschenberg and Warhol, both of whom he considers influences. But the actual text and actual images come from a place very particular to Burdette's personal history, namely some 50 boxes of books, magazines, and comics that he started collecting as a child in rural West Virginia.

Burdette grew up in the 70s and early 80s on 35 wooded acres. Though his family had a small black-and-white TV, it sat atop a color set that didn't work, and he spent lots of time outdoors. He and his brother and cousins read comics, set up battle tableaux with action figures, and dressed in camouflage to play war games. His father was an amateur military historian who painted historical scenes, so there were always art supplies around. When Burdette entered his teens, he says, his parents became very protective, keeping him close to home. "I wonder every day what their reason was." But he believes their restrictions, which made him feel he was missing out on the larger world, are part of the reason he began to collect a lot of imagery: "I lived in books and comics. I was real big into encyclopedias--there was so much in them, places and famous people."

Burdette's method is to make black-and-white xeroxes from his collections on transparency film, then project them onto the canvas and trace them. But the tracing isn't always exact--he alters the colors and adds invented figures and backgrounds. His approach originated in the late 90s, when he became increasingly interested in advertising. After graduating from the Memphis College of Art in 1997, he got a job as a gallery preparator, which took him into the homes of Memphis's elite. "For the first time in my life I felt my low place in society," he says. He began noticing social inequalities--many wealthy households had black or Latino servants--and tied them to his growing skepticism about "everyone can have it" commercial hype. He also connected the empty promises of advertising with the "dumbed-down version of life" in comic books. At about the same time he rediscovered his childhood collections because his parents were cleaning out their attic, and he brought many things back to Memphis. He met his wife in 1998, and since she's a big collector of 1950s kitsch, the two of them started going to thrift shops, where he began to buy magazines from the 50s and earlier. When they moved to Wichita around 2001, he found shops with different items and was able to "fill a lot of holes" in his collection. "I've spent my entire life trying to understand everything," he says. "But there's only so much understanding that anyone's going to really get."

Music has also been influential in his work: a taste for punk developed in junior high--the Sex Pistols got him started--laid the groundwork for his cynical attitude toward consumer culture. And what he listens to while painting can have an effect: working on It's All Fun and Games, in which two smiling little boys are surrounded by a blizzard of prices and ad slogans, he listened mostly to dance and techno and ended up "focusing on the repetitive rhythms and patterning and building of layer on layer in the sound."

A year ago Burdette and his wife had a daughter, and concern for her has surfaced in his most recent paintings, a number of which hint at sexual threats to girls or young women. In some of these works he was also inspired by what he calls the "psychotic quality" of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Three titled Brave New World all show a frightened-looking Little Red Riding Hood, and in two of them a bikini-clad woman is superimposed on the little girl. In Sea Creatures, a woman from a Japanese print is threatened by octopus tentacles. But the meaning isn't precisely fixed, just as Burdette throughout his work is ambivalent about advertising: "I wanted to make something out of advertisements that's beautiful too," he says.

Bob Burdette

When: Through Sat 8/27

Where: Ann Nathan, 212 W. Superior

Info: 312-664-6622

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