There is something so fresh and yet ironically nostalgic about Greg Burak's strange and unnerving paintings. Often "set" in the late 1970s or early 1980s by his use of clothing and interior style, it immediately recalled coming-of-age movies of that era. I really respond to the tension inherent in most of these works, partly because of the retro setting, but with the addition of hints of roughness or violence under otherwise innocuous scenes, causing me to question what might happen next, and if I really want to know. A wonderful interview here, and check out more info at the links below!
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Hey Greg! Tell me a bit about yourself! Where are you from, and where are you currently based? What first interested you in painting?
I'm currently based in Queens, New York. I'm originally from the Hudson Valley, just north of New York City. I was always drawing but I became interested in painting when I got to college. It was the visual translation that first got me into painting, converting things into shapes. It was a very serious undertaking haha - I think I read too much about Cezanne when I first began.
What has your art education been like (formally or informally)? How has it influenced what you do?
I had a pretty rigorous art education, which focused on painting from life. I spent much of it trying to understand how to handle paint, which is still a kind of endless experiment. I am really fortunate and had many really incredible teachers, to whom I owe a lot. The influence of observational painting has been using the everyday subjects around me as a starting point - a lot of my paintings occur in typical (if dated) suburban spaces. Also I've been influenced a lot in the past few years by early Renaissance painting, how they threw supernatural events into their contemporary settings.
You describe your work as "strange contemporary figuration," which pretty aptly describes the unusual tableaus that your subjects find themselves in, often with an unmistakable 1970s vibe. What interests you in that era?
Aesthetically I like the pictorial devices, color schemes, and clothing from the 1970's. There is a boldness with line and color that is often incorporated into decor that I like to push around the compositions. It was also pre-internet, and I imagine that there was more mystery, waiting, and uncertainty in life without the accessibility of information and communication we have today. I don't really think it's better or worse, but I like to think that the figures in my work have to come up with more idiosyncratic solutions to questions or problems, haha even though I have the advantage of the internet for solving my painting problems.
There is also something just a bit unsettling about the scenes, too -- sometimes overtly, as a knife makes a frequent appearance. Is there a narrative to these paintings at all? What is the significance of this underlying sense of discomfort or violence?
I think a lot about narrative, and how there needs to be a conflict. I watch a ton of movies - I began to think about the paintings in those terms. I suppose the conflict of a narrative is the most interesting part for me, so I focus on that - as opposed to the exposition or resolution. But a painting is not a movie, it does different things - I lean into the unstated. I think a strength of figurative painting is it's potential for mystery. I usually have my own specific narrative, but don't always make it explicit - but I like to give the sense that the players are usually in over their heads. I think about that sinking feeling when something unusual occurs, and try to stay in that moment.
What is your studio space like?
I work in my apartment - I have a wall that I hang the paintings on and moving palette table. I like to work from home (short commute), but I do miss being around other artists in a studio setting. I have the best natural lighting situation I've ever to had to paint with so even though it's not a huge space it's certainly got it's upsides! Finding places to stash the work is an ongoing struggle.
Is there a tool or object in your studio that you can't live without?
I use a small palette, which forces me to clean it many times while I'm painting and remix colors.
What is the most challenging or daunting aspect of pursuing an art career, especially as a recent MFA graduate?
For me it's definitely carving out time to work amidst the practicalities of making a living. I do a lot of freelancing, which gives me the most autonomy over my time. I try to work for a couple of weeks, then paint for a while. Learning when to say no to opportunities is a difficult thing, whether it is for a job or something related to your art practice. Making work takes time. My experience getting an MFA was super positive, and having had two years to dedicate to making work and interacting with a group of fun, intelligent, and generous people was incredible. Recreating similar structures to that post school has been challenging but essential.
Is there a piece of advice you've been given along the way that has influenced you and your work?
One that I've been thinking about a lot recently was from Caleb Weintraub, one of my professors at Indiana University. He said to "make it memorable," which seemed deceptively simple, but I think about it every time I paint.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently working on?
Right now I'm making work for an upcoming two person show at Gitler &_____ in New York, which will include the work of the great Graham Preston and myself. I'm super excited to be involved and have the opportunity. The opening is in February.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you Kate - It's great to have this resource available!