Nina Frances Burke really hates titling her pieces. So when she had to settle on a name for her solo show at McGuffey Art Center, she turned to her tried and true method: “I’m an obsessive Radiohead fan. And when I need a title and I can’t come up with one, I just comb through Radiohead lyrics to find something that sort of speaks to me, as if it was like the I Ching, which is insane…” She settled on “For Spare Parts They Broke Us Up,” a line from an apocalyptic Thom Yorke song.
Her work calls to mind a more famous lyric: “Cause we are living in a material world / And I am a material girl.” Burke is not interested in the finer things in life, though—she’s interested in trash. Materially speaking, the show consists of found objects in new contexts: delicate mobiles of food packaging; rubble from demolition sites made into sculptural installations; a paper cup that has been run over a hundred times cast into plaster and covered with glitter, mounted among rocks, weeds, and broken tail lights. Burke reclaims this refuse and shows us how it is beautiful.
Each piece is a wordless phrase in a poem, and the poem is equal parts whimsy and tragedy. It’s about commodity culture, loss, gentrification, and how maintaining a child-like interest in the seemingly mundane can be a balm in this crazy world. In “Pull Me Out of the Lake,” three hard drives spray painted ombré pink are stuck low on the wall like barnacles, with moss growing out of them.
Pieces of a porch from an elderly neighbor’s house in Rose Hill form the basis of “Miss Maxine said Better Get a Coat On.”
“Miss Maxine had a house less than a block from me, and almost every day, I would pass her, and she loved to sit on the porch,” says Burke. “And even if I was completely bundled up in the winter, she would always say, ‘You better get a coat on.’ Or she would say, ‘Where’s your coat?’ She should say that like five times a week. And then we would just have this little talk.”
After Miss Maxine’s death, her family had to sell her home to pay off debt. The new owners demolished it. “So there’s a field of rubble where Miss Maxine’s house used to be. So I would just go there everyday and pick through the rubble to get pieces of the porch, because that’s where she is…”
Students of art history may be tempted to place “For Spare Parts They Broke Us Up” in the tradition of Dadaism – cheap and readily available materials in new contexts, political undertones, punk as heck. Dada does like to shock with its irreverence, but Burke’s work shocks with its emotional sophistication. —Ramona Martinez