Ben Burgis’ work is the result of technical skill and a tender outlook on life, marked by sensitivity and humour
The world is a complicated place right now. Between the relentless friction of political discourse and the harrowing reality of living through a global pandemic, it can be difficult to find lightness among the dark, but British artist Ben Burgis – whose show Odd One Out opens at Jermaine Gallacher’s Lant Street showroom today – offers a moment of escapism through surreal depictions of his fantasised self.
“There are decisions to make about content, combined with technical skill, and then it’s just practice,” explains Burgis, when asked about the motivation behind his paintings. “The more you do it the better it will get, much like golf, but golf’s not an emotional response to the world, or very funny, and these are two of the most important intentions for me – sensitivity and humour, revealing the stupidity of your inner world.”
Burgis’ paintings are like pantomime self-portraits. Speaking to me from a friend’s London home on the eve of his show’s opening – himself having moved to North Wales after an unfulfilling stint in the capital – the artist’s longing for escape is as evident in his explanation of his work as it is the absurd scenarios depicted in each painting. “There’s a big embrace of the countryside and a sense of feeling myself suddenly in these roles, listening to lots of country music and laughing at myself doing that, and thinking about myself wearing Stetsons and how that would kind of be impossible and an appropriation of different subjects.”
While many artists are notorious for taking themselves seriously to the point of parody, Burgis’ description of his own work is peppered with acknowledgements of his own pretence and an endearing honesty about what it means to be genuinely expressive in an era of endless irony. Alluding to his time spent studying at London’s renowned arts university Goldsmiths, he explains, “I really do like this kind of emotional response, that something really would just be from the heart, but that just feels so ridiculous if you’ve been conceptually and critically informed, so then there is this laughing at yourself for any kind of sincerity or wearing your emotions on your chest.”
For artists, the problem with trying to make a living is being regularly faced with the choice between making the art they want to make and making the art that galleries want to sell. Having previously rejected formal representation and the stability that comes with it, Burgis speaks warmly of finding tenderness in the chaos of friend and collaborator Gallacher. “There’s no one like him,” insists the artist. “He’s got nothing, no security in his life. He’s self-made and he’s just great.”
The pair have been close for years, with Burgis briefly touching on them having “a thing” in the earlier years of their friendship. Safe in the hands of a gallerist who values the freedom of intimate working relationships, Burgis has found a dynamic that allows him to embrace the personal narratives that shape his work. “I’ve definitely worked under much more clearly defined collaborations, but because we’re such close friends and it’s so natural, we don’t really need to do it,” he says, talking about the creative production of Odd One Out. “It’s very loose. There’s a lot of trust – he’s one of my closest friends.”
With exhibitions, residencies and art fairs cancelled around the globe, it’s been a difficult year for artists to exhibit their work at all. Masked visitors to Gallacher’s Lant Street showroom will be part of a lucky few who get to experience Burgis’ work in person in 2020, and he hopes they will allow their own imagination to guide their understanding of it. “I wouldn’t like to intend people to think something specific,” he explains. “I think the best arts power is in the ambiguity of its interpretation. Ambiguity is a wonderful thing, possible meanings floating about, suggesting nothing concrete but wafting warm notes of affinity. I often think about how I came across art as a child and the inclusion and shared consciousness I felt from it, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and feeling less alone. If that’s something I can do in my work I’d be happy.”
Ben Burgis: Odd One Out is at Jermaine Gallacher’s showroom at 59 Lant Street, London, SE1 1QN, from October 8 – 18, 2020, from 11am – 6pm, by appointment.