Glenn Burrell – painter


Over the last decade, Glenn Burrell has been pushing the boundaries of what a painting can or should be. His work has no support, no canvas, no board, no stretcher, it is pure paint and regular acrylic paint at that.

It was during his final six months of art school in Taranaki, while working on a house painting job, that Burrell first became interested in the three dimensional possibilities of paint. The owner of the property removed the interior skin of paint from a four litre tin and threw it to Burrell exclaiming “see how much of my paint you’ve wasted”. From there, Burrell experimented in covering objects with layers of paint and then removing the ‘skins’ from the host. His first object was a banana and over the last decade his ambition and confidence with this painting methodology has spanned the mini to the maxi; from gold ants and flies, to a candy pink trampoline with springs.

From the outset Burrell’s choice of objects has been very considered and all of them have been drawn from the everyday, all are monochrome ghosts of things that are familiar to all of us. A typewriter, a lawnmower, a bicycle and trampoline. Objects of drudgery, play and activity, with the last being the most pertinent in that an active element is one that is common throughout Burrell’s work and has come to the fore in the exhibition that this catalogue accompanies. Burrell seeks to explore the possibilities of paint and rather than applying paint to a flat surface, he liberates it from any form of support and uses it as a tool to explore the physical qualities of everyday objects and more importantly explore the terrain of painting.

Still Life 

Burrell’s practice is twofold, he is at once exploring the forms of everyday objects and also giving paint a three dimensional life that it doesn’t normally have. He is forcingpieces of equipment  that are normally active – a lawnmower, a bicycle, a wheelchair into a painterly paralysis, liberating them of work and recreating them as lethargic facsimiles of themselves, candy coloured and vacant. Rather than viewing theseas being smelly, oily and anchored in the mundane mechanics of the everyday, Burrell encourages us to  consider ‘still life’ painting in a whole new realm by recreating these objects in monochrome. Each of the works with their undulating surfaces can also be read as landscapes, where the folds and kinks and resulting shadows encourage the viewer to consider the form of the original ‘host’ object. These works are anything but ‘still’ as each time they are displayed in the gallery they take on a new form. In the case of the lawnmower and wheelchair they are carefully unfolded and assisted into shape by heat applied via a hairdryer and over the duration of display they also respond to the temperature of the gallery space.

On occasion Burrell’s desire to dissect objects in the name of his art making has rendered the host object even more obsolete, Typewriter, 2008 is one such work. Any hopes of his mother returning to a career as a typist were all but dashed after Burrell discovered that there were simply too many parts to the machine to put it back together again. The resulting work in silver paint is extraordinary in its level of detail.  In a similar vein his father’s faithful and retired ‘lawn-master’ which gave up the ghost after thirty years of constant use met a like fate and was reformed in a soft landscape of washed out highlighter orange. Burrell’s interest in the banal objects of everyday work was taken to a whole new level in his 2005 assemblage Office Space. This was in part inspired by childhood visits to his father’s office at the New Plymouth power station, here a complete work station is recreated in grey. Prior to starting this work Burrell visited other offices so that he could capture what he terms ‘the beige aesthetic’, the work features all the trappings of a workstation, a debris of paperclips, floppy scissors, a spent telephone, a collapsed computer monitor. He recalls seeing “paint the walls grey and the mind will follow” graffiti-ed on a wall in Wellington and that the phrase stuck in his mind and partly inspired Office Space  – his own anti-workforce monument.

Burrell’s practice not only makes us reflect on how certain objects have a constant presence in our lives but also makes unlovable objects endearing. A wheelchair re-visioned in pastel yellow resembles sunny road kill – an enabler, disabled. Although he has never literally turned the paint brush to himself Burrell sees his work Homosapien 2008 as the closest he has come to a self portrait, here a mint green skeleton inches forward, a humorous comment on Burrell’s chosen life as ‘a struggling artist’. On reflection he comments that his work could be lined up in a darkly humorous chronology of someone’s life – office, sink, mower to wheelchair to skeleton. Homosapien is also a key example of Burrell’s ability to explore the idea of the solid and the void: here he reforms the architectural framework of the body into a flaccid oxymoron of itself – hollow bones. He comments “The act of painting directly onto the surface of an object captures a precise interior print of the real object thus taking the genre of painting to a heightened form of realism. The flip side of this is that the finished artwork is a hollow shell of paint which encases a void of where an object once was, an intriguing interplay between presence and absence.”


Burrell’s choice of colour is very considered and he comments that his choices are instinctive. Although lurid his palette is never heavy, the closest he gets to a suggestion of weight through his choice of colour is in his work is Kitchen Sink 2010, which resembles a large limp bronze sculpture.  The work is Burrell’s most ambitious in terms of spectrum of scale and technical difficulty. Here the debris of a kitchen work top reminiscent of many student flats is recreated in all its filth and flatmate irritation – dirty dishes, chicken bones, clogged up sieves and most extraordinarily flies and ants, painstakingly coated in paint and skinned with surgical precision. Burrell found that the natural oily coating on flies aided the removal of the skin. The work comments on the little tensions and annoyances that arise in a flatting situation and the work is itself is a movable feast as every time it is unpacked it can take on a new configuration. After viewing Burrell’s flies, it’s plain to see that although he talks about his work as a kind of ‘alternative realism’, his approach to painting is one that requires a terrific amount of skill, attention to detail and patience.

The seriousness and weight of art making is also brought to the fore in Burrell’s work, although he is in close conversation with the history of painting and painters there is also a wonderful lightness of touch to his practice and a healthy dose of an ingredient that is often lacking in contemporary practice – wit. It’s hard not to grin when encountering one of Burrell’s works, they simply stop you in your tracks: even when viewers are told that these works are pure paint they still don’t get it.

Art historical heavyweights such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana have all been important influences in Burrell’s work. Their deliberate exploration of the physical act of painting and their desire to make the viewer experience a painting as a contemplative space – calming or chaotic – is an idea that Burrell also wanted to explore. Trampoline 2004 was inspired by the colour-field works of Rothko, where painting becomes a space that envelopes the viewer. Burrell flips that field to the floor in the form of a nine-foot pink paint skin trampoline complete with springs, devoid of any bounce. In a tongue and cheek way he is also poking fun at the idea of a painting requiring a stretcher to give it form and also on the elasticity of the paint. It was while making this work that Burrell began giving more thought to the kinetic possibilities of paint, as whilst removing the skin from the trampoline the paint responded to his own body and warmth. From here he made a complete paint suit for himself which he wore as a performance piece. The suit allowed him to experience how would feel to be inside a painting and as it adjusted to his body shape and temperature it became a custom fit.

Henri Matisse said “A young painter who cannot liberate himself from the influence of past generations is digging his own grave”.  Burrell does liberate himself, although he is in awe of the work of masters of 20th Century art making, his practice is fully engaged with charting a path that is completely his own. This path isn’t necessarily one of taking painting into a brave new world but a very sincere response and asking the very real question about the material – “what would it feel like to be in a painting?”. You can apply all the theory you like but no matter how convincing a colour-field work is it can never transport you inside the work. Burrell’s practice is not only a conversation with everyday objects and life but a conversation with a material that has more often than not been a means to an end, a tool to convey an idea. Here the medium is the subject and Burrell’s getting up close and personal to it.

As well as wanting to experience what it might feel like to be in a painting, Burrell has also tested what paint might sound like through the creation of a series of paint skin LP records, Sounds of Mound/BMX Tracks I-IV. 2006 – present. After noticing that many of his works had the surface of their host object faithfully transferred onto their acrylic skin Burrell wondered whether the macro world of bumps and grooves of an LP record would also be recreated in paint. Much to his surprise the sounds of the records were indeed transferred to the paint, occasionally with remarkable clarity of sound. Burrell experimented with different paints and thicknesses, creating an altogether wonky sound and track of the needle. As with so many of Burrell’s works he makes a direct connection back to the physical world and makes a comparison between the needle on vinyl to the activity of a BMX rider, circling dirt tracks.

Making tracks

The world is filled with objects that would make excellent candidates for Burrell’s work and there is no doubt that he will continue to cover many more objects in paint over the coming years but as evidenced through his paint skin suit and records, there has been an ongoing desire by Burrell to give paint a life of his own, that he can feel and hear. You could liken it to Burrell wanting to give paint personality, let it stretch it legs and bust some moves, all with him in the driver’s seat.

In 2011 Burrell was awarded a three month residency at Tylee Cottage in Wanganui. This opportunity allowed him to take stock, explore new ideas and give some consideration to which direction he wanted to take his practice. What he chose was a path which would push both him as a maker and his audience into a new direction. The resulting body of work – Operation FizZ! combines both his love of painting and the outdoors, as a former competitive race walker, Burrell likes to stay in shape and both the physical aspect of making these works (some of these works contain between eight to ten litres of paint) as well as the subsequent ‘test -runs’ in the field certainly did just that.

The difference with this body of work is that Burrell was not creating ‘paintings’ primarily for display in a gallery context but creating objects entirely from paint which when complete he could literally use. What is displayed in the Gallery are the relics of this madcap painting relay and documentary footage – film and photographic stills. Burrell describes the resulting body of work as “a unique journey of discovery, using paint as a vehicle to propel me forward into a kinetic realm. The goal was to create a series of interactive kinetic paint skin objects; flippers, ski’s, gumboots, bicycle componentry and wheels, an inflatable boat, and test this painterly equipment out in the field with the glorious meltdown of the equipment captured on video.”

On a clear day from Bell Street, Wanganui – where Tylee Cottage is situated – there is a great view of Mount Ruapehu and from various points in the city Mount Taranaki can also be spied. Having grown up in New Plymouth, it seemed only natural that a road leading to Taranaki was the obvious place to trial his paint skin gumboots in September 2011. Although he went through four pairs of boots, Burrell managed to walk just over five kilometres. He comments that as the road climbed from sea level he found that the gumboots went from being warm and flexible to being stiff and brittle in the cold mountain air. The remnants of the gumboots are displayed in the exhibition, with one having a break that uncannily resembles the silhouette of Mount Taranaki. The soles of the boots are engrained with road debris but are remarkably intact.

Skiing is hard enough to master even when the participant knows what they should be doing. Burrell had never skied before and chose to make his debut on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu with a full set of equipment – skis, boots and poles made entirely from paint.   It’s hard to comprehend that these psychedelic skis are pure paint but they are and this is evident where the skis have broken, revealing the multi-coloured strata of paint that each is composed of. The two expeditions were captured on film and Burrell describes them as “an awesome union of paint, snow, sun and a fantastical New Zealand landscape”. As he had hoped the friction of the skis on the snow produced wonderful technicolour stripes over the white landscape, creating an epic and spontaneous fleeting painting, with the artist acting as a living brush The hilarity of the events  are captured on film, with Burrell’s engaging commentary and whoops and laughs recorded as he careens through the landscape. Burrell ‘s skiing leg of the expedition could be seen as a nod to the action paintings of Jackson Pollock but here the approach is far more uncontrolled and devoid of any art historical earnestness. If anything Burrell is the rather hapless conduit to the spirit of painting going wild outdoors.

The idea of Burrell as a showman or performance artist is similarly explored in his bicycle expeditions at Cape Palliser in the Wairarapa and Hawkins Hill in Wellington. Here we see Burrell as a luridly dressed BMX bandit cycling and skidding through landscapes that are suitably picturesque. At each of these sites Burrell fitted his bicycle with wheels that were composed of approximately eight to ten litres of multi-coloured acrylic paint, as well as bicycle componentry including handle bar grips, break pads and gear cogs. As well as visually recording the skids left on the road, Burrell also collected the remnants of the tyres and these are displayed in the Gallery as a curious archive of a painting after its demise. Each of the wheels are displayed on upturned bicycle forks – a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade work Bicycle Wheel from 1913.

The sites that Burrell selected for each leg of the expedition were carefully chosen, the access road to the Tukino ski field on Mount Ruapehu provided a suitably alien landscape for a fluro firestone paint wheel fixed to Burrell’s beloved and recently retired Citroen. Displayed flat on a plinth in the gallery, the battered tyre sits surrounded by the dust of its own demise.

Burrell’s most ambitious and some might say sublimely ridiculous work to complete the expedition was the HMS Burrell Dreamboat completed and tested in the weeks leading up to the opening of the exhibition in October, 2012. This wonderful harlequin pastel dinghy was constructed from paintskins formed over a patterned double mattress and supported internally with solid discs of paint. A beautiful abstract painting before its launch, it was made all the more complex, textured and grubby after its full baptism in Lake Wiritoa near Wanganui. Burrell was under no illusions that his ‘dreamboat’ would float and unfortunately the rear end headed skyward before he had the chance to get inside.

Glenn Burrell’s painting expedition is a clever and engaging expansion of his commitment to pushing the boundaries of not what a painting might be but what paint might be. Although he is keen to recreate pieces of equipment he finds in the everyday world to make a journey, he is as interested in the travel and the experience of being out in the world as he is in the object. A critical part of the recording element of the expedition was how each of the travel aids made marks on and in the landscape. On Mount Ruapehu  it was the ribbons of colour left in the snow like watery rainbows, at Red Rocks in Wellington it was the blue paint of his flippers on the rocky shore.

Where previously Burrell was interested in recreating faithful fascimiles of everyday objects, in his  painting expedition he preserves the act in time through photographic and film documentation but also by collecting up the remains. These ‘leftovers’ – peeled bicycle skids and the fleeting marks in the landscape are recorded and are integral parts of the completed expedition. Although Burrell’s spontaneous performances left temporary and colourful marks in the landscape, the landscape also left its marks on each of the items made.  Each of the bicycle tyres are impregnated with road debris – stones, tarseal and dust.

This reciprocal exchange deconstructs and destroys the integrity of each of the objects but also completes them, by revealing the geology of Burrell’s work. This body of work is testament to an artist who is not only testing the boundaries of what a painting can be, but also what it means to be a painter. In a wonderful collision of painter, performer, mechanic , madman and extreme sportsman, Burrell has arrived at a unique formula of artistic fizz that has and will continue to push his practice into new realms and take us a long for the ride as his intrigued and bemused spectators.

If at first the idea is not absurd then there is no hope for it
— Albert Einstein