With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)
Tim Burns’ landscape is neither here nor there.
His paintings seem to describe a place situated somewhere between Tasmania’s Central Highlands, where trout streams glisten in the sun and where hydro-electric dam walls separate great vastnesses of air and water, and its West Coast, where tannin-stained rivers empty into a sea of brown-edged waves and cappuccino foam. A place somewhere between Judd’s Creek, in the Huon Valley, where Burns lived for ten years, the five-acre regrowth block at Margate on the d’Entrecasteaux Channel where he is now, and a piece of raw bush on the south side of Bruny Island where he will go - one day. These real, intimatelyknown places - traversed, explored, examined, fished in, cleared, dug, built on - provide a world of natural forms - mountains, clouds and lakes, sponges, flowers and seed pods - from which the artist has evidently distilled his distinctive and personal vocabulary of abstract patterns, glyphs and paraphs.
Nevertheless, he insists that the paintings are not descriptive. And indeed, on close examination the motifs do appear oddly, teasingly ambiguous. The bumpy parallel lines which at first seem to describe mountain ranges could just as easily represent the output of a seismograph, the contour lines of a map, the raked lines of a Japanese sand garden, wrinkles on skin, or tide marks on a beach. The recurrent twisting curves may well have their origin in sentimental reminiscences of Judd’s Creek, but they derive just as much from Maori carving and tattooing, and from the Celtic interlace patterns of Burns’ beloved ancestral Ireland. It could even be said that as much as Burns’ paintings seem to incorporate or express Tasmania’s boggy brown land and glittering green sea, they are equally evocative of Utagawa Hiroshige’s Edo or Claude Monet’s Giverny, of Saul Steinberg’s New York or George Tjungarrayi’s Great Sandy Desert.
These works are in fact non-places, heterotopias. Formal gardens, Persian carpets, Chinese ceramics, they are objects as much as they are images. Modernist, abstract, they are about flatness and painterliness and the integrity of the picture plane. Instinctive, expressive, they are fundamentally process-driven, pictures of time, stories of becoming.
Burns’ paintings are not planned in advance. There is no cartoon, not even a compositional sketch. The works develop organically, being progressively essayed and revised, worked and reworked. Various pictorial processes advance and recede and interact in a complex tidal ecology of studio practice until, at a certain point, the works are deemed to be complete. While recognising this essential to and fro, this interdependence of procedures, three distinct developmental stages can be identified. Firstly, there are the big structural decisions. Beginning with fragments of landscape – a cloud, a horizon, a hillside, a pool – Burns spreads these elements across the canvas, constructing a field of distinct and separate zones, a patchwork of incommensurable territories. The geometric, rectilinear unity of the picture plane is thus broken into a more ragged order: of the pattern of a dog’s coat, say, or the shadows of roadside trees on a dirt track. It is this piebald, jigsaw-puzzle surface that determines the overall visual rhythm of each work, its points of attraction, its tonal balance, the direction of its visual flow, its repetitions and reiterations.
Then comes the critical pictorial watershed: the determination and articulation of depth and surface. Burns is a keen fisherman, for whom the sea or the stream is ‘the perfect point of poetic engagement.’ In his paintings he manages to replicate the experience of the simultaneous perception of distinct planes on or through transparent waters. On top we clearly register the flat horizon implied by a lily pad or a mayfly, and we note the sparkle of reflected sunlight and the movement of ripples or waves; below we distinguish more obscure strata: the sway of aquatic weeds and the sand and pebble mosaic of a river bed.
Finally, there is the finishing of the pictures, their rich patination, the suggestion of corrosion, of verdigris and rust and burying earth. Burns admits he has always been ‘drawn to places that are dark and muddy and damp’, and his peaty, smoky, honey-and-moss palette clearly reflects this eco-aesthetic preference. To achieve the pictures’ final surface he applies layers of Guinness-black translucent glazes, and this subtle but forceful varnishing adds an earthy richness, both chromatically, in the way it subdues the wavefoam whites and high-key manganese blues, and tonally, in the way it sits and puddles and drips on the thick brushstrokes beneath. As the artist himself says, the glazing ‘quiets ’em down, locks ’em in. And the brown gives ’em weight. They just sit there. They’re very quiet, silent.’
As you can see, the quiet place of pictorial resolution is not a location, but a sensation.
We could actually be anywhere.