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Tom Burckhardt creates an amazing cardboard atelier

 "Tom Burckhardt: Full Stop," in the DiverseWorks project space, is one of the city's best shows in a long time. Burckhardt has crafted an entire artist's studio out of cardboard, and it's life-size. The installation is something of a surprise for anyone familiar with his previous work: paintings that blend pop references with abstraction. But maybe it's not that far removed; after all, the sculptural installation is about making paintings.

Burckhardt's skills extend far beyond painting. As studio assistant to artist Red Grooms, he helped create Grooms's colorful, crackpot 3-D constructions of people and cities. Burckhardt obviously has some well-honed fabrication skills, and it shows in "Full Stop." Using brown cardboard and black paint, he's transformed DiverseWorks's entire project space into a simulated studio. It's like walking into a 3-D cartoon.

The studio has a vintage storefront entrance, complete with graffiti and a galvanized-steel trash can perfectly mimicked in cardboard. Inside are all the apparatuses of an artist's workspace. There is an easel with a blank canvas and storage for paintings -- also blank. A mock diary on a table contains the confessions "It's been 3 months since I picked up a brush." Rejection letters lie on a work table next to a Post-It that reads "Copy resume." But the studio is primed and ready. There are stretchers, a pegboard with tools -- glue gun, staple gun, caulk gun, saws, hammer, level, clamps, safety glasses -- all carefully made from cardboard.

Walking through the simulated studio is like walking 
through a 3-D cartoon.
Courtesy of DiverseWorks
Walking through the simulated studio is like walking through a 3-D cartoon.

Details

Through December 17.
DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346.

The room has a utility sink with dirty dishes, a tiny stove and window view of a river with a cut-out "city skyline." There's even a little grotty bathroom with a "stained" toilet. The toilet is signed "R. Mutt," just like Duchamp's famous urinal readymade. The toilet is the first of many jokes and allusions Burckhardt has slipped into the space for a game of art-historical hide-and-seek.

A Savarin coffee can jammed with brushes rests on a cart littered with paint tubes. It's not just a studio detail, it's a painstaking replica of Jasper Johns's 1960 painted bronze sculpture, which immortalized a humble coffee can with brushes soaking in turpentine. Just that one object must have taken Burckhardt hours to fabricate -- and the room is packed with equally detailed items. It's no surprise that the entire project took him two years.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's "SAMO" tag is among the graffiti on the studio's facade. Just inside is a potbellied stove; apparently Edward Hopper had one like it heating his studio. On a shelf over a small kitchen stove is a can of Campbell's soup, a nod to Warhol. Above it is a bottle of Bushmills -- in homage to generations of alcoholic painters? And speaking of alcoholic painters, a re-creation of Jackson Pollock's paint-stained work shoes rests on a shelf.

On another set of shelves, Burckhardt has included a library packed with carefully constructed and rendered volumes, including the ever-popular Gardener's Art through the Ages, volumes I and II. Every art student has a copy -- that is, if he didn't hawk it back to the campus bookstore. There's a Philip Guston catalog and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea. Burckhardt has thrown in a Red Grooms catalog as well. The top shelf holds a slide projector, and the bottom shelf has a collection of records topped by a Velvet Underground album.

Another book rests on the worktable, a catalog for artist Rudy Burckhardt, Tom's father. It's a sweet, sentimental gesture. Despite the clues to angst-filled artmaking, the installation has a cozy, vintage feeling that makes you want to sit down and start working. Burckhardt has such a clever eye for detail, and the environment is so well made, that you wind up believing in it. There was a brief moment when I almost sat down on a cardboard stool to take notes. It might have been okay; close inspection reveals that a few of the furnishings, a cane chair in particular, are actual objects faced with cardboard -- a pretty good idea.

"Full Stop" is a wonderful piece that tells myriad art tales and creates a palpable and affectionate sense of place. It feels familiar: You can almost smell the turpentine as you imagine its inhabitant laboring away -- or, given the blank canvases, worrying about laboring away. It's an installation so packed with careful details and surprises that it's worth several visits.

 
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