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Overwhelming everything else in Peter Burgess's recent exhibition are two large murals: one of a domestic sofa, overstuffed in a mottled pattern; the other of a jet fighter banking sharply toward the gallery floor. Small stencils of military hardware form the sofa's mottling, while the jet's camouflage consists of similarly stencilled shapes of domestic items – coat-hangers, cutlery, pins and pens. The sofa and jet are a sort of yin and yang, the household and familiar contrasting with the product of national power and ideology. Yet, just as there is always a dot of yin in yang (and vice versa), Burgess's domestic icon is tainted by the objects of an imposing ideology.
Burgess appears to overstate in these murals what he allows to be understated or even obscure in the other fifteen framed pieces which form the core of this exhibition. For some time he has concerned himself with analysing the media's impact on the private sphere, on how our environment is affected by information encoded with ideological meanings. Here, he points to the rhetoric of power by printing phrases which would be innocuous had they not been appropriated by dominant ideology. Such terms as "a green beret", "grassy knoll", and "collapsing dominoes" bear little trace of a meaning beyond that of describing the use and abuse of power.
These terms and phrases, which appear in only half the pieces, are embossed on paper, black on black, so that one can only read them by finding a viewing position which catches the light. This seems a fair metaphor for discerning ambiguity. It requires a certain shifting of position in order to grasp what is hidden. Burgess juxtaposes the phrases with simple line engravings of familiar objects – a rose, a shoe, a chair, an umbrella. These require a further change in stance in order to be seen, so that the objects of everyday life and the language of power cannot be seen perfectly from the single viewpoint.
Also engraved on the black paper are rows of small stencilled shapes. Some suggest familiar objects – a lightbulb, perhaps, a carpet tack, an icecream cone. Others eluded me, obdurately refusing my attempts to pull them into my world of familiar objects.
Almost half the pieces involve representations of photographs from daily newspapers – or perhaps the pixel maze of monochrome television. These require a further change in stance, a step or two back so that the incoherent blobs of ink can reform themselves into readable images. Even then, as with everything in this exhibition, ambiguity remains: a man stands at a lectern; is it Gorbachov at the United Nations or a guest speaker at the local "C.W.A.?' In another: is that a face or, like the infamous “grassy-knoll" photograph, a possible trick of dappled shadows. We are in the realm of Antonioni's Blow Up where even photographic reality is subjective.
In a sense, Peter Burgess is tracing the blurred outline of private life, that ambiguous area where the ideologies of mass culture intrude. There is something of the old-fashioned McLuhanist in him, the belief in the individual as a global villager. But village life in Burgess's construction lacks tranquility, the peace ruptured by the harsh tones of a dominant ideology.