Stephen Burke

Stephen Burke, „U-Bahnen,“ 2020

Deutschsprachige Version des Textes

The images conceived in Berlin by Stephen Burke, a series bearing the simple title “U-Bahnen” (Subways), consist of abstract, colorful elements painted on tiles. His works could be described as an artistic form of documentation. They are testimonies of a dialogue that takes place in Berlin subway stations, between those who cover the stations with graffiti and those who try to remove these largely illegal pictures, lettering, and symbols by painting over them or using chemicals to erase them. In the street art scene, removing graffiti is called buffing, and the new image that it creates is called a buff. Burke is interested in these buffs, and he searches for them in the urban landscape, selecting certain ones to paint and translating what he sees into aesthetic paintings.

The painted buffs make visible a practice that is conspicuously present in large cities but still only marginally attracts our attention. Burke’s documentations convey the highly unique aesthetic of this practice. Taking its results and transposing them onto paintings in combination with the tile medium, he creates objects that recall abstract paintings. In contrast to the artistic tradition of abstraction, it cannot be said that these works are the product of an original artistic genius—traditionally ascribed to the male realm. Burke’s works also do not necessarily side with those who think that graffiti reclaims public space and that it operates outside traditional concepts of artistic practice or established art. Nor do they add any embellishment to the heroic tales of rebellious graffiti artists—mostly also imagined to be male. Instead, they document a process that takes place in public space, while showing this realm as a space that is—and potentially always has been—contested. Within the controversial debate about the legitimacy and artistry of graffiti, about its political potential with which it counters the dominance of advertising banners, etc. in public space, or about the extent to which it undermines traditional concepts of the autonomous artist, Burke gratifyingly avoids clearly taking sides. Rather, embedded in his artistic practice is the work of the person who—for whatever reason—removed or had to remove the graffiti. It remains open whether the person painted over the graffiti message out of a political motivation or on behalf of the local public transport company; also unclear is according to what criteria the cleaning was performed.

When Burke talks about the aesthetics of the buffs that he translates into paintings as being specific to their individual locations and about their appearance as communicating the social and political reality of the respective place, it is easy to believe him. And yet one would like to know how they do this and how these narratives can be decoded. Until we have learned the ability to decipher them ourselves, however, all we can do is relish the fascination that his objects hold.

Text: Dr. Kea Wienand

About Stephen Burke

Stephen Burke is an artist from Dublin, Ireland. He developed an artistic practice after being involved in the Irish graffiti community for many years. Stephen received his Masters in Painting from the Glasgow School of Art in 2018 and has been developing his studio and academic writing practice since.

Please visit the website of the artist for more information

The online showcase of Fresh A.I.R. #3

Fresh A.I.R. showcase

The online showcase offers an opportunity to get an overview of the highly diverse projects of the third group of Fresh A.I.R. artists with their different kinds of media and aesthetics.

On view are video and photographic materials about the individual projects, each of which is accompanied by an explanatory text that aims to offer insights into the work’s aesthetic experience.

learn more abouth the online showcase