One Man’s Babel: The Notism of Ron Burkhardt

We think we know where writing ends and art begins – in calligraphy, a form of manual notation refined by Zen monks, Sufic scribes, Talmudic scholars and Celtic bards into a visual form of transcendent meditation. But writing also transforms into art through what might be the opposite process: a dissolution into the idiosyncrasies of the single mind, the elaborations and accretions of individual hands as they convert thought into script. We associate calligraphy born of such apparent chaos with the unsophisticated, the untrained, even the unhinged; but people who walk comfortably in the world, successful professionals and merchants, policymakers and artisans write, even idly doodle, with a compelling line, an intriguing sense of density, and an intricate grasp of the relationship between word and image. Your writing and mine, after all, descends from pictographic scripture; all writing begins as picture-making, things translated into symbols, ideas given rudimentary form. We always look at writing.

Given his own orientation to the visual, an orientation he honed professionally and personally, Ron Burkhardt could not help but regard writing as something seen, not just read.   Like the rest of us, he has generated volumes upon volumes of manual scripture, much of it incidentally But unlike the rest of us, Burkhardt has gone back to these haphazard, offhanded notations and looked at them, too. And he has gotten past what they say, to how they say it – and past that, to how they appear in the act of saying. Most of us would discard our sequences of phone numbers, our memos, the fragmentary notes that clutter our desks and our lives. But Burkhardt follows the lead of the assemblagists who have toiled for a century to recycle the discards of civilization into art: he compiles his myriad scratches into composite, crazy-quilt drawing-paintings.

Slyly arrogating to himself the pretenses of his modernist forebears, Burkhardt calls the resulting visual glossolalia “notism.” Where once mighty movements of modern art came together under rubrics appended with “ism,” indicating common cause among disparate minds, now those minds regard themselves as too disparate to sign manifestoes, and only critics and curators can lump them together. So Burkhardt has forged his own “ism” – one, it turns out, with an impressive pedigree. Miró, Klee, Cy Twombly, Basquiat, and Jean Dubuffet could all have been “notists” avant la lettre (as it were) and the madmen and -women whose obsessive conjurations Dubuffet championed as art brut could well be the foot-soldiers of Burkhardt’s movement. Still, the category does not define the entire oeuvre of any of these artists – not even Burkhardt’s.

It does define Burkhardt’s most distinctive work, those paintings, drawings, and of course collages of his that form a coherent conceptual as well as visual body of work, one distinguished by practice and equally by style. After all, the scribbling that constitutes Burkhardt’s notisseries is his and his alone; for all the extraneous material that finds its way into many of these works, the only handwriting thus engaged, the only manual contribution to these dense skeins of line and image and line-as-image, is Burkhardt’s and Burkhardt’s alone. This singularity of source does not simply affect our regard for the works’ authorship; it affects the look of the works themselves, the consistency of the rhythms and textures that drive the works, that make them so compelling to us. Sure, some of us are prompted to get in close and see whose names – and, if possible, numbers – Burkhardt has cited. But that’s not the content of the art; hell, it’s just barely the content of the artist’s life. The art concerns not what Burkhardt once wrote, but how he once wrote it, and how he’s now woven it back together into a whole.

It’s hardly a seamless whole, and it’s not meant to be; every stitch and join between the lines becomes part of the optical verbiage, and “notism” reveals itself as a Frankensteinian process, its inexactitude a crucial part of its beauty. Notism is neither a whole nor a sum of parts; it is an exploration of how one can become the other, in either direction – how a collection of parts can be fused into a whole, and how our regard for that whole can be a matter of zooming in and out of those parts, looking at the same time for information, no matter how trivial, and the sheer thrill of the line, no matter how tiny. Burkhardt’s real struggle is always against entropy; but the notist artworks never fall back apart, neither flaking off the wall nor melting conceptually into the telephone-pad yammerings they once were. Burkhardt won’t let them – and neither, finally, will our eyes.

Peter Frank/Los Angeles
December 2006
(Peter Frank is art critic for Art News, Angeleno, LA Weekly and Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum in California)