ASC Who Art Miami 2020: Randy Burman by Nicholas Pastrana

ARTIST QUOTE

Randy Burman, photo from 4art.com

“Whether graphic design or a work of art, the processes I employ are most often exercises in identifying how communication will be perceived, and the simplifying of concepts and gestures to amplify the metaphorical essence.”

– Randy Burman

STUDENT BIO

My name is Nicholas Pastrana and I am a sophomore attending Florida International University. I am pursuing an Accounting major and intend on getting a certificate in Pre-Law to attending Law school after graduation.

BIOGRAPHY

Burman working on Poems to the Sky O, Miami, photo from randyburman.com

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, 1947, Randy Burman considered himself an artist since birth. Fascinated with the world around him, Burman loved to draw the things he found visually appealing and make his own renditions of them. Even as a child he was self-aware of his rebellious nature, which was only reinforced when the Hebrew parochial school he attended accused him of “making graven images” (Burman “Biography” 2016).  His father owned a wholesale poultry and egg company and a few retail market stalls and outlet stores in which Burman worked at, eventually he opened his own grocery store; Randy’s Discount Food City. Burman found satisfaction in the “art” of displaying poultry to make it visually appealing to customers. “You’ll see in my work, there’s a lot of horizontal layering, which I trace back to laying out chicken parts on ice. Food display is an art, and I took it very seriously” (Burman “The Alchemy of Juxtaposed Elements and Metaphysical Confrontation in Sculpture, Installation, Painting and Print” 2016).

Burman attended the Maryland Institute of Art but did not graduate, he dropped out in 1968, then later that year had his first “one-man show” and published a book of his own drawn poetry titled We Knows Who’s Crazy Baby.

In 1975, the Department of Transportation intended on demolishing a 2-block swath of many two hundred-year-old houses in Baltimore’s historic Fells Point sea port neighborhood to put in a stretch of the I-95 highway. Burman along with many of his neighbors formed an organization and pursued a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation (DOT) plan, which they eventually won.

Burman has pursued a plethora of endeavors including: being staff artist of Baltimore’s underground newspaper Harry; operating Randy’s Discount Food City; publishing The Fells Point Telegraphe – in which he also edited and art directed, “organized contributing artists, writers and photographers to support a community lawsuit opposing the DOT’s plans” (Burman “Biography” 2016); worked at the National Lampoon; created movie titles with his friend Alan Rose for John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, and even played a bit part in Pink Flamingos.

In 1976 Burman moved to Miami, Florida, where he worked several jobs; washing dishes at the Spiral Health Food Restaurant, washed windows, carpentry, silkscreen art, sign painting, and graphic design. In 1983, Burman was part of a silkscreen workshop, funded by a CETA Title IV grant and hosted by the Lowe Art Museum and the City of Miami Cultural Experiences Division. Burman has worked with multiple graphic design studios and in June of 1995, incorporated his own graphic design firm; IKON Communication and Marketing Design. By this time, Burman had mostly dropped his production of fine art but in 2005 Burman rekindled his drive to produce fine art. In 2010, Burman again had invitations to display his works at galleries, enthralled, Burman “accelerated [his] construction of assemblages and installation work” (Burman “Biography” 2016).  

PERSONAL IDENTITY

Burman with his Windsticks, photo from randyburman.com

Burman’s work was largely influenced by his observance of what he was exposed to. Appreciating what he saw, he created his own renditions. He was able to provide me of an anecdote of when he was a small child. Burman used to look out of his parent’s bedroom window to the street and admire his neighbors’ new cars (the planned obsolesce era of automotive design where flamboyant displays of chrome and fins prevailed) and then retire to his own bedroom in the rear of the rowhouse to sketch his own versions. As he reflected on his particular artistic behavior he pondered the similarities his artistic inclinations might have been to a prehistoric child artist, who might have gone to opening of his cave home, saw herds of bison instead of Buicks and gone to the back of the cave to make marks on the cave walls to record a version of his observations.

I noticed a similar pattern of behavior of his, working at the poultry stalls and stores, it wasn’t enough for him to place the poultry on ice; it had to have symmetry, look uniform, he’d accent the poultry parts with kale to make them as visually appealing as possible. Burman clearly has a strong appreciation for visual appeal, making even the simplest things beautiful. Young Burman also had a rebellious nature. For example, at the Hebrew parochial school when he was criticized for not paying attention to his studies and instead drawing, it fueled him. It wasn’t rebellious in the sense where he wanted to offend people, but his curiosity provoked him to question the norm.

An observer can see his tendency to interpretive aesthetics in his graphic design work. For example, in his work for a company named Needleworks, which produced knitting supplies, Burman created a logo in which the N and the W look knitted and appear to be stitched together. Looking at the logo one can immediately infer the company’s purpose and on top of this it makes for a very appealing logo.

CULTURAL IDENTITY

Burman shredding one of the 18 plagues, photo
from randyburman.com

Earlier in his works, Burman’s cultural identity reflected the communities he was a part of. If you listen to his lecture The Alchemy of Juxtaposed Elements and Metaphysical Confrontation in Sculpture, Installation, Painting and Print, Burman talks excitedly about how his grocery store was in a predominantly black neighborhood “so we sold all mainstay soul food, you know, ham hocks, neck bones, that kind of stuff” (Burman “The Alchemy of Juxtaposed Elements and Metaphysical Confrontation in Sculpture, Installation, Painting and Print” 2016) but he was excited that they introduced Macrobiotic basics, like brown rice, umeboshi plums, and tamari sauce to the neighborhood. You can also see this connection to his community in the pride he takes in fighting the Department of Transportation’s plan to demolish the Fells Point neighborhood to build a leg of I-95. Burman enlisted many artists and writers to create The Fells Point Telegraphe, which served raise awareness of the lawsuit to protect the community.

Burman kept his strong connection and sense of responsibility towards his community throughout his career. During our interview, he admitted that he was disappointed to have not been involved in the civil rights struggle going on during the 1960’s and 1970’s, while he was focused on automotive and advertising design. After coming to this realization, Burman has “felt obligated to make more socially conscious works” (Burman). Since the realization, Burman has created several highly influential works that address major political, religious, and social issues. One series of works, titled Memory Scrolls, collages that juxtaposed images of King George, George Washington, Manifest Destiny, the Constitution, and Native Americans. The piece shows how the Americans saw colonization and Manifest Destiny as a righteous endeavor, while Native Americans were horrified by it and being slaughtered over this American dream of unyielding conquest. In a related piece, Burman collages Thomas Jefferson, Leif Erickson, Christopher Columbus, Francisco Pizarro, the Declaration of Independence and slave ships. In these two works, Burman addresses how something so glorious to one group of people could mean an apocalypse to another group of people, and the lack of moral consciousness behind it.

A friend of Burman’s who worked with a Jewish organization for young adults asked Burman to participate in a show where artists would make artistic interpretations of rituals of the Passover seder. Burman accepted and created a work titled 18 Contemporary Plagues. In the lecture previously mentioned, Burman discussed how one of the rituals of the Passover seder is telling the stories of the plagues that G-d set upon the Egyptians. Burman explained that as name of each plague is recited, participants spill a drop of wine into a saucer, to express empathy with the suffering the plagues caused. The essence being that even though the plagues were brought upon the ancient Israelite’s oppressors to force them to release the enslaved people, as a human being one shouldn’t find satisfaction in seeing other humans suffer. In place of the ten Biblical plagues, Burman came up with eighteen contemporary plagues such as inequality, bigotry, industrialization, and hypocrisy. He gives the audience the ability to shred images of these plagues, similar to the spilling of the wine, to “feel a release from being affected by these type of things” (Burman “The Alchemy of Juxtaposed Elements and Metaphysical Confrontation in Sculpture, Installation, Painting and Print” 2016). One can only imagine the impact this had on the young Jewish community. Not only does it relate to their religion, but it educates the young on the plagues affecting them today.

Another one of Burman’s socially conscious works was IT’S A TRAP. In this installation Burman had hundreds of plastic penis’ set on mouse traps. This work begs the audience to question the nature of sexuality and sexual identity. Although Burman was unaware of the meme associated with the title when he named the work, it was remarkably suitable. The phrase, “It’s a trap” stems from a memorable quote said by Admiral Ackbar during the Battle of Endor in the 1983 Star Wars film Return of the Jedi. In the movie, as the Alliance mobilizes its forces in a concerted effort to destroy the Death Star, Admiral Ackbar encounters an unexpected ambush, which leads him to exclaim, “It’s a trap!” “It’s A Trap!” later became a catchphrase that was often used as a reaction image to photos of transsexuals and cross-dressers (often referred to as “traps”), or people who appear sexually ambiguous. It usually means that the person in question has male reproductive organs, regardless of their appearance. “Burman’s work could be interpreted as a warning, or opposingly, a statement referencing the exuberance of pushing gender boundaries and living dangerously” (Burman “It’s a Trap!”).

The last works of Burman’s I’d love to touch upon is Poems to the Sky. These works were created for the O, Miami Poetry Festival.  The poems used were written by local elementary school students as part of the Sunroom Poetry project. Burman’s idea was simple. Paint the poems on the top of buildings in flight paths in and out of Miami International Airport so passengers who happened to look out their windows would see the poems.  On Burman’s website, randyburman.com, there is a video where the two students whose poems were used, talk about how they wrote poems about their emotions and how they feel. The students, Tywon Willams and Nieema Marshall, in fourth and third grade respectively, introduce themselves as poets. The smile on Nieema’s face says it all. Burman’s project has inspired and empowered these students more than any traditional classroom assignment ever could. His work opened the eyes of dozens of young students to the world of art and creative writing. For Tywon and Nieema it will be an experience they’ll never forget.

It’s been amazing to see the pride and sense of responsibility Burman holds towards educating and supporting his community. From introducing new foods, to protecting property, to inspiring and educating on social issues; through his artwork, Burman does it all. Burman considers himself a conceptualist, which he fits and executes perfectly. Through his work he can cause you to question the morality of the Manifest Destiny from a collage, question gender identity by looking at penises on mouse traps, and inform you of the social constructs imposed on your life while still leaving you the ability to release your negative emotions. Burman is a conceptualist because he didn’t need a child to write him a poem, but he knew that when he used Nieema’s poem she would go home and dream of being the next J.K. Rowling.

SUBJECT OF ARTWORK

The Internatsyonale Fonschlong Zikherhayt, photo from randyburman.com

“The tone of my work – a back and forth between weighty intellectualism and flippancy – is deeply personal” (Burman “The Alchemy of Juxtaposed Elements and Metaphysical Confrontation in Sculpture, Installation, Painting and Print” 2016). I believe that when Burman refers to his art as flippant, he’s referring to his earlier works. When his attention was focused on sketching a cooler looking car, or strategically placing rows of kale between cut-up poultry parts. Originally, most of Burman’s work was to achieve the most desirable visual aesthetic. Now, though still visually appealing, Burman’s work is geared towards educating and provoking thought. In additional to some of the works I mentioned under “Cultural Identity” Burman has: Internatsyonale Fonschlong Zikherhayt Apparatus, which provokes the audience to consider the abundance of information corporations and states collect on us. The Vent-o-matic, which is a collection of headshots of extremist politicians for the audience to throw shoes at to vent their frustrations. He’s also made Art of Destruction, in which people walk into a room with prints of sixteen of the greatest artworks of the world and are encouraged to shred some of them. Burman’s works touch on every social issue imaginable. The end goal is to educate; to teach the audience something new, bring them to a new realization, or challenge their thinking and fortify their ideas because they held true. Burman is highly successful at this because his projects are extremely thought provoking. When viewing one of Burman’s works it’s impossible to not have your attention captured by an interactive activity, or intriguing construction, or thought-provoking imagery. In relation to broader social and cultural context Burman uses his art to educate the audience on a plethora of topics via self-reflection.

FORMAL ELEMENTS OF ARTWORK

Art of Destruction, photo from randyburman.com

Burman has not confined himself to any of the elements of art. He draws upon whatever elements he may need to complete the project at hand. In many of his works, destruction is used to achieve creation. For example, Memory Scrolls and Art of Destruction. Burman describes his creative process as “free-flowing”. Sometimes he has an idea and collects the materials needed to create it, an example of this would be Poems to the Sky. Other times he’s had an abundance of materials which he begins to work with and makes a project out of. For example, the abundance of materials sitting in his studio during Hurricane Wilma, led him to create his Half FOOL Half Empty series. Occasionally, Burman’s pieces come together almost by chance. The doll on casters and stack of books on casters were sitting next to each other on Burman’s workbench when he exclaimed “OH! You guys want to be together, okay, you’re together” (Burman “The Alchemy of Juxtaposed Elements and Metaphysical Confrontation in Sculpture, Installation, Painting and Print” 2016), which then became his work titled Holy Mountain. Through Burman hasn’t limited himself to specific elements of art, his earlier work tends to deal with shape, pattern, and composition. Creating appealing patterns with poultry parts or reforming the shape of letters and images to create aesthetic logos. In his most recent works, Burman’s biggest congruency has become composition. This can be seen in his caster sculptures, selection of imagery for the Vent-o-matic and 18 Contemporary Plagues, and the Memory Scroll collages.

EXHIBITION AND PROJECT HISTORY

The Vent-o-matic, photo from randyburman.com

The first piece Burman mentions displaying is his painting Underneath the Piano in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Annual Regional Painting Show. In 1968, after dropping out of college, Burman had his first one-man show and published his book of drawn poetry, We Knows Who’s Crazy Baby. At this time, Burman was a staff artist on an underground newspaper in Baltimore called Harry. In 1972 and 1974, the movies Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble came out, respectively. In which, Burman, along-side his friend Alan Rose created the movie titles. Burman then worked on special projects at the National Lampoon which was an American humor magazine. In 1975, he published The Fells Point Telepgraphe,of which he was editor, art director, in support of the lawsuit against the Department of Transportation. In 1983, Burman was included in a CETA Title IV grant funded silkscreen workshop program led by the Lowe Art Museum and the City of Miami Cultural Experiences Division. Between 1979 and 1995 Burman worked for Diamond Dust – a t-shirt company; R&R Graphics, River Studio – both mostly sign companies; Hall Graphics, Burman & Perez, and HE2.3 – graphic design firms. In 1995, Burman began his own graphic design firm; IKON Communication and Marketing Design. During Hurricane Wilma in 2005, Burman resumed his fine arts career. In 2010, Burman reemphasized his focus on fine arts after an invitation to participate in a three-person show at 12345 West Dixie Gallery. In the same year, Burman became a member of the Artformz Collective in Wynwood, Miami, where he participated in four group shows and created his first project room, the Art of Destruction. Continuing in 2010, Burman participated in an exchange program with artists from Miami and Valencia, Spain. Lastly in 2010, Burman had two artworks selected to be displayed at the New Art Exhibition at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Burman participated in The Open Tent’s Seder as Art project at the Art Center of South Florida in 2011, where he exhibited 18 Contemporary Plagues. Also, in 2011, three of Burman’s artworks were picked for Humoratorium: Art of Whimsy and an installation in the Appropriated Gender exhibition at 1310 Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Burman was one of twenty-nine artists whose work was invited to be displayed for the Rough & Tumble exhibition at The Projects in Fort Lauderdale’s FAT Village Arts District in 2013. In 2016, Burman created his Poems to the Sky on the roofs of Florida International University’s Blue Garage and MANA Wynwood. Burman’s Vent-o-matic went on display at Schmidt Center Public Space in 2016 as well. Most recently, Burman has had exhibitions at The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in 2016 and Art and Culture Center of Hollywood during 2019 in Hollywood, Florida.

Burman shared his most meaningful experience was getting back into fine art in 2005 and realizing he wanted experience personal artistic growth and do more to influence his community culturally and socially through art. This new drive is what brought about some of his most well-known pieces such as the Vent-o-matic, Poems to the Sky, Art of Destruction, and 18 Contemporary Plagues. Without these works Burman might still have been as great of an artist but wouldn’t have made such large contributions to society.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE

Randy Burman was a phenomenal artist to work with. Mr. Burman responded to all my emails within several hours, which I found shocking especially with all the chaos being caused by COVID-19 right now. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Burman via phone call – due to social distancing. Mr. Burman was very well spoken, and I was very impressed with how he spoke to me. He told stories and gave anecdotes as if we had been friends for years, quite frankly I didn’t expect him to be nearly as invested nor engaged in our conversations. I really admired and appreciated this about him. Mr. Burman was able to draw congruencies between him and I. Though he spent several years focused on graphic design, he always kept fine art in the back of his mind. Similarly, I may be focused on work or school but long to make music in my spare time. Which coming from a man like Randy Burman, who’s made it in both worlds, was very inspiring. Working with Randy Burman taught me that the “art” is only very little of what you see or hear. That the “art” is in what you feel when you see or hear it. And, that when an artist makes an artwork, a lot more thought and effort go into it than just making the piece itself.

CITATIONS

  1. Florida Department of State Division of Corporations. “IKON COMMUNICATION AND MARKETING DESIGN, INC.” Opencorporates.com, Opencorporates, 12 Feb. 2020, opencorporates.com/companies/us_fl/P95000045047.
  2. Burman, Randy. “The Alchemy of Juxtaposed Elements and Metaphysical Confrontation in Sculpture, Installation, Painting and Print.” Vimeo, 16 Oct. 2016, vimeo.com/187534813.
  3. Burman, Randy. “Biography.” Biography, Randy Burman, Aug. 2016, randyburman.com/biography.
  4. Kobrin, Alan, and Randy Burman. “Needleworks.” IKON Communication Marketing Design, ikoncom.com/newsite/ikon_content.html.
  5. “Randy Burman.” MutualArt, 2019, www.mutualart.com/Artist/Randy-Burman/E2C64424E42CC9B1.
  6. Burman, Randy. “What We Do.” Edited by P. Scott Cunningham, O, Miami, www.omiami.org/video.
  7. Burman, Randy. “It’s a Trap!” It’s a Trap!, randyburman.com/it-s-a-trap.

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