This exhibition spans seven (seven!) decades in the career of Joseph Burlini (born 1937), a hardworking Chicago sculptor who made everything from medallions to commemorative monuments, from small gold figurines to thirty-foot shafts of aluminum, from motorized wire contraptions to clock towers. There’s so much stuff on display, the space feels more like a cluttered warehouse than an art gallery—and that may be the best way to appreciate Burlini’s prolific ingenuity. There’s a cheerful, can-do spirit about all this production that seems to supersede any aesthetic, narrative or art ideology. If you needed something in three dimensions, he could make it. That might be why some of his best work was done while still under the influence of erudite sculpture professors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The most dynamic sculpture in the show is “Rearing Horse,” welded in 1963.
Another early piece is “Icarus,” that tragic figure from Greek mythology who fell to earth when his wax-and-feather wings disintegrated while soaring too close to the sun. The 1967 sculpture, made of welded steel, is full of confidence, hope and upward lift. Hurray for Icarus! Adjacent to it, however, are two smaller and sadder bronzes made fifty years later on the same theme. No longer pointing upward, the heavy wings now drag across the ground like deflated balloons. No longer the heroic, if reckless, young man—Icarus is now more like a bug too weak to fly. Perhaps this is the old sculptor feeling his age, but given his continued productivity, it seems more likely to signify the absence of faith and idealism in mainstream contemporary art.
Beginning as a designer of consumer products for Sears, Roebuck and Company, Burlini launched his career in sculpture with bent-wire constructions that were often mechanized. Although inventive and well-made, they are more about entertainment than aesthetics, especially when compared to the transcendent kinetic assemblies of contemporary Chicago sculptor, Konstantin Milonadis (1926-2012).
The best-looking works here are simple twisted bars of metal commissioned to enhance corporate headquarters. They are powerful, aerodynamic and elegant monuments to corporate America. The show includes photographs of their installation, as well as preparatory models.
Burlini has been a collaborative artist, seeking the help of other skilled professionals to realize his designs and often fulfilling the needs of clients rather than himself. The results are usually more appropriate for a corporate campus or shopping mall than for an art museum. His recent figurative work, however, is quite personal. In some pieces, he seems to return to the kind of academic, observational figure sculpture he must have learned at art school sixty years ago. In others, he produces yet more visions of his personal avatar, Icarus, in new materials and configurations. His appetite for experimentation has not waned. Nor has a work ethic that dates back to the Great Depression—if not the Great Pyramids. (Chris Miller)
“Joseph A. Burlini: Retrospective” shows through June 13 at the Koehnline Museum of Art, 1600 East Golf Road, Des Plaines.