Chicago-based artist Elijah Burgher continues to find success at every turn. He just opened and closed his first solo exhibition at Chelsea's Zieher Smith and Horton Gallery in New York and now is back in Chicago, where his work is currently on display at the Elmhurst Art Museum as part of the New American Paintings: Midwest Edition exhibition. He's just one of 40 Midwest artists featured.
Because of his time in New York, he hasn't had the opportunity to visit this exhibit and doesn't really know what to expect. That said, he's honored to receive recognition for his talents and is curious to see where his work is hung in proximity to.
Windy City Times spoke with him outside of Chicago's Caffe Streets about his passion for magic and the abstract, the award he received last year, the pressure associated with depicting the familiar, and more.
Windy City Times: A lot of your work has to do with magic and the occult, and I read somewhere that it stemmed from your interest in magic as a child. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Elijah Burgher: I grew up in the woods, and my mother would kick me and my brothers out of the house. It was kind of laissez-faire parenting, so we would just wonder around in the woods, and I would wonder around in the woods alone and make up worlds. I think growing up in nature one can easily cultivate a sense of enchantment, and aside from action figures and fantasy worlds, I was interested in Greek and Norse mythology. So all those things prepared the way for an interesting vehicle in art.
WCT: As someone who delves in the abstract, does it concern you how people interpret your work?
EB: I don't worry about it at all.
WCT: So you don't mind if it's open to them?
EB: Most of the literature I read tends to be difficult, experimental, often times sort of transgressive, and when I first read William S. Burroughs as a teenager I didn't understand it at all, but there was imagery that I became obsessed with, and I read it over and over again.. There's a way in which you create your audience, you know? I wouldn't want to make anything easy that gives away all the answers.
WCT: Last year, you were selected as one of 100 or so people for the 2014 Whitney Biennial ( a survey exhibition that endeavours to take the temperature of contemporary art every two years. ). What was that like?
EB: It was exciting because it's a really large platform and a larger one that I've ever exhibited my work on. It was also an opportunity to make some connections with some far-flung artists whom I admire.
WCT: Was it like an honor to be accepted? What was it like when you got the call?
EB: Oh yeah, I was very thrilled. I laid down on the floor for a couple of minutes, and then I called my boyfriend.
WCT: In previous interviews you mentioned that you don't see naked images of yourself and others as an erotic thing. Can you explain why you don't see it that way?
EB: When I said that, it was in order to distinguish it from a genre of the erotic "male nude" [that] idealizes the male figure. The most extreme example, which I love, would be Tom of Finland, where everyone has enormous pecs, biceps and penises, and I'm more interested in depicting people I know with the bodies and faces that they have. I'm not saying that there's not eroticism in it, but the point is not to eroticate and titillate. If I made some pornographic drawings, you would know it, because they would be pornographic.
WCT: A lot of your work deals with the familiar. Do you feel any added pressure to do those works justice, because they have to do with your friends lives as well as your own?
EB: Yeah, that would be the wager and the gambit. By dealing with issues that I'm deeply invested in, I have to make it good.
WCT: Who are some of the artists that have inspired you, both living and dead?
EB: Two of my very close friends are two of the artists some that I love the most are Doug Ischar, and he actually has a show up right now at a place called Nightclub, and John Neff. Also, Richard Hawkins, who's an L.A. based queer artist. There's so many, it's kind of hard so I just go with my friends whose work I look at all the time…Add in, Edie Fake, who has a show up right now at Western Exhibitions. He's a Trans artist who makes really killer drawings.
WCT: I understand that you do a lot of writing on the side and contribute to publications such as So Gay! So how does the writing process compare to the artistic one?
EB: I used to write art criticism when I was straight out of grad school. It was too time-intensive, and people started to see me as more of a writer than an artist. Now writing happens as a function or an extension of the work I make, except in rare cases when a friend asks me to write about their show for an exhibition catalogue. I'm also a regular journal keeper. Sometimes I hammer post-writings into shape, like after I finish a drawing or painting I usually sit down and write about what I think it's doing.
WCT: After this exhibit, what do you have planned?
EB: There are rumblings about a couple shows in the future, but they aren't set in stone so I don't want to say anything. But this summer I'm going to have some unstructured playtime in the studio, which is much needed. I kind of never stop working, but I'm happy not to have a project or a deadline looming over my head so I can try some new things.
Elijah's work will be on display at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Ave., until Aug. 23. Call 630-834-0202 for more information.
In addition, Burgher has artwork up now at Chicago's Western Exhibitions, 845 W. Washington Blvd., as part of a show called "The Gay Mafia is Real," which lasts until July 18. The gallery is open Wednesday-Sunday ( and most Tuesdays ) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.