Clyde Burnett is still at it.
He’s still exorcising his demons in layers of dark-oil paint. Still giving his figures cold, pale skin and their shadows ample room to loom. Still challenging his strict fundamentalist upbringing with ironic references to Adam and Eve. Still painting odd, reoccurring images of armadillos and mannequins. Still grateful, despite years of financial hardship, that he passed up the opportunity to become a lawyer.
“I was looking for answers,” he says of his decision to study art.
He didn’t find any.
Instead, he found something better: a sense of adventure.
“I experienced rewards beyond anything I ever imagined intellectually and creatively,” Burnett says. “To me, art has never been about grinding out landscapes (with the objective) to sell. If it were, I wouldn’t do it. It’s a discovery, an adventurous way of living.”
At 83, the artist is still an adventurer; although, lately his traveling is limited to the eight miles he drives every day to work at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, where for 14 years he’s worked as a security guard.
Once a rugged outdoorsman, he used to spend his weekends hunting, fishing and hiking, until diabetes, arthritis and a heart attack hampered his physical relationship with nature.
“Renoir had rheumatoid arthritis so bad he had to have his brushes tied with gauze to his hand,” Burnett says. “I’ve got my setbacks, but I’m not that bad.”
For years, the artist has logged his most satisfying adventures in a makeshift studio — a crammed, dimly lit laundry room in the back of a small house off Bee Ridge Road, the confines of which would make most people claustrophobic.
“Sorry about the heat,” Burnett says in a slow Southern drawl. “The A/C is on the fritz.”
This is where Burnett spends his time away from work: sitting at an easel, surrounded by old jelly jars, photographs, art posters, stacks of unframed canvases, a Panasonic radio, a flyswatter, feather duster, yellowed greeting cards from his late wife, Betty, and mannequins — plenty of mannequins.
“I use the mannequins to represent people,” he says over the rattle of his washing machine. “They’re nice stand-ins.”
Whether Burnett is trying to make a statement by painting dummies in place of people, he won’t say.
He’s a man of few carefully chosen words, who offers little analysis of his work, save describing it as, “not the kind of thing people purchase to decorate above their couch.”
Perhaps his reticence stems from the fact that he spent so many years writing art criticism for newspapers.
A graduate of the University of Georgia, Burnett moved in 1953 to Sarasota to work as a display manger for Sears, Roebuck and Co. Three years later, he joined the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, first as an ad salesman, then as an art critic.
He held the post for eight years, leaving in 1969 to work as the arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he remained until his retirement in 1990.
“I can truthfully say that I spent my life in art-related occupations,” Burnett says. “I was able to support my family all those years in a field I loved.”
Upon retiring from the Atlanta Journal, he returned to Sarasota to focus on his own art in a town he remembered as being ripe with young bohemians and high-profile artists such as Hilton Leech, Frank Rampolla and Syd Solomon, whose work he describes as “exploratory.”
He hit his stride in the early 1990s, when he joined ARTarget, an avant-garde artist group that served as an underground exhibition platform for emerging alternative artists whose work was too edgy for many Sarasota galleries.
The organization introduced him to a network of like-minded contemporary artists, with whom he still shares a kinship. It helped him land solo shows and earned him a label he seems to have happily embraced: Southern gothic surrealist.
“Clyde has always been an artist’s artist,” says former ARTarget member Virginia Hoffman. “So many artists have an encyclopedia of rhetoric they attach to their art. Clyde’s rhetoric exists within his paintings. He allows the viewers to go into the work and make a home for themselves.”
Hoffman’s affection for Burnett is one of the reasons why she choose the artist to kick off the city of Sarasota’s first one-man show in the New Deal Gallery at the Federal Building.
Hoffman, a volunteer public-art coordinator, launched the program in October after serving eight years on the city’s public-art committee. The city-run art series, which features work by area-based artists, has already showcased two exhibitions in the historic downtown landmark.
Burnett is visibly touched by the gesture.
“The greatest compliment to me is that half of the paintings I ever sold went to other artists,” he says.
Hoffman says Burnett is underrated. Other artists say he’s misunderstood.
Years ago, at an art center in Georgia, a man walked up to Burnett and exclaimed that he’d never seen anything like Burnett’s work before. When Burnett thanked him for the praise, the man explained that the remark was not a compliment.
“Not everybody thinks my stuff is wonderful,” Burnett says.
To most viewers, a Burnett painting looks like a scene plucked from a medieval wonderland, an alternate universe in which Manet’s “Olympia” receives a six-pack of beer in lieu of a bouquet of flowers.
Staring at his canvases for too long can make you feel like you’ve just stepped inside Alice’s looking glass.
“He tells a story with his images,” Hoffman says. “There’s allegory within. That’s what always fascinated me. It’s not obvious to the casual viewer.”
For this reason, Burnett’s work often appeals to the same crowd that adores Salvador Dali, though the artist himself is not a fan of the famous surrealist. He says he’s more of a Max Ernst guy.
“If painting means anything, it’s that you have to deal with things,” Burnett says. “You can’t just look at a painting of a rose and accept that it’s a rose. You’ve got to stand there and say, ‘There’s something about this rose that makes it quite different than just a rose. What is it? The petals? The thorns?’”
For a minute he considers answering his own hypothetical question, while running a rough hand through his gray brush cut.
“Art should be mind-enhancing,” he says. “Even if it makes you uncomfortable.”
IF YOU GO
“Southern Gothic: Paintings by Clyde Burnett” is up now through July 30, at the New Deal Gallery at the Federal Building. The artist will speak at a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 4, at the gallery space, located at 111 S. Orange Ave. in downtown Sarasota. For more information, email Virginia Hoffman at email@example.com.
WHAT’S WITH ALL THE ARMADILLOS?
Clyde Burnett loves a good metaphor, so it comes as no surprise that his favorite animal is the thick-skinned armadillo.
The critter often pops up in his work and his studio, which is filled with armadillo knickknacks.
“My wife collected owls and I collected armadillos,” Burnett says. “It’s kind of like my totem. It’s a survivor animal.”
And, like Burnett, it’s soft and fuzzy under its tough exterior.
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