Burns, Baby, Burns

Photo by Jack GouldBrigette Burns is right on the verge. The Laguna Canyon painter has to find another day job soon, but her teeny, tiny drawings are beginning to sell—helped in great part by her landing the cover of the prestigious 2000 edition of New American Paintings. New American Paintings is hot shit. (Locals Sandow Birk and “Morgan Carver” are also among the 43 artists chosen for the Pacific edition, but they are not the subject of this story. Carry on.)

Burns is—by training—a puppeteer. Where does one get training to become a puppeteer? In the north of France, of course! But she missed drawing, and so she gathered up armies of the free paint- chip samples given out by art stores so one can determine which shade of Persimmon or Cut Squash pigment to buy. They are her canvases, and they are very, very small. At first, her drawings seem gimmicky: Is there anything there beyond the fact that they're all painted on small cards? Soon, though, even with the simplicity of the drawings, a hunger and a loneliness shine through. Burns lets word association—the name of the paint in question, as frothily and fancily labeled as a new perfume—guide her choice for subject matter in her simple line drawings. But her train of thought doesn't always run straight from Chicago to LA. There are stopovers. Lots of them.

Burns' solo show, “Very Pink,” is up now at Dick Nixon's alma mater, the Quaker-founded Whittier College. “Very Pink” is just that, with some Rising Sun, Golden Goddess and Aqua Foam thrown in. Her drawings are intimate, both in size (people have to get within inches of them and can't just pass by offhand) and subject matter. But the Quakers don't mind bare butts and breasts as long as they're not straight porn—which was the case a couple of exhibits ago, and boy, did the dean get some letters then! There are times and places for everything, and porn doesn't really belong on a Quaker college gallery's walls, even if it is artily colored and comes equipped with a trenchant point about women's lib, so quit yer reflexive shrieking about censorship.

Burns doesn't paint porn—that I know of. She paints people mostly, some of them nude (especially on the Conch Pink paint chips; how could one paint anything on a Conch Pink paint chip but a naked chick?) and some of them in underwear and holsters or fur collars and pearls.

People are always trying to get her to blow up her hand-size pictures to canvas-size. But canvases aren't free, and canvases don't command you to come close. It's a power trip, really.

Burns moved to Laguna Canyon in 1999, after two years of doing cartoons for The Topanga Messenger in Topanga Canyon, where the newly entrenched soccer-mom mafia was making life hell for all the old hippie locals and going epileptic if their kids' sports scores weren't included in the local edition of the Los Angeles Times. Before that, she served a decade in New York City's East Village and Williamsburg, back when one could get a huge, beautiful studio for $575 per month—and before the Brooklyn artists colony became overrun with peeps being thrown out of bankers-only Manhattan like a drunk getting tossed from the Four Seasons. In the East Village, she illegally sublet a place for $250 per month; if the landlord was in the building, she would skulk around on the sidewalk and wait for him to leave. But with that kind of rent, she had plenty of f ¨0¦€$,ò2Á!k K0y@ÿ PO`Ëp»$€SÁ%0)@™a studio in the parking lot of a girls' gym and uses their sauna and hot tub every night. She's even got her own key.

Most of the other tenants just work in their studios; the plein-air painters need light, so they're gone by sundown. It's a good place, and she likes it, especially the hot tub. But Burns sees Whittier as the next big thing. The charming time warp of the city is peaceful, it has a charming downtown, and it feels like New Jersey. New Jersey is a nice place.

She misses the theater, but theater is a pain in the ass: there are so many people involved. She may start doing video next. She loves puppets—but for puppets, one needs a narrative, and though she loves language, narrative is hard. Again, that need for people. While she's thinking about it all, she wants to find some way to snag the money from the pockets of Laguna's rich and tasteless. “I could probably do pet portraits,” she says thoughtfully. “I did one recently for a friend, and it was kind of fun!”

“Very Pink” at Whittier College's Mendenhall-Greenleaf Gallery, 13406 Philadelphia St., Whittier, (562) 907-4200, ext. 4687. Through Feb. 2.

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