Jim Bourke at the Red Head Gallery

Together / Apart, is a series of encaustic paintings by Jim Bourke at the Red Head Gallery, depicting the effects of social distancing during COVID-19. It’s interesting that Bourke used such a traditional medium, which originated from ancient Egypt, to render modern context.

Installation view of Jim Bourke, Together / Apart at the Red Head Gallery

In the series, Shoppers Bloor Street, Bourke presents two girls, using different colour palettes, as they change poses and gestures. Although the two figures are sitting close to each other on a bench, there is still a sense that they aren’t really communicating and feel distant by wearing masks and turning away from each other. The masks may also be a symbol of our current social paranoia; people are being physically separated and blocked even when in the same place.

Shoppers Bloor Street #1-4, 2021, encaustic on canvas mounted on panel, 40” x 40”

In many of Bourke’s paintings the dynamic movements of people are very engaging. In Subway Bench (2021) the two figures wear similar shoes and pants but their relationship ends there. Even though they may be close to each other, they are focused on their cell phones – accentuating distancing and loneliness.

Subway Bench, 2021, encaustic on canvas mounted on panel, 40” x 40”

In addition to the theme of the pandemic, Bourke also describes the emotional estrangement of the characters of his paintings. In Drummer (2021) he portrays one lone drummer with his drum set. At the moment, he seems to be immersed in the world of music, and for him, loneliness may not be so devastating. Here Bourke used the Morandi undertones to enhance the atmosphere of the painting, as he applied white pigments above the blue hue. The drummer’s dynamic movement are emphasized by using colour blocks: contrasting his white T-shirt, the light colors of the walls, the floor and the strong blue of the drum set. The corner where he plays caringly surrounds him; many musicians play at home, or on a patio, garden or roof, and share their performance through social media – showing the strength of the human spirit.

Drummer, 2021, encaustic on canvas mounted on panel, 40” x 40”

The composition and the rendering of colours in LINKLATzzER’S Valley #3 reveal a strong sense of sadness. It pictures only a statue and a dog. The landscape is stylized, the dark blue shadow is surrounded by bright orange, very much like the last glance of the light before sunset. The sculpture, resembling Duane Linklater’s in Don River Valley Park, is a hunched figure made of stone, maybe sleeping here as the ‘zz’ of the title might suggest. The brown trees in the background are most likely dead, the only living thing is the dog. What is it doing here? Bourke left it for the viewer’s imagination to create the narrative and the possibility of individualized interpretation makes the painting even more mysterious and attractive.

LINKLATzzER’S Valley #3, 2021, encaustic on canvas mounted on panel, 40” x 40”

In Park Circle (2021), the white circles on the ground are barriers like those used in Trinity Bellwood Park, to separate people into small groups. It reminded me of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886) by the impressionist artist Georges Seurat. Although there was no pandemic at that time, the social classes are visibly separated even in their leisure time.

Park Circle, 2021, encaustic on canvas mounted on panel, 40” x 40”

Jim Bourke captures the static in the dynamic. Although his paintings are not strictly realistic, he still depicts the most relevant details of the scenes and the expressions of his characters. The life before COVID seems so far away, and people must have recognized by now that everyday routines will not be the same as they were before for a long while. Although the epidemic has made our physical distance from one another further, the power of love and caring has brought our hearts closer to each other. What makes Bourke’s paintings so enchanting is that he is able to show closeness even when picturing distancing.   

Vivian Sun

Images are courtesy of the Red Head Gallery

*Exhibition information: Jim Bourke, Together / Apart, November 17 – December 4, 2021, the Red Head Gallery, 401 Richmond Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sat, 12 – 5 pm.

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