Glimpse – Brendan Stuart Burns

Like Dorcas Lane, from Lark Rise to Candleford, I have one weakness: gardening, making jam, art (goes without saying) and books.

A foolhardy old friend suggested I get rid of all the books in my home and get a e-reader (no product placement here). But that misses the point. I have books so old that when I open them they smell of the time when I read them, their pages orange with age. And I know the end pieces, the little illustrations, even the acknowledgements, off by heart. It’s all about the paper stock, the scent of ink, the font choice, the heft.

So when I was given Brendan Stuart Burns book Glimpse to review I was excited before I’d even seen it. It is gloriously lavish: juicy thick paper stock, sympathetic design, colour reproduction and the attention to detail that includes an embossed slip cover evoking the indentations left on the sand by a departing tide. Burns and designer Andy Dark have pulled out all the stops to make a bibliophile’s bosom heave with joy.


Glimpse is many things, but it is not a catalogue (though it’ll be launched at St David’s Hall on May 11 at the private view of his exhibition). Nor is it one of the plethora of self-published artists’ books, made for the hazy purpose of marketing, despite the fact that it has been privately financed by an enthusiastic patron.

Oh no, this book is an extraordinary exposition of an artist’s practice, made up of material from Burn’s obviously fruitful year-long residency at Oriel Parc in St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

A bit of background:
Oriel Parc is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park’s visitor centre in Wales’ tiniest city, St Davids. When the Collection of Graham Sutherland works were taken from Picton Castle, in the south of the county, and stored in the National Museum Cardiff, the Friends of Graham Sutherland lobbied hard for a new home in Pembrokeshire for Sutherland’s works made in response to the coastline. Eventually Oriel y Parc (gallery of the park, literally) was built, with the notion of showing works from NMW’s extensive collections of Sutherland works and emphemera, but giving those works a context with displays about the coastline and, most importantly, inviting artists to make their own responses to this ancient and beautiful landscape that flaunts its geology, marine biology and ancient legends in the exceptional western light.

The light and landscape have drawn artists to Pembrokeshire for centuries and the population is still dense with artists today. Burns has been visiting for over 20 years, making field drawings, taking photographs and then producing his beautiful jewel-like works, thick with paint and encaustic, back in his studio in Cardiff. He was a natural choice to be the first artist in residence at Oriel y Parc.

I lived in Pembrokeshire for 16 years and every time I saw a Burns’ canvas I thought “yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s like”, even though we’re not talking about representational work here, it isn’t abstract either, but what I suppose you could call representational abstraction.

I know no other artist who quite captures the gelatinous light of a Pembrokeshire beach at low tide as Burns does, and his canvases prompt comparisons with those outrageous Victorian aspic confections (“if it tastes good, let’s suspend it in jelly”). There is an innate understanding of form and mass in the drawn and painted references to geological and found forms and an absolute understanding of colour in the palette that conjures up mineral deposits, lichens and the marine flora and fauna spewed up by the tides that lash the coast. It is no surprise that writers, such as Professor Tony Curtis (who has written far more eloquently than I could in the book), are moved to poetry in response to Burns’ work.

Art historians and critics Mel Gooding and Dr Anne Price Owen also write enthusiastically and well about Burns, providing a critical context for his practice. Curator Sally Moss, the real driving force behind the residency, offers a more modest written contribution, which belies her sheer derring-do in getting the residency established in the first place and her insight into Burn’s work and how it might sit alongside the Sutherland oeuvre.

The book is full of images of the work, the printing and reproduction quality so high you can almost smell the paint and wax, fear that the charcoal will come off on your fingers.

But there are also the photographic studies, map references and, perhaps most importantly for other artists wrestling with a body of work, the journals.

Burns’ year-long journey to the work seen in the forthcoming show is minutely detailed in an honest and engaging way. Concerns about paintings that weren’t working jostle with the adaptation to a new working environment – one that was open to the public every Thursday – and the thought processes, the drawings, artistic frustrations, breakthrough moments.

Here is everything you need to know about the difference between looking and seeing.

As the residency draws to a close, there’s a building sense of urgency to get works finished, to explore and record as much as possible and the impending feeling of loss that comes with imminent departure. He has bonded with his studio, found its hot spots for working, adjusted to the rhythms of working 9-5 when the centre is open. He has also negotiated his way through the not always complementary agendas of the two organisations behind the residency – Pembrokeshire National Coastal Park and National Museum Wales, although he is discretion itself about this.

I had meant to skim through the book, when I met Burns during the hang at St David’s Hall, but found myself rooted to the spot, reading on and on, while the hanging team bustled about to get the work on the walls. As I got to the last few journal entries – reflective, poignant – I remembered the time when I had been an artist in residence myself, far from home, and that intense relationship with the work that builds up when there are none of the familiar distractions. And how very hard it is to leave when there is still much to be said and done. And yes, a little tear did form.

This is a special book that shouldn’t just be left on a coffee table (though at £75 you’ll want to show if off), but read and absorbed by artists of all disciplines, art lovers and anyone who wants to understand the creative process. It is also a beautiful object in its own right and I’ll be buying one and finding book-friends on my shelves for it to sit next to.

Glimpse will be on sale for the special exhibition price of £50 during the show at St Davids Hall. You can also buy it here for £75 See more about the production of Glimpse on Brendan Stuart Burns Website where there are also more images of the work in the exhibition. I would also highly recommend Tim Collier’s blog about the book.

Glimpse, the exhibition, runs at St Davids Hall until 13 June 2012.