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Masturbation Meets Shamanism in Colorful Patterned Wall Pieces

Elijah Burgher’s ritual process ruminates on friendship, death, gods, and demons.

Laura Hutson Hunter

Images courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago. All photos by James Prinz.

If you want to see what an artist committed to his process looks like, watch the video of Elijah Burgher titled Ritual Action. In it, Burgher prepares a canvas by hanging it in his studio, with a spectrum of colored pencils nearby and the E-40's song "Beastin'" playing loudly on a nearby boombox. He sips a beer, picks up a paintbrush from a Café Bustelo can filled with red paint, and then things get quiet. For the remainder of the video, Burgher works in the nude, putting as much of himself into the painting as he can—blood, semen, everything.

"It's an important work to me," Burgher tells Creators, "and one that marks a very specific time—specific friendships and hardships, ambitions, fears, pleasures." The ritual is captured on video with quiet focus by Burgher's friend and collaborator Tom Daws, who sadly passed away few years later.

'Tom Playing Dead (Hollywood Beach),' Elijah Burgher, courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago. All photos by James Prinz

In a new exhibition of Burgher's work at Chicago's Western Exhibitions titled The Dead Know Everything, a colored-pencil drawing called Tom Playing Dead (Hollywood Beach) depicts the artist's friend lying in a bed of mulch underneath a tangle of tree branches. It shares a gallery wall with portraits of Burgher's friends Mark and Bill, who are also now deceased.

The portraits are joined by a fourth drawing, Grünewald, in which Burgher, the artist AA Bronson, Bronson's partner Mark, and Burgher's husband Jonathan lounge in the nudist section of a park outside Berlin. Placed together, these four works depict a communion that could stand for one of the exhibition's strongest themes: friendships among the living and the dead. The rest of the drawings in The Dead Know Everything are made of patterns, symbols, and sigils, functioning like altarpieces that unify and sanctify the subjects they surround.

Grünewald, Elijah Burgher, courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago

"I wanted to make flags that don't actually denote a particular community," Burgher says from his home in Berlin, "and therefore might stand in for one that hasn't yet come about or even been imagined. Hence, Eden flags—emblems for a notion of community so desirable but seemingly impossible that it's imaginable only in a mythic past, a time of origins, or the aftermath of an apocalyptic future."

In Eden Eden Eden Eden, Burgher works with meticulously rendered patterns, sigils, and scratches, filling the drawing's surface with color like an occultist Kandinsky. The symbols in the drawings repeat and, once deciphered, form a kind of code.

Eden Eden Eden Eden, Elijah Burgher, courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago

One of the Burgher's most often repeated forms is a solar-anal emblem, resembling a wheel, a sun, or an anus, depending on your perspective. It is symbolic of the connection between an individual and the universe, gods and demons, life and death, with an imaginary vertical line the artist describes as "drawn from the sun or other celestial bodies overhead to the orifice on our backsides that is hidden from the light and is associated strongly with death, expelling waste as it does."

That connecting line appears throughout the exhibit. Symbols like rainbows, snakes, and ladders—as well as depictions of gods who transport the dead to the underworld and demons who possess the living—each have their own place along that line. Masturbation may not factor into the show as it does in the ritual Daws documented, but the exhibition remains a communion between creator and creation.

Horny Sun Radiation, Elijah Burgher courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago

'Hex Test,' Elijah Burgher, courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago

'Eden Flag,' Elijah Burgher, courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago

Installation view of Elijah Burgher 'The Dead Know Everything,' courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago

Elijah Burgher's show The Dead Know Everything is at Western Exhibitions in Chicago through May 27.

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