You don’t walk so much as float through curator Jacqueline Ann Bunge’s exquisite, ethereal exhibition “The Dead: The Photography of Jack Burman.” Time slows down inside the Nicholas & Lee Begovich Gallery, and the half an hour it should take to examine the 19 troubling, confrontational photographs of skeletons, mummies, anatomical specimens, and cadavers easily becomes an hour and a half.
Burman has taken these stunning, closeup reminders of mortality for more than a decade, publishing two books in the process, with a third in the works. The elaborate process of finding such unusual pieces to photograph, something not always understood by the people overseeing the specimens, involves international travel for the Canadian photographer, as well as negotiations in languages not his own. The images in the Begovich show are from Peru, Germany, the U.S., Egypt, Romania, Brazil and Italy, among other nations, and they’re magnificent without exception.
The details, as vivid as they are, won’t leave my memory: The gray fingernails of a puffy, severed arm in a display bottle marked “Acromegalia,” the skin as pus yellow as the formaldehyde preserving it (Romania #6, 1995). Blackheads and blemishes mark the pores of the man in USA #5, 2003; his face alone is suspended in a bottle, as transparent, pearl-like bubbles cling to his chin and mouth or resting in the cracks of his half-open eyes. The redhaired head of a woman snuggles into a blackening piece of cheesecloth, as though she’s sleeping, if you just ignore the wrinkling flesh of her eyelids, her receding lips, and the fact that she has no body (Brazil #6, 1999). Note the red paint flaking off the open coffin of the well-preserved corpse of a young soldier who died in 1879, chips of plaster drifting from the wall behind him to the floor beneath. His shroud has pulled back to reveal a full beard and head of hair, hats and other military paraphernalia resting on the lid (Sicily #12, 2006). There’s substantial dignity to the woman’s profile, despite her head being mounted on a pedestal, the preserved musculature in her dissected face and neck stained the same crimson as her boney cheek; a full head of luxurious, braided hair cascades down her neck (Anatomical Preparation by Paolo Gorini, Italy, 19th century).
Less gruesome, the skeleton images still pack an effective wallop. The mummy pictured in Egyptian Head, 800 BC-200 AD is still partially wrapped, its eyes blindfolded with bandages, its nostrils distended from brain removal and its mouth agape in a silent scream. The three images of Chachapoya mummies continue in that vein, each wrapped tightly in sitting positions, gripping ears or clawing at their eyes as if they’re in agony.
Disconcerting as that is, the opposite is on view in two opulent pictures of saints from Germany. St. Alexander and St. Maximus, both from the 18th century, are decorated in jewels and fine clothes made of gold and brocade. Resting on divans inside glass coffins, lying back as if dandies entertaining friends, their appearance is grandly majestic and more than a little ridiculous. Also from Germany, Katatonie, c. 1800 is the skeleton of a catatonic man, sitting, gripping his knees to shoulders, head and back hunched over. The white and gray tones of the bones pop brightly against Burman’s black background, giving us a more poignant version of Rodin’s Le Penseur, this time in the figure of a sick man constricted by illness and trapped within an oppressive glass case, instead of just his own thoughts.
Burman’s photography doesn’t shy away from the brutal truths about our corruptible body, highlighting its disease, deformity and decay, but there’s never a feeling that you’re looking at something exploitive or voyeuristic. The work is always treated like art, each painterly in its way, with even defects in the print or processing—mostly streaks and swirls in the pitch-black of the backgrounds—reinforcing the suggestion of a paintbrush stroke. What makes the large-format prints different from a painting is that there is no distance between you and Burman’s subject. The naked, startling beauty of the work begins the discussion, as the size of the pictures invites you to join in tête-à-tête with the dead and keep the conversation going. Each portrait’s style, taste and respect speaks quietly to the fear and revulsion about decay, mutilation and our tenuous relationships with our bodies. Lit using (mostly) natural light, the deep, deep tenebrous blacks and luxuriant colors in skin, hair, muscle and organs makes this intensely visual experience an equally visceral one.
Burman shows us what we were, what we are, what we could be—and it’s startling, even magical, in its intimacy. For those with ample curiosity and strong stomachs, it’s an unforgettable experience.
“The Dead: The Photography of Jack Burman” at Cal State Fullerton’s Nicholas & Lee Begovich Gallery, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-2011; www.fullerton.edu/arts/art/begovichgallery. Open Mon.-Thurs. & Sat., noon-4 p.m. Through Dec. 7. Free, but you’ll have to pay for parking.