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Monday, Jan. 9, 2012

Andy Burgess' Bygone Milwaukee at Folliard Gallery

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Let us take a trip to Milwaukee of yesteryear. It is rebuilt through the collages of Andy Burgess, whose work is on view at Tory Folliard Gallery. Burgess is a rather cosmopolitan figure, an Englishman living in Arizona and showing a selection of works based on Milwaukee and Chicago. Burgess collects ephemera from bygone days—scraps of advertising, extinct books of matches, cards with long-disconnected phone numbers—and combines these with blocks of bright paper and paint, making wondrous little cityscapes. Like a Greek chorus, Burgess' cities are threaded with pointed words, here via advertising signs that function as touch points for values and aspirations.

There are some jarring moments as we delve into the details. In Milwaukee, There Is No Substitute, a small rectangle of paper promoting the Oak Room proclaims it is “a bar exclusively for men”—a notion that today is bizarre and disquieting. Other elements simply conjure up quaint nostalgia. We remember that cipher-like exchanges were a conventional part of the phone system, such as “Tuxedo” as part of the number for Chicago's House of Fine Steaks.

These morsels of history may conjure ideas of research deep in lonely library stacks, or in repositories of those obsolete behemoths called phone books. Nowadays, we stay continually up-to-date with smartphones and the expansive Internet universe. Burgess' work, in comparison, reminds us that the digital world is another type of ephemera, but one with potentially little physical trace in a hundred years' time. In the way Burgess enlivens the castoffs of the past, there is a destructive and regenerative impulse. Paper documents are essentially dismembered, but they are recontextualized and preserved for present and future audiences.

The geometric style of Burgess' collages has been compared to movements such as Precisionism (check out the work of Charles Demuth for some of the best) or Pop Art, but a strictly formalist comparison based on surface appearances leaves out the real magic. As the viewer, we hover over constructed buildings and land, vicariously living the omniscient dream of perusing the intricacies of an entire city at once. The text leaps out. Letters and sentences give us something to grasp knowingly, steeped as we are from birth in the language of advertising.

The seductively fun suggestion Milwaukee, Dancing Every Night is the title of one work, and it becomes clear that each title is derived from some bit of text in the composition. The pithy advertising copy on many scraps of hyperbolic signage is wonderful in its certainty, its optimism. Everything is shiny and mildly boisterous in a friendly, bright way. In Burgess' cities, a million stories from the past meet in the currents of the present.

Andy Burgess' work is on view at Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St., through Feb. 4.
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