“Austere, elegant. Uncompromising, ambiguous. Stern, seductive. Lucid, mysterious. Lean, sumptuous.” This stream of adjectives comes from notes that I took on my most recent visit to Catherine Burgess’s studio in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The inherent contradictions in this list are not indications of indecisiveness on my part or that of the artist. Rather, they are attempts to encapsulate the uncanny power of Burgess’s work, which, at its best, both engages us deeply and keeps us off balance. At first acquaintance, her spare, disciplined assemblies of steel, bronze, concrete, and stone forms seem utterly intelligible and rational, albeit notably soft-spoken. Her constructions appear to celebrate the logical, demanding our attention not with large rhetorical gestures but with severely edited demonstrations of clear-headed thinking. Burgess’s component parts, whether opaque or open, solid or linear, are almost always geometric, each of them clear, sharply defined, and distinct from its fellows. She always works directly in her chosen materials, but if she were to render her sculptures as drawings, they would be composed of clean-edged planes and firm lines, with nothing approximate or blurred. Burgess includes nothing superfluous. As if endowed with an innate horror of the inessential worthy of a Shaker master furniture-maker, she seems incapable of excess, preferring to extract maximum eloquence from the least number of pared-down elements required to define and punctuate the space inhabited by her constructions. Even connections between are kept to a minimum, so that each form is permitted—or forced—to declare its individual character, at the same time that we, too, are forced—or permitted—to take into account the likenesses and unlikenesses among the sculpture’s rigorously selected components.
Confronted by one of Burgess’s recent works, such as Four Ways to Be Round (2007), we can tally, if we choose, a pale, perfect sphere, a dark, slightly flattened hemisphere, a cylinder, a circle, and a narrow bar. In Where in the World (2007), we can catalogue a dense cube, a crisp circle, and an unnamable form, like the diagram of an atom, made of intersecting open rings. We note that things tend to be trued and faired, placed in ways that assert the fundamental oppositions of horizontality and verticality, up and down, or the four cardinal points of the compass.
When we consider a group of Burgess’s sculptures, we notice similarities among the components, repetitions of—say—spheres, cubes, and cylinders that make us think about Platonic archetypes or about Cézanne’s famous declaration that we must seek “the sphere, the cylinder, and the cone in nature.” But as we acknowledge these repetitions, we also become aware of subtle relationships and important differences among them—of size, scale, proportion, visual weight, and sometimes, of materials—that compel us to look more closely at how Burgess has grouped her components and to question our assumptions about why certain things have been brought together. Spend enough time with any of her sculptures, and the interval between, for example, a spherical solid and an open circle begins to resonate like the silence between widely spaced notes in an Arvo Pärt composition. What faces what, how far apart things are, what—if anything—touches what, all start to assume immense significance. With more time, we begin to see asymmetries, disjunctions, and elusive visual relationships that resist verbal description. How, for example, do we adequately account for the impact of a tipped plane that is at once background and protagonist or describe the visual rhyme of a coiled cable and a carved stone bowl? The relative dimensions of the components and their placement, both in terms of interval and direction, start to become overwhelmingly important and ultimately unfathomable. We quickly come to realize that, as in Piet Mondrian’s grid paintings, the logic of Burgess’s compositions cannot be discovered by measuring. By the time we have accorded her sculptures the steady attention that they demand and deserve, our certainties about just what she is doing have begun to erode irrevocably. The comfortable notion that we have been studying clear-headed demonstrations of an orderly universe, embodied by pure geometric forms and presented as logically as a mathematical equation, dissolves. We discover that Burgess’s seemingly “pure” geometric elements are, in fact, unruly actors in ambiguous dramas. Nothing, in fact, is quite what we expected.