Ralph Bürgin occupies a singular position in the current Swiss art scene. Although he appears at first glance to be a conventional painter of figurative motifs in oil on canvas, it quickly becomes apparent that his images are surprising, disconcerting and impossible to categorise. Bürgin unabashedly appropriates from art history to make paintings that are entirely of their time, turns proportion and scale on its head, and combines styles, palettes and subject matter that are not easy to reconcile. Perhaps the most immediately evident aspect of Bürgin’s practice is his sense of affinity with a period in art in which the figure was distorted, extended and abstracted in the exploration of the relationship between form and emotion. He nurtures a love of early twentieth-century sculpture, especially the work of Henry Moore and Marino Marini, and acknowledges the inspiration of their re-interpretation of classical themes through modern concerns and techniques.

In the last two years Bürgin has focused primarily on the possibilities for depicting volume with minimal means. It is notable that during this period he has painted increasingly from the perspective of a sculptor, transferring devices such as volume, relief and surface modelling into his paintings as a way of attaining freedom from both depth and proportion. In this, he is influenced by modernist artists such as Giorgio Morandi, who used tonal subtlety combined with flat areas of colour to lend his paintings of simple objects an architectonic quality, and Amadeo Modigliani, whose sculpture informed the abstracted and linear vocabulary of his paintings. A work made in 2016, Grande Nature Morte, can be understood as an important transition from Bürgin’s earlier overtly figurative paintings to more complex explorations of depth. In this painting a massive foot, clearly appropriated from classical sculpture, is combined with forms that are not only more abstract, but also rendered primarily as line drawing. Apart from tones of grey, the only other colours are the bright blue highlighting of the simple outlines of fruit and the discrete wine-red surface on which the objects are placed. Bürgin openly demonstrates his admiration for modern art in the drawing of the foot, sketchily painted to summarily indicate volume, the minimalist application of colour to create flattened objects, and the reduction of what could be two figures to line and form.

An invitation to make an 11-metre-long wall painting entitled I know somebody from Italy at the art space Fabrikculture in Hégenheim in 2017 marked a sea change in Bürgin’s approach to painting by challenging him to think large-scale. The two monumental figures in the same pose, one seen from the front and the other from behind, between them filled the wall. Essentially line drawings with the addition of minimal modelling, the distorted pose of the figure seen from behind, as well as the tiny heads of both recall Picasso’s style of the late 1920s. Since then, in the two main areas of his focus during this period - paintings of entire figures and individual heads - Bürgin has consciously scaled up his motifs. These new dimensions and the ambiguity they engender affect the observer’s relationship to the subject: it is unclear how large the figure really is, or how the shrunken heads influence our reading of the massive bodies they sit astride.

The theme of the reclining figure has a central place in the works of modernist artists such as Matisse, Picasso or Cézanne but has largely disappeared from contemporary painting. It is compelling, therefore, that Bürgin’s investigation of the continuing possibilities for his medium has focused in the last two years on depictions of the reclining figure and that this series is ongoing and seemingly inexhaustible. He considers it unnecessary to depict more than a single figure at a time - a strategy which contributes to the shallow depth of the image -, and his figures are without exception generic. Following the wall painting at Fabrikculture he made medium-format canvases such as Panorama and Born as a Dancer, both 2017, in which, on the one hand, the contours of the figures are more fully fleshed out with a palette of ochre, blue and pink and, on the other, the heads have shrunk to faintly drawn outlines. The physicality of their execution is inscribed in the material presence of these works, the loose, broadly applied brushstrokes also locating Bürgin’s approach to painting in the lineage of modernist painters. The rose colour of the ground is also the main tone of the figure, with the curvilinear contours added only as the final stage to add volume to the indicated weight and fleshiness of the massive bodies. Only in the work Secret Block, 2017 is the pastel palette replaced with a white contour on black background, the two-dimensional given minimal modelling by the scant shading in white (enhancing the impression of a photographic negative), as well as the hint of a horizon line. Bürgin’s figures are without exception masculine. However, perhaps as an unconscious counterbalance to his references to heroes of antiquity, these are created exclusively in pastel tones that recall both the colours of the Mediterranean but also 1980s fashion. In two other significant respects the artist distances himself from his avant-garde forefathers, giving a contemporary twist to the classical subject: not only are there very few male nudes in the history of painting, but Bürgin’s masculine figures are invariably depicted in the traditional female pose of one leg placed dancer-like over the other.

Simultaneously with the images of entire figures, Bürgin has produced a series of paintings that focus on the head. As though he were modelling the face in clay, he smears the paint to create volume, with small details, such as the bridge of the nose or the incision of a mouth, employed to model the motif. Like the figures placed between the surface on which they recline and a parallel indication at the top of the canvas of a horizon line, the heads are compressed even further into an internal framing device. The squared contours of the head and torso depicted in Tête qui regarde, 2018 also functions as the border that distinguishes the figure from the space it occupies; in Silencio, 2017 the head is squeezed into the space of the painting, framed by the outline of the image. The compelling ambiguity at play in this work indicates the direction that Bürgin’s practice subsequently took: the image exists as a drawing, with only the figure’s hair and chin painted in order to indicate volume, yet the straight lines of the back of the head and the neck, as well as the isolation of the motif on a flat surface have a clearly object-like quality.

All these devices contribute to a further abstraction of the image that Bürgin has experimented with in other ways in works focusing on limbs that have been separated from the rest of the body but interact with each other. In the painting Daylight, 2017, for example, arms, shoulders and hands form the contours of a cube-like form whilst reaching into the centre of the painting. The circular dynamic that ensues renders it even harder to distinguish the different body parts or indeed to decipher the meaning of the work. While this painting is essentially a line drawing depicted in tones of grey, a new series of small format drawings have a painterly quality. Made in ink, pencil and coloured pencil, these have been produced especially for the Cahier d’artiste and give the impression that they were drawn directly in the book. Experimenting with a new compositional device for deconstructing the figure, Bürgin divides the pictorial space in these drawings into compartments or zones. Heads are lined up above or below individual arms ; autonomous torsos, heads and limbs are compressed in various combinations into the different segments, a single colour in each employed to give volume and depth. It’s possible to discern here an echo of Henry Moore’s anthropomorphic drawings of the figure, in which the distinction between recognisable body parts and abstract forms was often ambiguous. Significantly, Bürgin never erases marks during the process of making drawings, but rather retains the history of their making, the juxtaposition of two or more marks creating a playful sense of spatiality and rhythm. The simultaneity of a “false” and a “correct” mark emphasises the estrangement of Bürgin’s figures from the actual human body, with, for example, a toe becoming an ankle bone.

Together with the flattened-out paintings, these drawings are a significant transition to the concrete relief works that Bürgin embarked on in 2018, the three different media coming together in what are ultimately three-dimensional line drawings. He has looked at many classical busts, depicted in profile on antique coins. However, it is Matisse’s explorations of the relief form in his series of bronzes, Female Nudes from Behind (Rückenakte for German translation), made between 1909 and 1930, that have exerted a significant influence on Bürgin’s decision to experiment with the genre. It is perhaps no coincidence that Matisse was also a painter-sculptor, who transferred elements of the relief into his canvases, specifically the contrast of strong contours with shallow perspective.

Although he is interested in the technical and material challenges of sculpture, Bürgin’s main aim in these works is to understand how the shallow perspective of relief images on the surfaces of objects can be created and, above all, how this knowledge can influence his painting. The relief form in Bürgin’s practice is, then, an interface between the two mediums of sculpture and painting. It also represents a kind of freedom, a liberation from the concept of depth and the conscious decision to make images of the human figure that we perceive as three-dimensional, but which stylistically remain as true as possible to the flat surface on which they are depicted. Another significant development in Bürgin’s practice was embarked on in these works in the division of the space of the picture plane, echoing the experimentation in the drawings. The two larger concrete reliefs, Christopher and Atlanta separate the space of the head in the top third of the work from the lower part encasing the limbs. The figures’ limbs are taken apart, truncated and combined with the head, thereby further removed from a real body.

Such strategies are developed within Bürgin’s self-imposed confines of repeating over and again the same forms, colours and motifs. He is not an inventor of the new, yet as an explorer of existing subject matter, his re-arrangements, shifts and inversions of what we thought we knew are quietly and determinedly radical.

Felicity Lunn, 2019