Jeffrey Burns: Science Made Clear

There is a commonly held though ill-founded assumption that art and science are antithetical. Inspiration and creativity are occasionally recognized as essential components of the most innovative scientific research but few seem willing to acknowledge the research-like rigour and observational discipline that backs up many visual artists’ work. Like scientists, artists systematically research, test, discover, and communicate their findings to others. Jean Cocteau’s pronouncement "Art is science made clear" is not a difficult concept however, to fully appreciate the work of Ottawa artist Jeffrey Burns, we must accept this not as poetic metaphor but as the literal description of a vital artistic practice.

Burns’ art has always been informed and invigorated by investigation of the natural world.  His early paintings were dense landscape-derived works that revealed human impact on the environment. In most of these works, lush vegetation overgrows human-made objects or structures of indeterminate size. This intentionally ambiguous depiction of scale invites a macrocosm/microcosm interpretation. Natural objects could be gigantic root or plant forms in an expansive vista. Alternately, the same work could depict a composting mixture of moss, lichen, other natural debris, or a microscopic world of molecules and cells.

In 2002 Burns was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinsons disease. It is tempting to use this diagnosis to divide Burns’ art into two bodies of work. In post-diagnosis works, one might argue that the fecund and overgrown landscape had become the interior of the body; the ravages of disease, to some extent, replacing environmental devastation as subject matter. This interpretation is useful only if it does not preclude an understanding of Burns’ art as a continuous and evolving body of work.

As one might expect of a maturing art practice, later works reveal a more judicious selection of source imagery combined with an increasingly intuitive approach to the abstraction and juxtaposition of these forms. In recent works, like those represented here, we also see further refinement of Burn’s macrocosm/microcosm effect. Creeping vines, germinating seeds, or complex root structures readily become ganglia, neurons, dendrites and axons, Jeff’s interpretation of a synapse, or some other aspect of brain chemistry. “Seeing what dopamine neurons and stem cells look like, feeds my aesthetic senses and spirit”, Burns states. Clearly Burns’ art is his “microscope” – a way of examining how cells function in their bodily environment and, as with earlier work, a mechanism for understanding humans in relation to their ecosystem.

Burns’ work is a fascinating personal response to illness. However, his use of imagery based on natural forms and his “universe in a grain of sand” approach encourages broader interpretation. Some evidence suggests that exposure to environmental toxins may play a part in Parkinsons and other neurological diseases. We may choose to believe that skin and cell walls are adequate fortification from supposedly benign chemicals, liquids and gases. Burns consistently paints a permeable boundary between organism and environment, a dire reminder of the body’s vulnerability and our connection to the natural environment.

 By Blair Brennan 

Jean Cocteau, Collected Works, vol. 9 (1950). “Le Coq et l’Arlequin,” Le Rappel à L’Ordre (1926).

Jeffrey Burns, quoted in a media release during his appointment as artist-in-residence in Medical Humanites, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, March 19, 2004

Ibid (media release) and in conversation with the artist