Artists have used abstraction since the early 1900s to separate art from reality, shifting away from the recognizable to accentuate higher dimensions of expression and experience, such as morality, order, and spirituality. In the 1960s, minimalism took abstraction to an extreme, radically simplifying elements of form, line, and color to offer a purified vision – only the reality of the object in space and time. Some minimalist artists created large sculpture to purposefully negotiate the movement of the human body in space, such as Robert Morris’s Untitled (L-Beams)(1965). These works formed spatial conditions to expose the differences between perception – which varies depending on the viewer’s relation to the object – and the object itself.
Within the same lineage, Rowan Burkam uses abstraction to create metaphors for belief systems. For example, two people stand in the same room looking at the same abstract object, but from different angles: One person sees the object as a square, while the second person sees a triangle. Each one is sure about what is in front of them. Neither one is wrong, neither one is right – both perceive the truth of the object from their own subjectivity. Such a simple analogy is only an entry point into Rowan Burkam’s complex practice, which holds elements taken from metaphysics, quantum mechanics, astrology, and the tradition of animal spirit guides, as well as the experiences that have shaped his identity.
Burkam comes from a family that appreciates differences in backgrounds and viewpoints. His parents grew up among different social circumstances, his father raised in a Christian middle-class family, his mother in a mixed family of European and Native American heritage (Cherokee and Passamaquoddy). During his youth, Burkam’s family was always interested in seeking out universal metaphors and symbols within different cultures, from Native American animal spirits to England’s lore about the Holy Grail and King Arthur.
Throughout his life, Burkam’s identity was continuously tested, making him hyperaware of what it means to belong. At the age of six, he moved to the United Kingdom with his parents. As a child in a new country, he experienced bullying for being foreign, to the point that he adopted a British accent to fit in. When he was 13, his mother began to reconnect with her indigenous roots, taking long walks in the forest of the English countryside. Burkam had difficulty understanding her new pursuit until he read about Schrödinger’s cat – a hypothetical analogy in physics questioning the way matter behaves in relation to being observed. This helped him to grasp that reality is subjective, and that his mother’s new perception of life was communing with the land and nature.
After returning to the United States at 18 years old, Burkam was introduced to the Native American ceremonial community. Having been granted access to learn about this part of his lineage, Burkam was at first confronted with the legitimacy of his presence due to his appearance. Over time, with respect and openness, he found his place within the community and a harmony within his own fractured sense of self. His experience assimilating to very different cultures has given him a first-hand perspective of being on the outside and shaped his sensitivity to diverse thought. As an artist, Burkam aims to make art that explores complexities of perspective in order to reveal a matrix of connections across varying ideologies, beliefs, and dimensionalities.
The concave and convex pyramids often used in Burkam’s work reference an esoteric view of reality divided by infinite planes of matter. “My panels of pyramids are like the vertical plane I exist on as I move through space and time – that is my plane of perception,” Burkam explains. “All the points of the pyramid are points of matter that make up my reality, and in each moment that point has a choice to go in many different directions.”
Geometry of Motion, Burkam’s show at ASU’s School of Art Step Gallery, is an installation of these three-dimensional pyramid sculptures that run continuously along three gallery walls at eye level. The center portion of each grouping is painted red, the rest painted white to blend into the wall. The geometrics of the object are fixed: each one is the same. When moving around the gallery, however, one will see many configurations of a red shape – looking straight on reveals a square, while looking from the side reveals a triangle, and all the varying shapes in between the two, depending on one’s position in relation to the object.
This artwork is Burkam’s way of disrupting visual constancy (the ability to perceive an object despite visual distortion), as an experiment in perception to suggest that what one believes is merely a single perspective in a shared reality. In our current polarizing social and political climate, artworks like Geometry of Motion are essential to open a conversation about the inclusion of multiple voices – culturally and globally. Within works such as this, one can locate hope for a harmony of all perspectives.
Rowan Burkam, Geometry of Motion
Oct. 4 – 12
Opening Reception, Friday, Oct. 4, 6–9 p.m.
ASU Step Gallery