Steve Burden 
A.P.T Gallery   |  London SE8 4SA   |  15th - 25th February 2024
Exhibition Review by Kate Reeve Edwards
Photography by Gareth Gardner 
On entering the A.P.T Gallery, my first impressions are of vast size and colour. Muted greys, oranges, pinks and blues, accompanied by bisected plain canvas grounds, greet me as I walk through the door. A shock of bright ‘royal mail’ red glints from the back of the cavernous gallery space, drawing me towards it. This exhibition is a kind of pilgrimage: Steve Burden’s forward journey of creative and cultural identity and the viewer’s journey back in time.
Curator Adelaide Bannerman purposefully designed the exhibition to flow in this way. Burden’s vast ‘Pepys Estate’ paintings, created in 2016, begin the exhibition. Burdens’
family tree, signifying the research which prompted his new body of work, hangs in the central room. The final room houses his most recent paintings, which explore the prominent figures of both Burden and England’s ancestry. As we move through
the gallery we travel, as the title suggests, from council estate to country estate.
Steve Burden’s work investigates ancestry and heritage. Born in a Deptford council flat and going on to complete a degree at Goldsmiths, Burden has butted against the inherent classicism of art higher education. His most recent body of work is a response to researching his DNA and finding links to prominent aristocracy, prompting him to think about land ownership and the birth of the class system. His work shows the thin veil between class divides, how a few centuries can move a family from castle to council estate. The work blurs the line between figuration and abstraction, the energy of application noticeable in Burden’s fluid, lyrical marks. This blending of materials mirrors his breaking of boundaries in a socially constructed hierarchy. In Burden’s work, we see a questioning of the status quo, handled with defiance and playfulness in equal measure.
The Pepys works, in the first room, are where Burden found his artistic subject: memories of the estate. As with all of Burden’s works, they extend far beyond his own experience, pulling in history, myth, politics and symbolism. In Grand Piano, (2016), the first painting of the exhibition, we see a figure of a young boy about to destroy a grand piano. Layered over this is a master plan of the Pepys building, the plan’s framework mirroring the
grid-like interior of the grand piano. One is a symbol of poverty, the other wealth. The construction of the tower block, Burden points out, evolved from the bourgeoise urban planning of architects like Le Corbusier. They were meant to represent a new utopian way of urban living, but, as Burden sagely states, ‘the trouble with Utopian ideas is that one imagines it and the rest have to live it.’ The realities of the Pepys estate more reflected the dystopia of JG Ballad’s Highrise. ‘The lifts didn’t work, the lights went out in stairwells, the common areas stank of piss and needles littered the floors.’
The Pepys work became a vehicle for exploring the history of the estate: architecture, symbols of class, language, and Burden’s own identity. It was the spark that exploded his artistic drive. Although the work has moved on from the estate, it is Burden’s fertile bedrock.
‘After a while, I started to become a bit saddle sore from the Pepys work. I moved to Somerset which is where I really became an artist. I was enthralled by the countryside and the verdancy, which was so far away from the estate, so it started to wear thin. I wanted to investigate something new, to transfer the focus from council to country.’ As someone always fascinated with identity, his family tree had always been of interest.
But it wasn’t until he convinced his father, who was adopted and knew nothing of his blood relations, to do a DNA test that an avalanche of new material revealed itself. As you will see in the family tree displayed in the heart of this exhibition, Burden is descended from some major players in British history; figures that have been immortalised in history books, Shakespeare plays, old master paintings and even the St Georges cross.
The ‘country estate’ section of the exhibition is an explosion of industry, referencing the characters and themes brought up by this research. Burden has clearly played with form and material, pushing the expression of his interests beyond that of paint and canvas. There are several pieces which hang and furl like banners or flags, a comment on historical heraldry and the ‘family branding’ of the elite. There are ceramic skulls of Burden’s ‘grandfathers,’ people of import and kings of England such as Geoffrey Plantagenet and Edward III. These skulls are modelled on real skeletons, showing the indentations of both the subject’s life and the artists’ process. What Burden loved about this exercise was showing that, below the heraldry, the riches, the power and the status, lies only a skull – a skull that seems no different or unique from any other skull. As Richard II says in Shakespeare’s Richard II,
‘Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?’
(Act III, scene II)
This unveiling of the visceral body underpins much of Burden’s recent work. ‘When you cut us open, we’re all red, white and blue. There is a skull in every man.’ There is a fleshiness to many of the paintings in the last room. First Nation (2023), Gaveston (2024), Monarchs to Mongrels (2024), all share the epic scale and beginnings of the old masterworks which inspired them, alongside an intestinal abstraction of the figures. Gaveston was based on the Marcus Stone painting Edward II and his Favourite Piers Gaveston, (1872). Stone’s work depicts a raffishly dressed Edward II, draped in lace and jewels, cavorting with his ‘favourite’ Piers Gaveston, who curls himself around the king intimately. Edward was most likely gay and Gaveston one of his lovers. His effeminate manner and appearance disappointed his father, the bullish crusader Edward Ist, and alienated the court.
Edward II’s young wife, Isabella of France, was said to be jealous of Edward’s lovers and plotted his demise, resulting in his forced abdication and brutal murder. The fleshy eddies of paint which distort the figures demonstrate the human truth of the king: his shunned sexuality, his necessary infidelity, the barbarism of his murder. The mess of his existence is laid bare: the top layer of the painting disrupting the manicured image of the figurehead.
These bodily paintings coincided with Burden falling back in love with the material of paint. They begin life as highly detailed drawings which reference the composition of the paintings which inspired them. Burden enjoys the relationship between creation and destruction these paintings have, ‘I draw something, and once I know I have the image, this provides me with the impetus to destroy it – that’s where the energy and excitement is: the taking away of something.’ The paint takes over the surface, colonising and abstracting the painting. These churning, intestinal marks are intuitive, coming from an enjoyment of the material itself. Burden enjoys the viscosity of paint, the way it brings movement. These pieces, as with all Burdens work, are created in a white heat. Despite having a tightness of form, they are viscerally made, with Burden attacking the canvas, pouring not only himself into them but the history of a divided nation.
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