The title of the exhibition references a phrase from poet Lisa Roberton’s book The Men, and suggests an exploration into the elusiveness of style and taste, as well as into a form of maleness and masculinity that is conflicted: archetypal, idealised but also estranged from itself.
A series of painted concertina dressing screens are arranged to form a provisional and ornamental wall across the width of the gallery. The artist proposes them as an anachronistic decorative object – a form from modern art history that painters have adopted, adapted and loaded with concomitant baggage, from the Nabis to the Bloomsbury Group to Robert Rauschenberg. Images sprawl across the sides of the screens, but are compressed and fragmented through their concertina form – prohibiting an elegant ‘whole’ - whilst images on the other sides heighten the space of each panel. There is an ambivalence of the artist’s painterly ‘touch’: alternately expressive and graphic, the imagery is produced with rich, textured oil paint in some passages, and a deathly flatness with acrylic in others.
The screens consist of ornamental symbols that suggest the celebratory and triumphant: festoons of clementines; a vase of abundant flowers; over-flowing fountains and a strutting peacock. Yet on closer inspection, these flowers are rediscovered as wilting and dying, the peacocks’ display of feathers crumpled by the concertina form of the screen. The imposing and comically over-sized war medals sit uncomfortably within their narrow frames, like squeezed exclamation marks. In addition, within these large copper medals, Burton’s archetypal figure of the Ambivalent Man, part Greco-Roman man-boy, part hirsute modern cartoon recurs throughout. He appears with an ambiguous frown: is it anxiety over his own status? Is it ambivalence towards the environment he is situated in or simple, abject confusion?
The exhibition also includes a series of smaller panel paintings, in these works, the Ambivalent Man has been cropped to show only an excessively hairy torso, bejeweled with gold necklaces; an ahistorical amalgamation of possible ritualistic attire or theatrical costume. Cramp, a two-minute video work, echoes throughout the gallery. The sound of a gently pathetic and comic male voice making noises of pain can be heard over a blank screen. Only towards the end of the video can we see a figure attempting awkwardly to correct the eponymous muscle spasm. The video acts as a distilled, performed abstraction of the other works in the show: at once a kind of event of elaboration and excess; but one that is tempered with a mild, comic deathliness - an absurdity that constantly returns.