by Ryan Meehan
Quad-Cities native, musician, videographer and photographic historian Jon Burns has created a world all his own in which his paintings showcase the colorful and at times demented planet on which the rest of us currently live. Jon’s most recent project is entitled “Obits & Portraits” and it will be on display all throughout July at Rozz-Tox in downtown Rock Island. There will be an artist’s reception and live event Friday, July 8th at that venue, and I am extremely delighted to have him as my guest today in the latest installment of our First Order Historians artist profiles.
RM: When did you first start doing artwork that wasn’t a school assignment of any kind? What was the first piece you completed that you were really proud of; and what was so enthralling about the feeling you got from the experience which made you want to increase your level of involvement with the arts?
JB: As long as I can remember, I have identified myself as being an artist. I remember in grade school I carried around a three ring binder that my Dad helped me put together which housed all of my best drawings. Protected in plastic sleeves, they mostly depicted my favorite sports stars: Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, Rickey Henderson, and a slew of replicated sports logos. They were never school assignments, but I remember one assignment I did in 6th grade that was for a D.A.R.E. project. We were supposed to illustrate an anti-drunk driving advertisement. My submission was a drawing of a car with a smashed front windshield. I made a detailed drawing of injured bodies and blood strewn across the hood. I remember being really disappointed that I didn’t win because I thought I did a really good job. I just figured I didn’t get the award due to the fact that it was too gruesome. I suppose this was the first piece I ever created that really stirred emotions in me and led to doing more strange sort of “outside” art.
RM: Let’s flash forward to the first time you actually worked on multiple pieces along a single theme that became a collective project…What did you learn from your first foray into that world of exploration with regards to seeing the concept as a whole while constructing each of its individual parts?
JB: Well, you’re told in college to do this certain thing: Work on a group of pieces that would make sense as a gallery show in an effort to get a gallery show. I understand the idea and understand that it’s how a lot of artists work. I think though when you’re first starting out as an artist that you should branch out into as many ideas as you can and experiment before finding what works for you. That’s not necessarily the way I started off as an artist, but I felt even if I didn’t work on a single theme that the style I was working in was enough to be considered a sort of work as a whole. I’ve definitely gotten way more into working within the parameters of a “series” and finding cool ways to expand upon similar ideas. Not just within painting and drawing, but also with my photography. But yeah I think with anything as long as you’re proud of what you’ve made and people can appreciate it, it doesn’t matter if it’s a variation on a single theme or a bunch of odds and ends.
RM: At any given time, how many projects would you estimate that you have going on at once? Do you ever feel as if excess brainstorming or experimentation can lead to having “too many irons in the fire”, or do you think that eventually the material that is of the highest quality will rise to the top while other ideas may take years or never actually be finalized?
JB: Well, right now I’m doing Centaur Noir and the new (yet to be named) heavy post-punk band musically. Then artistically I am working on paintings and photography and video. I’ve got some new series of photography that I’ve posted online and that will be presented in video slideshow form at the art opening. They include “Signs Moline”, “Hoops USA”, “One Glove”, “Gas & Water” and more…. I’m also debuting the new “Places & Things” video installation which is a video collage of both industrial and natural footage I’ve collected. This latest volume is number 5 and features music that my bandmate Jeff Jackson recorded on a 4-track back in 1997. It’s pretty fun! Other than that I do graphic design and video production for both Ragged Records and Cartouche Records out of Davenport Iowa. One is a record store and the other is record label both ran by Quad Cities music guru Bob Herington…. But yeah, I like the art of multi-tasking because it helps keep every project fresh and new and gives me time to ruminate on ideas. I don’t like feeling overwhelmed by too many projects, but it seems I always thrive under the deadline, like many artists do.
RM: As someone who is very heavily involved with both writing music and creating visual art, how often do you find yourself switching from one to the other when you get burnt out on the activity you’ve selected to engage in first? Is that something that you tend to play by ear, or do you usually head down to your space with an agenda in place and try to stick to that plan?
JB: Well, I usually always either go for a walk or a bike ride before heading down to the studio. This serves the purpose of both clearing my head and also letting me brainstorm the days activities. Seriously some of my best ideas come to me during these exercises in contemplative meditation. So I often times will jot down my agenda and my ideas and then try to accomplish as much as I can in the time I have. Like I said before, I really enjoy multi-tasking and moving back and forth between projects. If at the end of the day I got a decent amount accomplished that makes me really happy.
RM: It seems like one of the oldest and most over-asked questions in the creative community has been “What is art?”…In what ways do you think technology has had an effect on the many ways in which that question can be answered? Conversely, if I had to put you on the spot and ask you to isolate the opposite of what you believe it to be, what isn’t art?
JB: I’m not really interested in the whole philosophy of people saying “Dude, everything is art,” but I guess to an extent that is true. If something can be presented in a way that gets some reaction out of person…then it is art. In photography you can see something and say “Hey, that’s interesting” and then snap a shot of it and present it to the world so they can experience what you experienced. As far as technology’s effect on art…I think for the most part it has had a positive effect on art. It’s easier to get your stuff out there to people. One could say that technology has had a negative effect on the creation of art. Replacing analog handmade art with digital manipulation. Really though I think it’s just a tool like anything else. People with the raw talent will be able to take advantage of new technologies in an effort to create something new and exciting. Everything else can just fall by the wayside. What isn’t art? Lip sync battles. Selfies.
RM: Having seen the work you have displayed at Sound & Vision, I’ve noticed that you seem to use the theme of television and news media as a basis for a lot of your pieces…Why is that particular topic something that you choose to explore so regularly in your paintings; and if you had to explain your view of the media as a whole in three sentences or less how would that summary read?
JB: As far as using these elements in my pieces. I think for the most part it’s just a sort of nod to pop culture. I’m not one of those people that think “Ohh television is evil.” I mean yeah, some people should get off of their couches and go to a park or a museum or something, but I think with anything it’s all about moderation. I love TV and there’s plenty of great stuff to watch. Sometimes you just gotta chill out and recline. As far as my view on media. I think there are good and bad aspects to the 24 hour news coverage. I mean not everything needs to be presented as “Breaking News.” It’s a good way for people to be informed about what’s going on in their country and the world, but it doesn’t seem like anybody wants to do anything about what’s going on anyway. They just want to recline.
RM: The importance of symmetry and balance is very evident in the mixtape and television series that you’ve done in the past…Do you ever feel like you go through phases where the significance of those two aspects is heightened, but isn’t necessarily dependent on what you feel is optimal for the finished product?
JB: Well I think a lot of artists use these sort of elements in all of their work. If I produce something that is symmetrical or balanced in a certain way I’ve done that just because that is what is pleasing to the eye. In the same sense you could make something unbalanced. I don’t know if it’s something an artist learns through work and training or if it’s just something that comes natural to someone with an artist’s eye.
RM: Where did you originally develop the concept which would later become the “Obits & Portraits” series? Is your interest in obituaries due more to the desire to bring a certain level of morbidity to your work, a fascination with the way an individual’s life is documented in such a short passage after they die, or for some other specific reason?
JB: Well, when I first started really getting in to drawing portraits I often times would sit with my coffee and a newspaper and I’d draw people around me, but if there wasn’t anyone to draw I would just sketch my interpretation of people whose pictures were in the newspaper. So I guess I just wanted to elaborate on that sort of idea, but concentrate on the obituary photos. I’ve always been sort of fascinated with obituaries and the photos people print along side of them. I don’t think it’s necessarily supposed to be morbid. Just interesting because like you said it’s an individual’s life documented in such a short passage and because it’s like, this is the photo. This represents the end of who this person was. So yeah, it’s not supposed to be morbid…I am paying tribute to these people.
RM: What was the most important thing you learned about yourself as an artist while working on “Obits & Portraits”? How do you think this project will change the way you approach similar undertakings in the future?
JB: Well yeah like I said before I have been getting more and more into the idea of working in series form. So a bunch of examples or variations on a certain idea. Working on and off for a year to create a pretty substantial collection of work has really disciplined me to constantly be creating visual art. It’s easy to get distracted by other projects, but having a goal of something you’re trying to accomplish definitely helps motivate a person. Besides trying to stay busy all the time I don’t really know if working on this project will change my approach on things. As an artist I think you should strive to always evolve. So I think maybe I’m inspired to always try something new, but also continue to expand on previous themes. So it just kinda snowballs in to more and more ideas being put forth.
RM: Who will be supplying the soundtrack for that evening; and how would you best describe the type of music they are currently making?
JB: Well, I’ll be performing as Centaur Noir. It’ll be my first performance since February and first performance since Lora left the group. I’m playing quite a few brand new songs. So that should be fun. Some of it has that same upbeat sound and some of it is heading in a more “pop” type catchy vibe. Also performing are my pals in Baby Alchemy. Cory and Mollie are from Muscatine and they play in a totally brutal grind band called Closet Witch, but they also do this fun poppy dance project. We’ve collaborated on an album in the past and performed together and they are two of my favorite people for sure. This is the first time they’ve performed this year so it should be a good one! Also performing is Pulsing. Alex plays in a band called National Hero and this is his 8-bit dance music project. It’s all sounds from a Gameboy. I don’t know exactly how he does it, but it sounds pretty rad and I’m excited to see him perform it live. Starting out the night is Joe Rodriquez’s project Suburban Commando. It’s a sort of avant-garde soundscape exploration in harsh noise. It’s pretty cool and like everything Joe does I’m sure it’ll be entertaining.
RM: Who are some graphic artists that are really killing it at the moment which we may not be familiar with? Why do you think their work in particular really speaks to you; and what techniques have you seen those artists use which you eventually want to experiment with but just haven’t had the opportunity to do so just yet?
JB: I really just try to do whatever comes naturally to me and I try to not be influenced by what other people do. I wanna make art that looks like my art. I am inspired by my friends though. Seeing them work hard and make great art motivates me to do the same thing. I have a lot of respect for my buddy Johnnie Cluney. The shear amount of art he creates for Daytrotter is astounding. I don’t know how he does it. He does a good job at establishing a style and then expanding and exploring on that style. Another artist that I’m friends with that really amazes me is Eric Thomas Wolever. He creates these paintings that have this really cool rough textural quality to them. They’re minimal in a cool way while also being really complex. It’s a lot of elements of nature presented in this really raw abstract sort of sense.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JB: Well, like always I’ll be working on this new show up until the very last minute. Then after that I’m really looking forward to getting into a pretty serious phase of songwriting for Centaur Noir. I just released a 30 song album of old demos and I’m working on finishing up a brand new full length album of songs I’ve been messing around with for a while. Other than that I’ll be plugging away at my photography and doing more and more work for Cartouche Records and Ragged Records. I’ve got a new video I made for an artist on Cartouche called Kalispell. The video is all hand-drawn stop motion animation and I’m pretty excited for people to see it. Also I’ve been helping a comedian/actor named Don Hepner produce a YouTube show called Your Idea Put It Out There. It’s a show that’s gonna be hosted by a comedian named Dustin Ruzicka and it’s gonna feature user submitted ideas for inventions and gadgets and stuff. So yeah I’m just gonna be multi-tasking like a mad man and possibly dipping my toes in to even more projects.
Official Website: http://artofjonburns.blogspot.com/
Jon on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/jonnybeevideos
Centaur Noir on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/centaurnoir/
Centaur Noir on Twitter: https://twitter.com/centaurnoir
Hire Jon for your next visual art project: firstname.lastname@example.org
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