ALIVE Interview: STL-born Christopher Burch Talks About His Mythology-Inspired Show

St. Louis-born artist Christopher Burch’s show, “One Who Sings With No Tongue is Either Damned or Divine,” opened at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary on Nov. 13. It’s the latest chapter in a string of his narrative shows, “The Missed Adventures of Br’er Rabbit” and “Br’er Death in the Land of Shadows,” which draw from the West African mythology of the same name.

“Each exhibition is a chapter of the parables,” says Burch of his graphically bold show. “The exhibition prior to this one looked at aspects of how mythologies form us and mixed with African mythology and coincides with how I view the world. So to enter the show is to enter this large graphic novel that’s being created.”

"We Don't Raise Sheep Here" conceptual sketch, china marker and graphite on paper, 2014 | Courtesy Christopher Burch

“We Don’t Raise Sheep Here” conceptual sketch, china marker and graphite on paper, 2014 | Courtesy of Christopher Burch

Reinventing folklore—a subject Burch has studied extensively—is no easy task, but that’s precisely what he’s up to. He’s infusing Br’er Rabbit mythology he believes has been “misshapen” by American pop culture with surrealism and even ideas from writers like James Baldwin and Henry Dumas. They’re placed in a bigger context that includes mysticism and blues, among other components. We reached out to him to learn more.

"Souvenir #1," tattoo ink, cow tongue and hemp rope, 2015 | courtesy of Christopher Burch

“Souvenir #1,” tattoo ink, cow tongue and hemp rope, 2015 | courtesy of Christopher Burch

This exhibition has a very unusual name—where did it come from?
Mythologies are banks of human experience. I’m really fascinated by the trickster archetype … by his ability to do the impossible and communicate in ways that are highly effective and very amusing. … The “damned and divine” goes back to the idea of the liminal, goes back to the idea that it’s neither one or the other—it’s both. For me, the trickster is an amoral character, neither right nor wrong. He simply exists.

The title really fuses that in a poetic way—it’s also included in the old blues folklore of Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil to learn to play the blues. I got the idea from his myth of someone who has influenced the world in a lot of a ways but the change is at a high cost.

"The Twin," mixed medai on paper, 2015 | courtesy Christopher Burch

“The Twin,” mixed media on paper, 2015 | courtesy of Christopher Burch

A lot of your work also has to do with capturing the liminal space between binaries. How does that aim come across in this latest show?
I’ve always been fascinated by the place between what one sees and what one doesn’t see. …I don’t see things as black and white and heavy contrast … it’s more subtle. I want to draw out that subtlety. When I talk about the “ectoplasmic echoes,” I talk about the past existing in the present. Most people see the present as linear … I see it as cyclical. Our experiences are formed by the past, and I see the past as being in the present and informing our future. … For me, it’s much easier to paint than to write about it.

How does your focus on mythology interact with ideas of what’s rational?
First, I believe that rationality is a myth itself. When I look at the world, I don’t see a lot of rationality—there are a lot of moments when I look at the world and say, “This makes no sense.”

I’ve never had a problem reconciling the idea of the mythological and the logical…mythology for me is a study into human psychology. If you look at Prometheus and how he stole fire from the gods and brought it back to humans, it’s really a story about someone going within themselves and bringing back a message that has a great impact on how humans see the world. And just as Prometheus was punished by the gods, sometimes the person who goes within themselves lives a hard life. … They’re on the fringes for multiple reasons: that, A, [their message] wasn’t received at the time it was spoken or, B, it was so heavy that person wasn’t able to articulate it.

I highly appreciate the imaginative qualities of storytellers. … This mythology allows the listener to enter into a different headspace and appreciate the artist even more. Stories themselves, if organized in the correct manner, are very rational, even when they’re not logical and don’t coincide with standard views of the day.

“One Who Sings with No Tongue is Either Damned or Divine” is currently showing at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary through the end of the month. 

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