Born in London in 1944, Peter Burke completed a student apprenticeship with Rolls Royce Aero Engines in 1960 after leaving school. He then went on to study sculpture at Bristol Polytechnic Fine Art Faculty, graduating in 1972.
The human form is often central to Peter Burke’s sculpture, as with Antony Gormley, who began working at a similar time, Burke often uses casts of a model to express a sense of universality in his sculpture. Working in steel and iron, using industrial processes, Burke’s engineering background has strongly informed his working practice. His work often reflects mankind’s relationship with mass–production and standardisation through a rhythm and repetition of materials.
Peter Burke has exhibited since 1973 in mixed and solo shows and has featured regularly in British and overseas galleries. His work is part of public and private collections including the Contemporary Art Society, London; Henry Moore Foundation and Greenwich Council, London. In 1995, Burke was awarded the prestigious Pollock–Krasner Award. In 2005, he was awarded the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the Djerassi Artists Program, California. In 2010, Burke exhibited in the ‘Ten Monumental British Sculptures’ exhibition at the Cerro de Vila Museum, Portugal and in 2011 had solo exhibitions in both London and Bath.
Most recently Peter gave an artist-led talk entitled ‘Sculpture and Reproductive Technology’ at an independently organised event by TEDx in Bradford on Avon. Visit the link listed under Additional Reference Material to find out more!
Peter Burke currently lives and works in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire.
Peter Burke, Host, 1996
In ‘Host’, Peter Burke elected to produce a horizontal work composed of a number of human scale verticals that would follow the undulations of the land on which it would be displayed, rather than to try and impose a large vertical presence in competition with the surrounding landscape. The resulting 40 figures have a raw physicality that demonstrates their means of construction and are arranged to be viewed collectively emerging from the landscape.
For ‘Host’, Burke developed a production press in an aerospace factory, which used crushed copper water tanks to produce an infinite number of variations from a single mould. This gave Burke the opportunity to pursue his long–standing interest in developing a mass production process that could include an element of chance. Using reclaimed copper domestic water tanks also allowed Burke to explore his interest in the possibilities of manufacturing with secondary raw materials.
In creating subtle differences between each of the figures through the casting process, Burke has enhanced their ‘humanity’—each one an individual despite their origins rooted in mass–production.
Peter Burke, Janus Head, 1999
A continuation of Burke’s preoccupation with humanity, ‘Janus Head’ is an investigation of the space occupied by the human form.
Made from poured steel, ‘Janus Head’ is imposing and tough, but with a delicately patterned finish. Burke has employed his hallmark engineering skills and fascination with mass–produced industrial materials into the fabrication process.
After many years of using moulds conventionally as negatives to be filled with materials, Burke became interested in the moulds themselves and the curious relationship between the outside and inside of a mould. Burke thus produced two identical casts, which he then placed together to allow one to view both outside and inside at the same time. Made from a fibreglass mould, ‘Janus Head’ is packed in sand and filled with molten iron then, hand finished to fill in the residual gaps.
The juxtaposition of two faces looking in opposing directions led the artist organically to entitle the work ‘Janus Head’ after the Roman god Janus. The god of beginnings and endings and thus of transitions and time, Janus has one face looking to the future and one to the past. Janus features heavily in ancient Roman architecture, typically around doorways and entrances, and is considered one of the most important gods in the Roman pantheon.
Peter Burke, Assembly, 2001
Embedded in all of us is the ability to recognise and read the human figure from scant visual information. In this work Burke has sought to depict a collective human presence with a series of defined spaces. Sixteen partial body moulds have been arranged as if coming together with the tightest concentration of figures in the middle of the group.
The material and forms draw on the artist’s early involvement with engineering practice, and an appreciation of the aesthetic properties of functional engineering construction. The cast forms have been designed to be industrially produced and repeated to reflect the use of industrial production methods , and are bolted together using the convention for the joining of castings. Each figure is suggested by three out of the possible four assembled mould sections of a body cast, allowing the viewer visual entry and an opportunity to perceive it from the outside in, as if casting ones own body.
‘Assembly’ acknowledges that there is a tension between the reading of an image of the human form and the affect that the physicality of materials and process have on that understanding. The work was conceived as an assembly of persons, of parts, and spaces, which can finally be assembled by the viewer.
Peter Burke, Register, 2003
The starting point for ‘Register’ was a photograph of a silent protest in the Plaza Del Sol in Madrid in 1997. A crowd had gathered to register their protest at the capture of Miguel Blanco by ETA and had filled the square with a sea of raised hands. This photograph was similar to other photographs in the artist’s collection of crowds at concerts and festivals, as seen from above.
The formal similarity and subjective disparity of this imagery led Burke to produce ‘Register’, an homage to humanist principles—the multiple hands reaching through the grille echo the end of the ‘century of horror’ and provide a simple yet sensitive representation of the human form.
Burke’s practice often deals with the theme of repetition, and in ‘Register’ this is combined with Burke’s interest in engineering and mass production. Two thousand cast iron copies of the artist’s hand have been industrially produced and assembled in simple, functional storage grids, creating an arresting effect, similar to that which Burke appreciated in the photograph of the silent protest in Madrid.
Peter Burke, Vessel, 2006
Like a ghost encased in steel, Peter Burke’s ‘Vessel’ continues the sculptor’s interest with the human body, which is core to Burke’s to practice and here it is presented as a study of geometry, precise and rhythmical. Its contours pick out an amazing amount of detail and the hollow form reminds one of an ancient urn.
The life size form is placed upside-down, this complete reversal of usual body language, creates immediate interest. The metal rods sit upon one another, generating a sense of equilibrium as the centre of gravity runs from foot to crown. The resulting tower forms a replicate of a human body and is welded together, involving Burke’s training as an engineer as an invaluable part of the process. Despite being individual blocks of matter, they are fashioned as a collective order in keeping with Burke’s long-standing interest in mass production.
One witnesses curves and indentations as the body is mapped by Burke’s intricate placing, creating a space that is more like a body trace than a person, something there and not there. This semi-transparency enforces a light, hollow aesthetic, exemplifying the meaning of the title Vessel. This also calls to mind the language of the potter, which is littered with bodily names such as lip, foot or neck. This is an unusual view of the body and Burke manages to convey it with minimal means, employing stacking, the most basic method of construction. The work raises deep questions about human function and meaning, which Burke asks in a subtle and intriguing tone.