Picture of success
Most people’s photo collections are compendiums of extraordinary moments, people and places. Dean Burton’s are of trash.
He points to one photo that’s part of Linear, his solo exhibition showing through July at the Fireplace Gallery. The abstract photo features yellow horizontal lines broken by black squares. It’s merely color to me, like any Pollack or Mondrian painting might be. “That’s a phone book,” says Burton.
I peer in closely and state the obvious: “It sure is!”
“See, you didn’t notice what it was until I told you,” he says. This, he explains, is why he rarely titles his work. “That’s one of my strategies, to take something completely mundane or discardable, and make it visually compelling as art.”
He points to a collection of smaller photos, which were composed on a flatbed scanner. “Like this. This is packing material from a printer I bought.”
Burton is an art photographer. He doesn’t “take photos;” he makes them. It’s a concept he’s tried to instill in his students—first as a part-time photography instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno and now teaching art photography at Truckee Meadows Community College. He seems very un-professor-like, standing in his basement studio listening to ‘80s music in his T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.
“No matter what type of photography my students do, I like them to try to somehow control the situation.”
This unique view of the world keeps him busy. As though teaching full time weren’t enough, Linear is one of three Reno exhibitions where you could find Burton’s work this summer. Grass, his Sierra Arts show alongside university professor Tamara Scronce, just wrapped up on June 30. His collection of cloud photography appears in Simply7, with work by six other local contemporary artists at the Stremmel Gallery through July 13. He’s also finishing the Nevada Arts Council Fellowship he and Scronce won together last summer. The $5,000 fellowship is the largest in the state—a financial testament to his talent.
Burton got his start in grade school, when a fellow student’s dad set up a darkroom at school and taught students how to use it. Burton, an excellent math student, had a lenient math teacher who let him develop his portraits of friends during class time. Since then, he can’t remember a time when photography wasn’t part of his life.
He earned his bachelor’s from the University of Arizona and his Master of Fine Arts at San Jose State University.
Shortly after moving to Reno for his position at UNR, he was given the opportunity to document the construction of the new Nevada Museum of Art. Some of these photos will appear in Linear.
In fact, it was during that period that the linear themes started to reveal themselves to Burton. Where we might have seen a chair rail or a pile of wood, he started seeing deserts and sunsets. Lines were no longer merely lines—one of the themes in Linear.
Burton certainly didn’t expect a summer this lucky when he moved to Reno eight years ago. He’s pretty sure that having three shows within two months is a fluke, but the Reno arts scene is why he’s still here.
“There’s this tight group of people, some who’ve been here 30 years and some new people coming in like me,” he says. “And there’s a spirit about it. We’re feeding off each other’s energy. That’s a good arts scene when that happens.”