Finding Burke


Taking one step forward and then back, Philip Burke approaches a blank canvas the same way a contemplative and unusually sensitive matador, in a better world, might face a bull.

In Burke’s case though, the matador’s stadium is a mainly empty, makeshift studio near Buffalo, in Lewiston, N.Y. In the space of an empty storefront there, Burke’s objective, unlike the matador’s, is not to annihilate his adversary. It is to befriend it, using lavish, holographic color that will converge to animate his canvas with the soul of someone he’s never met.

For the pages of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Time, Vogue and just about any other major publication with the good taste and money to afford him, the intense but peaceful illustrator from Buffalo is known the world over. And if there is one reason that makes him so wanted, it is for his ability to distill the essence of his subjects by celebrating their defects. Doing it, he says, ultimately came from recognizing his own.

Through his style of caricature, the primary colors, and the rearrangement and distortion of features, Burke shows an immediately recognizable, most often famous face, in a tender and vivid new light. His subjects appreciate their reconfigured likenesses so much, they often buy them after publication. Today, more than half of his work is commissioned directly; the rest is published.

In Rochester, Burke in recent years has leveraged his talent to raise some $100,000 participating in local fundraisers, such as Nazareth College’s “Benches on Parade,” in which businesses sponsored fiberglass benches to be painted by local artists and displayed around town. He also has painted notable locals, such as Chuck Mangione, Danny Wegman and Garth Fagan. Some of them, he did at live painting shows here in Rochester.

Combined, his large-scale canvases over the last 30 years would fill a pantheon with likenesses of the Western world’s most famous modern icons, ranging from Ayn Rand to Kurt Cobain, from George Bush to Snoop Dogg. It seems harder to name a major musician, actor, artist, or politician Burke hasn’t painted than to name one he has.

Right now he’s working on a painting of the Rat Pack, soon to be presented for a film festival at Quentin Tarantino’s home as a gift to one of his collaborators, Larry Bishop, the son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop. The oversized canvas shows a young Bishop to the extreme right, with his distinctly stooped and slender frame, his wide, bright eyes, head turned and tilted in a combination of innocence and subtle mock confusion. The posture and stance of Burke’s figures express as much about the subjects as their faces do.

Philip Burke

Looking at Burke’s striking features, his wide-set eyes, it is easy to imagine him in one of his own caricatures, which he has painted, by the way. Almost all faces are endearing to him, he says, but that wasn’t always the case.

It is not hard to imagine Burke as the cynical, brooding young artist he says he once was. He was not a nice person, he says, not close to anyone. Caricaturists are kind of like judges, he explains, and at the time he specialized in satirical drawings. He was in his early 20s— before he met his wife, whom he now jokes, humbled him then and has continued to over the 32 years since. It was she who introduced him to Buddhism.

“When I first got started, my work was very biting, satirical, political. I was the angry young man,” Burke says. “Over the years, and as a result of my Buddhist practice, I think my art has become more accessible, as I have become more accessible.”

It’s not popular Buddhism, he says. It’s not about meditating or accessing a particular state, he explains, but it is a practice.

“The true Buddha is the deepest consciousness that we possess as a human being, and it’s the highest possible life condition that we can attain. So when we’re chanting at the beginning of the day, we have a practice in the beginning of the day, we fuse with the enlightenment of the Buddha, and then that way throughout the day, we are living from a place of more compassion, wisdom, and joy, endurance. Those kinds of qualities that the Buddha possesses,” Burke says.

He began practicing in 1982, after returning to Buffalo from New York City, where he spent six years developing a thriving career.

He had begun drawing caricatures at the Village Voice and soon after, in 1983, at Vanity Fair, when the magazine title was revived. There, he worked full time under an exclusive contract restricting his work from appearing anywhere else. He was in high demand but burned out from living in the city.

The return to Buffalo, finding his wife, and finding Buddhism coincided with his foray into painting.

“The first thing I started to notice is that my paintings started to show more than just a critical look. I was able to start portraying people with more than one side—to show a person as a human being with many sides.” Burke says.

“As much on the surface, there is a lot of color, and twisting and fun and explosion, I think that with some of my favorite pieces there is a real warmth and expression of the joy of being human.”

In his mind, Burke says, colors themselves have a personality. His favorite colors are not earth tones. They are lush and vibrant, inspired largely by Van Gogh’s use of color.

Philip Burke

As he paints, the 15 or more paintbrushes he’s using next to him are sopping with the colors from his palette, looking like a children’s xylophone, ready to make music. He moves between the canvas and his palette on the opposite side as he paints, alternating between bright orange, yellow and greens. He paints for an hour, stopping only to change the music, about which he is very selective.

Every track he plays today is a little punk, by little-known bands, except for Nirvana, which for Burke is a mainstay. Their music, he says, allows him to slow his mind.

Burke doesn’t paint without music that can move him, he says. Imagining him there without the paints, brushes and canvas, and only “Teen Spirit” blaring from the computer speakers nearby, Burke might look like he is dancing.

He used to do that, he says. Dance and paint. These days, he paces himself, painting for no more than three to four hours at a time.

Philip Burke
Philip Burke
Philip Burke

In a lot of ways, he notes, the music industry parallels the illustration business for artists. Illustrators are trying to find ways to make money in a publishing world where art directors dictate creative parameters. That didn’t happen during the seven years he worked at Rolling Stone, where he always painted half of the contents page with whatever he wanted, he says. It was his dream job. That kind of creative license isn’t common for him anymore, and if the job doesn’t dictate the terms, it usually is because they can’t pay very much.

Budgets are tight in the print business—and online the dollars aren’t there yet to afford high art like Burke’s. But it presents an opportunity for him to feature his work in a new way, to invite people to look at the expanse of it in person. To that end, he plans to convert the studio he’s now using on Main Street in Lewiston to a gallery, due to open this spring or summer.

“It’s going to be three spaces, and one space is going to hold my work, one space is going to hold some Hollywood collectibles, and then the middle is going to be a reception (area), (with) kind of coffee and sweets.”

In development for several years, the gallery is the first time Burke will have had a public space to show his work, although he does do exhibitions. On April 10 through Sept. 13, 2015, the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State will be featuring samples from his whole oeuvre in a show titled “The Likeness of Being: Portraits by Philip Burke.

Looking at the expanse of it over the course of 30-some years, he says, the influence of spirituality on his work is clear. Accessing the greater expanse made him try to show more than just the life condition. Burke realized, as all great artists at some point must, that the brooding, misanthropic stereotype is little more than just that. True art comes from a source far greater.

Burke says: “I think the result of my Buddhist practice has allowed me to bring out more of the inside of the person I’m painting, but even further than that, it’s helped me to express in the person I’m painting some deeper consciousness that we all possess. Or some hint of the oneness of our life together.”