ART + CULTURE: IN ALL THEIR JOY
|By Troy Johnson|
The chaotic bliss of artist Guyburwell
"It's like they've jumped off a roof with all their joy and all that stuff is now flying down around them."
Guyburwell, he of mellifluous name, is trying to explain one of his main artistic styles, in which his cartoonish characters are surrounded by the talismans of their desires and/or actions.
To illustrate a "Beginner's Guide for Buying Fireworks" for the Riverfront Times in his native St. Louis, a preppie appears to be juggling a smorgasbord of bottle rockets, roman candles, cracklers and ladyfingers. A few random dollar bills are on fire, suggesting a paycheck was squandered on explosive thrills. Though heavily bandaged, the character smiles with contentment.
In "Cleaning Rocks," a yellow-dreadlocked punk rocker strikes a Pete Townshend-like guitar pose with a manual vacuum. She's suspended mid-air, amid a shitstorm of cleaning utensils-a scrub brush, dust pan, plunger, a sink drain. A floating rose suggests femininity. This character, too, is rapturously grinning.
"It's sort of blissfully content regardless of their circumstances," Burwell says from his Hillcrest apartment where he and his girlfriend moved five months ago. "There's a lot of co-creators in the underground art scene that do tend to rely on kitschy imagery that they think the disaffected youth really go for. And that's what results in too much flaming skulls and snakes and things like that. No matter how well it's done, the subject matter's just boring to me."
Burwell's known boredom. He quit college after only one semester ("a semester's worth of drinking didn't really set a basis for a good academic life"). He's worked in various record stores over the years (ever seen a record store clerk that wasn't bored?). He even left his big-dollar corporate job as chief character- and set-designer at an animation company because he wasn't inspired.
Remember the television ad campaign for the Three Musketeers candy bar that featured stop-animation puppets as the Musketeers? That was Burwell. But to hear him talk about it, he'd just as well be back at the St. Louis mall where he started airbrushing T-shirts for shoppers at age 19.
"That was a really good learning experience of having to satisfy customers on the spot, often while they would sit there and watch you do it," he recalls. "Anything they could possibly name in any possible combination I'd have to draw on the spot."
Burwell began drawing at age 4 or 5, he says, and never stopped. His seven brothers and sisters helped engineer his right-brain existence, holding faux art contests among the siblings. As a kid he would draw "impossibly elaborate... large, drawn-out complicated things of destruction," fascinated as he was with the children's book, The Seven Chinese Brothers, in which the brothers work together to operate a big, mechanical fish boat.
Burwell drew all the signage for the record stores he's worked at throughout his life. He would also create posters for his favorite bands who were coming to St. Louis-Low, Supersuckers, Queens of the Stone Age. He eventually became the resident artist at Cicero's, a basement club renowned for underground music. At another club, called The Other World-a combination live music venue and discotheque-Burwell was hired to be a sort of performance painter.
"And I would go in while the club was open, rope off an area, and paint while people were there dancing and seeing the bands," he remembers. Meanwhile, he was doing cover art for alternative mags like the Portland Mercury and even Hustler-he created fuck-toons for the smut mag's "Barely Legal" series.
"There's lots of history of people doing pinup art and stuff like that," he says. "It just so happens that these are extra graphic by nature. And I still try to make them fun and less foul.
"A lot of artists will pick a pseudonym. I didn't mind putting my own name on it. It's just a job."
It was the record store signage, however, that got him his big, cushy, corporate job at Will Vinton Studios, the animation company most famous for creating the California Raisins. Will Vinton employees shopped at Burwell's record store, and suggested that whoever was drawing the signage should come down and get a job.
So Burwell did, and quickly found himself as the head designer. After a few years, however, Burwell says the animation company wasn't "living up to my own personal standards for work ethic." It's a recurrent theme that comes up with Burwell-he's a commercial artist first and foremost, he admits, with a strict idea of how to get work done.
So he quit and, with a robust savings account and grand visions, moved to within a few blocks of the famed Hollywood sign.
"It was worldly and everything that everyone thinks that Hollywood is," he says. Everyone he knew was an actor or making videos for MTV. He'd go to parties where the cast of sitcoms would show up.
He says his 10 months in Hollywood were "fascinating and horrifying at the same time," but that he didn't have the "stomach for their brand of kowtowing and just brainless sort of social emptiness."
So for 10 months Guyburwell worked on himself. He laid out by the pool. He got a tan. He lost 25 pounds. Then he moved to San Diego and, with blind luck on his side, landed in Hillcrest-a hub for local art.
"Your whole life can be totally different depending on which part of town you end up moving to," he says. "Especially if you don't know a city. I had that good luck in Portland, too."
A friend suggested that when he get to San Diego, he look up Tim McCormick, a local artist and head of the underground art collective, Radioactive Future. McCormick had a small show planned at The Muse in North Park, and he invited Burwell to join.
Burwell's paintings of musicians-long, gangly renderings of trashy rockers with pencil-thin, chaotic arms-were a perfect fit with McCormick's aesthetic. One of those paintings is in the collection of legendary rock poster artist Frank Kozik, whom Burwell met at a convention in San Francisco.
"I happened to have a bunch of my paintings hanging up with my posters," Burwell says. "And [Kozik] happened by and slapped me some hundred-dollar bills in my hand and said, "I'll have that one.'"
Now, Burwell is getting to know San Diego, painting as much as he can. He's returned to an old style, what he explains as "kind of pseudo-dark, James Bond-type figures that stretch along a 25-foot portion of a wall." Dark Horse Comics has licensed a comic he created called "Chaseable Cain." A video game with Burwell's "skater hip-hop graffiti futuristic battle-angel designs" should be released some time in the next year.
He's befriended local collage artist Joshua Krause and the two are often busy painting in Krause's garage. Burwell's had success, he admits, but he'd "like to see things walk around and move, I'd like to see 'em on the screen.
"I wouldn't mind seeing [my designs] put forth in a bigger way," he muses, then adding with dry practicality, "which is to say someone with lots of money should pay me to do it." ©Guyburwell's work will be shown at a solo show at M-Theory Records on Nov. 20. Free. 619-269-2963. He will also be part of Holiday Matinee Night, an art 'n' music bash featuring Jealous Sound and The Album Leaf, plus five other artists and photographers at UCSD's Porter's Pub, 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 20. $3-$5. 858-587-4828.