INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT XAVIER BURDEN


The Batman of art world: Sacred Plastic Toys and the voyage back to innocence


 


AA00

Where did you grow up?


R.X.B

I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto.



A00

What was childhood like?


R.X.B

It was ideal.



A00

Did you paint from a young age?


R.X.B

I drew every day for as long as I can remember. I didn't start painting seriously until I was about 17 or 18.



A00

Growing up in Toronto, what's the best memory you have from your childhood?


R.X.B

My father really wanted me to be a hockey player. In the winter he would go outside and hose down the backyard and create a little makeshift skating rink. Once it was flat enough, he would drag me outside at night to practice my skating. I hated it at the time. It was unbelievably cold. I just wanted to stay inside and draw. But looking back on it now, those are probably some of my happiest childhood memories.



A00

What's your studio like?



R.X.B

I recently moved studios. I used to live in a relatively large warehouse in a rundown industrial pocket of San Francisco. It was a great cheap studio, but a terrible place to live. I was in SF for nearly 16 years. I recently moved to a live/workspace in San Diego. It's significantly smaller. There are racks of huge paintings and stacks of tote containers in every direction. I’m not sure how long I’ll stay in this new space, but it’s much more comfortable and I'm enjoying the change.



A00

Do you listen to music when you work?


R.X.B

I go through phases where I'll listen to a fair bit of music. But with the amount of time I spend alone in my studio, music can get pretty monotonous after a while.



A00

Before starting your day, do you have any daily routines or rituals you go through?


R.X.B

Nothing too interesting. I have a coffee. I have a banana. I check my email. I have a shower. I start painting.



A00

Is there any artist you look up to? Inspired by?


R.X.B

Just keeping it to contemporary artists, I suppose I’ll always be in awe of Todd Schorr. I’m also inspired by the prolific output of Eric Joyner, and the wonderfully surreal work of Dan Lydersen. Drew Struzan, William Kentridge, William Stout, Kadir Nelson are also some contemporary artists whom I admire.



A00

What sort of role would you say artists have in society?


R.X.B

I would give dramatically different answers to this question depending on my mood at the time. It could be incredibly cynical or overly sentimental. But I'll end up regretting any answer I give here. When I was younger I would have given some dramatic answer with bold certainty. I honestly don't know anymore. I just hope that my paintings can give a bit of joy to somebody other than myself.



A00

It certainly does. Living through such a diverse, and somewhat strange era, are there any social or cultural phenomena that you find especially inspiring? or fascinated by?


R.X.B

Like a lot of artists, I’m fascinated by Instagram. It’s been a tremendously helpful tool at times, but I have a somewhat neurotic personality, and social media probably isn't healthy for somebody like me, which is why I don't engage with it very often. Even though I've personally had some great sales all because of Instagram, I still think IG might be the best and worst thing that has ever happened to culture, and more specifically, to painting. On the surface, it may seem like a noble attempt to democratize art, but it’s not really democratizing art. It’s the superficial democratization of images on a phone. And even if democratizing art were important, then that would make Thomas Kinkade and Drew Struzan the most historically significant artists of the past 40 years. On a less cynical note, Instagram has allowed a lot of artists to reach a huge audience, and I think a lot of those artists might never have been motivated to pursue a career in art if the rush of Instagram validation didn’t exist. So maybe that’s a good thing.



A00

Social media has a lot of pros and cons. Can be a gift or a curse. Let's talk about your work. Your work references lots and lots of your childhood memories. And I can see that you lived through the golden era of the 90s. Tell me why you're interested in painting about your childhood?


R.X.B

These toys were precious to me, and to millions of other kids. Critics often use the word ‘nostalgia ‘ in a pejorative way, and I can see why. Nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and it can be easily exploited. I don’t take that lightly. When I’m dealing with subject matter that is so sacred to so many people of my era, I want it to be an authentic way of connecting with them. As we get older, we lose touch with that inner child. We become narrow. But there was a time when the imaginations of most adults could be captivated by a beautiful cheap piece of plastic.



A00

"Losing in touch with that inner child." It's interesting that you talk about childhood as something that is almost frozen in time. Something that is perhaps kept inside you like a separate entity. Do you believe that the "inner child" exists in everyone? Or some of us grow out of/away from it?


R.X.B

No to the first question. Yes to the second question.



A00

In your statement, you said that you're inspired by the "amorphous line that is drawn between imagination and reality, childhood wonder and adult practicality". Why do you think this is important?


R.X.B

Part of growing up is coming to terms with the reality that there is no magic, or at least, not in the way that you once believed there might be - and not everything is possible. In fact, most things are not possible. But if I can see the world in that way again, with that child-like awe, then I can believe in magic again…even if just for a brief moment.



A00

The reality was certainly so different from what I excepted as a child. I think this goes for pretty much everyone. The world of fantasy and reality. Which would you say is more interesting? Which side are you more drawn towards?


R.X.B

I really want to believe that aliens have visited our planet. I want to believe in a Bigfoot and a Loch Ness Monster. I want there to be angels and demons in the world. All of this is very unlikely. But I do believe that life exists on other planets. I believe gorillas and bears are as interesting as Bigfoot. I believe that giant squid and saltwater crocodiles are every bit as captivating as a sea serpent in Loch Ness, and I believe the miracles and evils committed by everyday human beings rival those of any angel or demon. It’s a toss up.



A00

Here's a corny one. Picasso once said, “Everything you can imagine is real.” It's just lovely that you actively engage with the child version of you from the past. And to me, it sounds like, to some extent, you praise him (you) for the unlimited spectrum of imagination and awe he possesses.


R.X.B

What was your favorite toy as a kid?



A00

Probably transformers...I was really into Megatron...and Heman...TNMT. I had a few Japanese Masked Rider action figures. Oh, and lots of hot wheels. I still have some of them today. Why do you ask?


R.X.B

I'm just always curious to know.



A00

Your works are incredibly detailed...An insane amount of hours must have gone into those larger pieces. And you said that it "glorifies a cheap, mass-produced toy". Why was it important that those objects were to be glorified? Almost like a Holy or a sacred object.


R.X.B

There is definitely an irony to the work which I enjoy, but that was just one motivation. In many ways, I view the work as a bit of penance. An artist friend of mine once said to me that every artist is afflicted with a tremendous amount of self-loathing. I tend to agree. I think about who I was as a teenager, or even sometimes now who I am in my 30s, and I just cringe. But I think my 9-yr old self, despite being very obnoxious in many ways, was a pretty cool kid, and I think he would have loved this work. It’s me trying to have a conversation with that little boy who’s long gone now.



A00

"It was free from the politics of race and sex and religion." You seem to value the sense of purity attached to those toys.


R.X.B

I’m hesitant to embrace the word "purity" as a descriptor for my work. That word has become so loaded. I might be splitting hairs, but I think ‘innocence’ is the word that I would prefer to associate with my art. As a child, the world was far more interesting than my own personal identity, and it still very much is. My childhood relationship to heavy topics like race, sex, religion, was all pretty insignificant. Race was barely perceptible. Sex was irrelevant. Religion was that boring thing on Sundays. These toys become sacred artifacts of that beautifully naïve and innocent existence.



A00

Would you say that innocence is almost like a superpower perhaps?


R.X.B

No. But I can kind of see what you're getting at. I don't think there is power in being innocent, any more than there is power in being oblivious to the world. But innocence is just a beautiful thing to behold in others.



A00

Being an adult now, where all those personal and social matters (sex, race, religion, politics, etc) are relevant, do you ever feel like your life has become somewhat un-innocent? Earlier you said penance. Is this what you feel like you are self-punishing for?


R.X.B

I'm no longer a child. I'm no longer innocent. This isn't a bad thing. There is no virtue in being a grown man who always sees the world like a child. Living a life that engages with the world means inevitably losing one's innocence. But you're not wrong in suggesting that a loss of innocence might be partially related to the 'penance' that I sometimes associate with my artistic practice.



A00

So the value or the emotional weight, attached to an object is incredibly personal to you. Kids nowadays probably don't 'play' like you used to. Tablets and smartphones...things have changed a lot...for the better or the worse. What do you think about this 'play' element in the current generation of youngsters?


R.X.B

I really don’t want to sound like an old man complaining about the younger generation. I don’t know what the future holds, but it certainly seems like we’re trending away from physical reality, and if this is the case, aside from the obvious issues of healthy social development, children might be missing out on the playful activities that require them to use their imaginations, like drawing or building forts or playing with toys. But I'm sure old people looked at my generation when we were kids in the 80s/90s playing with our corporate, mass-produced 'Made In China' toys and thought we were a bunch of little brainwashed consumers. There will be new kinds of childhood entertainment experiences in 30 years, and people born in the year 2010 will look down on it and say, "back in my day we used to sit in front of a screen and hold an actual physical controller in our hands. None of this VR brainwave nonsense!"



A00

That's true, generation by generation the way we play changes. The sense of identity is a hefty thing to play around with, perhaps especially in the modern days where identity can be an incredibly fluid thing. Like you said before, Instagram has a major role in this: curating a digital persona, making life look better than it really is...etc etc. What's your view of this modern phenomenon of liquid identity?


R.X.B

This is the first time I've heard the amazing term 'liquid identity'. It sounds like an illegal drug of the future. I guess if I'm trying to figure out how to make sense of 'liquid identity', maybe it relates to how we find meaning in this world as individuals. Humans are so hardwired to conform, and to lean towards fear and tribalism and ultimately conflict. I hope whatever identity a person thinks that they're choosing for themselves, it is one of radical peace and love. Not in some hippie free-love nonsense kind of way, but just empathy for all human life, including their own life, and even the lives of those that are deemed unworthy of empathy.



A00

Just gonna throw this one in. DC or Marvel? and a favorite superhero?


R.X.B

Tough one. Probably DC....and probably Batman.



A00

If you were to try out another medium or form of art (like sculptures, installation, or even performance) what would you like to try out?


R.X.B

I wish I knew more about animatronics. I adore animatronics.



A00

I'm sure there are moments where you feel stuck in the studio. When you are working through problems in your work, who do you talk to?


R.X.B

I’m very close with an artist named Eric Joyner. Sometimes we talk about issues we’re having with current paintings.



A00

Eric Joyner. Robots and donuts. I can certainly see you two having wild conversations. Besides art, do you have any secret hobbies? or something you're really into?


R.X.B

No, not anymore. I spend about 70 hours a week painting, and this doesn’t leave much time for anything else. I've become a one-dimensional human being. It's the way it has to be if I want to make this kind of work. The closest thing I have for a hobby now is that I go to the zoo quite a bit. To be honest, I go to the zoo way too frequently for a man in his late-30s with no children. I know many people think zoos are a little depressing, and I can understand why, but I find most zoos to be a very nice place to walk around and get out of my head for a couple of hours.



A00

If you had a time machine allowing you to go to the future or the past, but you can only use it once, meaning that you will be stuck at where ever you travel, where would you go?


R.X.B

I would go back to the year 1999 and scrounge every penny I could possibly find, and invest everything in Google, Amazon, and Apple. I would also act as a guardian angel to my contemporary younger self, saving him from committing his worst mistakes, steering him away from his biggest failures, and eventually buying many of his paintings. I would do all of this from the shadows.

Or, if we can assume for a second that there is any degree of veracity to the story of Noah, I think it would be pretty incredible to be on that ark for the duration of its voyage.

I don't want to see the future.



A00

If you were to leave a note, or a message, to the upcoming younger generations of artists, what would you say to them?


R.X.B

The average person sees thousands of pictures every day. The world probably doesn’t need more pictures. But that doesn’t mean you should stop making them. If there is a painting that you need to make, find a way to make it happen.



A00

One more thing, tell us a secret!


R.X.B

I'm good at keeping secrets.


 
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