Erin Burns’ mural photographs focus on the out-of-focus nature of memory
Stare at her face for a second. Background becomes foreground, foreground becomes background, her eyes look at you, then past you, then at you, and before you know it, trees look like they’re growing out of her head and her out-of-focus irises are gazing you straight into lightheaded enchantment, or maybe into a migraine.
This is Erin Elyse Burns’ exhibit, A Sometimes Memory, on display in The Front Door Gallery of UNR’s Church Fine Arts Complex. The piece comprises three self-portraits and five scenic shots. All are 3-feet by 4-feet mural photographs, and all seem to want to blur, vibrate or something right out of their borders.
I talk with Burns in her own quaint home on a Sunday afternoon. She serves me coffee with soy milk in a mug decorated with a happy hippopotamus. She hardly looks like the same young woman in her self-portraits. In her photos, she emerges ghostly, uneasy and aggressive. In person, she smiles … a lot, and when she talks about her art, she draws her chin toward her collar bone and aims her eyes at my shoes.
Burns reveals the photographs were taken on a class trip to Mexico. The scenic shots are suggestive of a foreign locale, but they don’t immediately reveal themselves as Mexican.
This was Burns’ intent. The photos are not about the experience of Mexico, they’re about the experience of memory. And because Burns blurred her photographs (which she did by taking multiple exposures on a single frame), the settings become places that can never, in a sense, be revisited. They are transformed from memories of tangible scenes into dreamy unrealities.
“The self portraits were in response to not being comfortable in a culture in which I felt like I was an outsider,” Burns says.
“I didn’t feel like I had any authority concerning Mexican culture that would give me the right to document it an anthropological sort of way. Feeling out of place, I thought I should document that. It was a natural response for me to turn the camera around.”
The feeling of discomfort comes across in all Burns’ prints. Because every shot is blurred, they all seem to be in a state of unrest. A fern (or some plant that looks like a fern when it’s been all fuzzed up) sits on a terrace balcony, ready to leap over the edge, or out at the viewer.
In another photo, a stairway that looks like it has twice as many steps as it should, leads up to a discrete, treehouse-style home. It seems remote and illusory, like it might be that place that sneaked into your dream four or five months ago.
Black and white photos will always be about aesthetic contrast, but Burns’ prints are also about the contrast between confrontation and modesty, movement and stillness and memory and forgetfulness. They are delicate and unnerving at the same time.
The use of self-portraits in conjunction with the scenery shots is also a tactful contrast that examines how we perceive ourselves in our own dreams and memories. Personally, when I recall incidents from remembrance or dream, I’m always present in those recollections, but it always seems to be the characters and events that surround me that overshadow who I am. This feeling is captured in Burns’ work.
“We are always a part of our dreams and memories," Burns says. She takes a sip of her coffee and makes momentary eye contact. "Blur has a relation to memory, and it lends to the dreamlike quality of my photographs. It’s all about an inability to focus."