There's a pastoral calm to Chris Burden's sprawling retreat deep in the heart of Topanga Canyon. One of a handful of Los Angeles artists to achieve international acclaim, Burden lives in a tastefully quirky Sunset-magazine-style house with his wife of six years, artist Nancy Rubins, and Guido, Fudge and Lulu, three large, greatly loved hunting dogs. Leading a visitor on a tour of his 27-acre parcel of land, a relaxed Burden offers, in a voice still marked by his boyhood Boston accent, a scientific explanation of how a bank of bright orange stones came to acquire their peculiar hue, identifies some unusual blooms in his cactus garden and points out a cluster of fruit trees. He has the air of a slightly offbeat country squire--formal, polite, somewhat shy and, except for his disturbing blue eyes, not at all what one would expect.
Where is the extravagantly florid anarchist who had himself shot in the arm in the early '70s and called it art? What happened to the brooding creator of dozens more outrageous performance pieces and other works that challenged not only basic notions of what is art but also took on politics, social issues and the terrors of the military-industrial complex? And where is the social renegade who earned a reputation in the early '80s for conducting his personal life with the same edgy aggression that made his art famous?
The answers to such questions come first from Burden's work. The artist has definitely not stopped challenging the art world, or for that matter, the world at large. Burden's 1990 piece "Medusa's Head," a roiling sculptural work depicting the Earth strangled by the Industrial Revolution, dominated "Helter Skelter," the Museum of Contemporary Art's survey of recent Los Angeles art that opened earlier this year. Some viewers and critics found "Medusa" ugly, others found it full of meaning, and The Times hailed it as one more push forward by Burden: "Leave it to Burden," wrote Christopher Knight, "to invent a whole new genre, take it to a peak and bring it to a close, all in a single piece." And another recent work, "The Other Vietnam Memorial," a sort of monumental copper Rolodex naming not Americans killed in the war but enemy dead, was also alternately dismissed and hailed. "Agonizing," said The Times in its positive review. "Its shocking moral ambivalence is the source of its riveting power."
And Chris Burden the man has not quite lost his edge, either. A few days after leading the tour of his Topanga estate, Burden realizes that the reporter who's traipsed into his life has also contacted several of his old friends and is poking into areas of his past and his personal life that he prefers remain unexplored. \o7 Prefer\f7 is actually not the word--\o7 insists\f7 is more like it. Bristling and intense, the country squire adopts a frosty tone. If the volatile aspects of his private life are to be publicly aired, he warns in a series of phone calls, the story is off.
Eventually, calm is restored. But one thing is clear: Chris Burden may look like a mature, comfortable artist, one who has put his incendiary, anarchic days behind him. He may act like a quiet country squire, but he isn't one.
BURDEN FIRST BLASTED HIS WAY INTO ART HISTORY IN SANTA ANA ON NOV. 19, 1971, with the performance piece "Shoot." A friend with a .22 rifle stood 15 feet away, aimed, fired--and shot Burden in the left arm. It was supposed to be a flesh wound, but the bullet went into his arm, and Burden went into the hospital.
For the next four years Burden executed a series of precisely choreographed pieces that included having himself arrested, crucified, incarcerated, starved and all but electrocuted and drowned. Infused with a Jesuitical purity combined with a diabolical aggression, these carefully considered actions challenged the limits of metaphor in art and quickly achieved the status of legend. In one performance, he hung himself, naked, by the ankles in the Oberlin College gym, above the target-like center circle on the basketball court; in another, "747," he stood on the beach near LAX and fired a pistol at a Boeing jet.
Burden operated like a guerrilla artist, staging his pieces with little advance word. Many of the early performances took place in his studio, documented only by his friends. As artworks, they were experienced largely as rumor--and Burden \o7 did\f7 manipulate rumor as a creative material. When you heard about a Chris Burden performance, an image would streak through your mind like a blazing comet. That was part of the point.
At first, the critics couldn't catch up with him. And when they did, their take was a peculiar mix of head scratching, high-flown rhetoric and fear. Some observers found the work morally reprehensible and dismissed it as a form of conceptual terrorism; more than one critic called Burden the Evel Knievel of art. But even his staunchest critics conceded that there was a powerful mind behind the mayhem.