American Artist Burton Machen: “Art raises our consciousness”
Known for his “urban decay” style, Machen chats with us about controversial figures, his creative process and art’s influence on society.
By Joseph Low
Whether it is present on a canvas or a photograph, art’s melange of medium has an ultimate aim: shedding light on pertinent issues that might otherwise be overlooked. Artist Burton Machen is fond of using portraits of famous figures to convey his message, and he encourages collaborations so that there is engagement between what he has created and what people think. Documenting “urban decay” is what fascinates Machen the most because the final product contains elements from various sources and in totality, it speaks volumes of what society thinks of the current situation.
To understand more about Machen as an artist, we speak to him about his creative process and his philosophy in creating art.
You were born in Ashville, Alabama in 1970 and you have lived in Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, New Orleans, Atlanta and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You also travelled numerous times to Europe and Asia. Tell us more about your first steps as an artist and how these travels around the globe have “impacted” your vision of the arts?
Being from rural Alabama and living [in the south] for the first 16 years of my life gave me an appreciation for nature and how nature puts its mark on objects, buildings or anything exposed to the natural elements over time – marking the passage of time. As I’ve travelled around the world I’ve noted the natural evolution created by the elements is much the same everywhere.
It varies depending on humidity and dry climates but the natural elements create the evolution of things or the deterioration of things, which to me are one in the same. As things evolve what was deteriorates and evolves into what is. In urban settings, this process is much the same but the addition of human action or interaction and location culture, customs, colloquialisms all play a part. Also, the colour palette varies greatly from place to place.
You are a photographer at heart. Yet, you seem to take inspirations from very diverse sources – politics, pop music, television series, movie posters – how would you describe your style?
My photographic style is very much documentarian and interactive. My collage work is visually much the same. Both are studies of human nature and the human psyche and also showing the effect of the passage of time.
Tell us more about the “Portraits Project” which has generated substantial interest for your art?
I’m fascinated by human nature and like to observe how people interact with elements (portraits) on the street. Whether it be deliberate with street art and graffiti or reactive by trying to destroy the piece or deface it, or by simply writing a comment.
My Urban Evolution Portraits Project series process is where I wheat paste portraits of people up on abandoned buildings or structures, some of the people are famous and some not. Some loved and some despised. I then watch to see the reaction that they incite. So much of my work (Urban Evolution and Portraits Project) is basically the documentation of a visually expressive conversation. Once the starter piece is up the conversation begins. One element is added and then causes a reaction or statement from someone else and the conversation continues until the subject matter is lost and no longer visible or known.
It’s the fact that people are unknowingly collaborating on these pieces with me and with each other that really fascinates me.
A lot of your work deals with a sociological observation of societal power structures. Your work also contains political themes (The “Mao Zedong” series for instance). Do you see yourself as an “engaged” artist?
I am and I like to engage others. I believe that we are constantly creating, collaborating with each other all of the time. We just don’t often take responsibility for what we create because we are unaware of our participation. We don’t own it but our actions speak volumes all the same.
You have been advocating the raw power of “Street Art”. What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
Navigating and actually getting the pieces up legally and without being noticed. Also, having people realise that if I put up a portrait of a controversial figure it’s because I want to know what the portrait painted by society will be? How will it look? What will it say? It’s not that I like or approve of all of who/what I put up. I’ve taken a break from posting new images for the last couple of years. In those years the world has changed and I am now called to put up images of people who have been instrumental in changing our world. In positive, negative and yet to be defined ways. I find it challenging to watch and allow things to evolve as they do especially when what evolves does not reflect my opinion or attitude. Allowing that to be what it is takes great restraint on my part. It was easy enough when posting celebrities but when the people being posted are less benign it’s much more intense. We’ll see how this next generation of Portraits Project evolves.
What is the role the artist plays in society? How important is the space given to artists in modern American society
I believe that artists act as mirrors. They wake people up to what’s really going on in the world. Art is not always about presenting a pretty picture. Sometimes it’s about revealing what lies beneath the surface. Exposing what we don’t consciously acknowledge. Exposing the dark side (hidden side) so that we may allow light in to see more clearly and understand the world and ourselves a bit better.
You have today collectors around the world. You are referenced amongst the leading global art websites. How does such recognition inspire you?
My experience through my art with both artists and collectors have given me respect for the platform artists have to influence and shape the world. It inspires me to be more direct and intentional with what I create.
Art raises our consciousness!
The five words that best describe your art?
Introspective. Evocative. Expressive. Conscious. Inclusive
What is the current project you are working on? In which city can we expect to see your next solo exhibition?
A feature film that I created artwork for with writer, producer and director Jennifer Delia is in the process of being released. It is called “Why Not Choose Love? A Mary Pickford Manifesto” and it premiered at the 2019 Venice Biennale along with an installation of artwork from and inspired by the film. Follow Jennifer and the film on Instagram: @jennifer.delia @marypickfordmovie
I am also working on a few commissions. One is a portrait for a collector of their family and the other is a collage derived from and inspired by one of my Urban Evolution photographs. Also, I’m looking to start a new collection (new incarnation) of Urban Evolution Portrait Project — one that goes deeper into equality and inclusion. Erasing racial identity. Erasure.
Can you let our readers know which is your favourite art museum in the US?
There are so many that I have not been to but of the ones I have been to I am partial to the Whitney Museum in NYC and the Broad in Los Angeles.
If you were to name one mentor who has inspired you in your life and path as an artist, who would that be?
Visually I’m inspired by many… a few of which are… Shepard Fairey who I was fortunately lucky enough to do a collaboration with his clothing company OBEY. Mark Bradford is another… though I was making art long before I discovered Bradford’s work, I found parallels with our art. He continues to inspire me and his work resonates with me. Stuart Davis is another.
Personally, I’ve been mentored and inspired by a 25-year friendship with a very spiritual and kind-hearted artist named Geraldine Neuwirth. Her commitment to her art and her ability to tell a story with her art is awe inspiring.
Her willingness and ability to allow the work (and spirit) to flow through her has influenced the way I approach creating art. I aspire to have the discipline and dedication she does. Follow her Instagram: @geraldineneuwirth