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Philip Burke’s illustrations reveal the soul of celebrity

Flip through the April 23 edition of Rolling Stone and chances are you’ll stop dead at page 24, where Philip Burke’s jarring illustration of Conan O’Brien stares out from the glossy paper and straight into the reader’s eyes.

That illustration, digitized and miniaturized from the original oil painting to fit the magazine’s 8-by-11 inch pages, is quintessential Burke. The eyes, set apart at a skewed angle, capture O’Brien’s distinctive combination of sadness and confidence. His jaw is almost literally square, like Ed Asner’s character in the Pixar movie “Up.” His hand rests on the lapel of his jacket, as in his opening monologue. And his expression is a riotous patchwork of colors that belong absolutely nowhere near a human face: lime green, neon yellow, unnatural pink.

Yet somehow, the portrait accomplishes something that ought to be impossible: It looks more like Conan than Conan looks in real life.

The peculiar and mysterious tricks of reduction and transformation Burke has spent decades perfecting are on full display in the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s exhibition “The Likeness of Being: Portraits by Philip Burke,” which includes more than 100 of the original magazine and newspaper illustrations for which the Niagara Falls-based artist has become justly renowned. It’s been co-curated and smartly hung by the Burchfield Penney’s Scott Propeack and Buffalo designer Brian Grunert, a longtime Burke fan.

Arrayed across the curved gallery of the Burchfield Penney, Burke’s oil paintings of see-through celebrity souls – much larger than the casual magazine reader might imagine – jump off the wall just as they jump off the page.

Each one of the large-scale paintings is its own risky experiment.

How big, for instance, can you make Kurt Cobain’s left eye, and how much can you twist his nose into a cubist experiment before he becomes unrecognizable? An awful lot, apparently, and Burke pushes his subjects to the brink of perception with an unrestrained hand.

The experiments continue, some of them thrilling and some of them disconcerting: How long can Sinead O’Connor’s neck stretch before becoming disconcertingly giraffelike? (More than you’d think.) How many fun-house mirrors can you refract the already terrifying visage of Vladimir Putin through before it loses its sinister power? (Infinite.) How closely can a person be depicted as a sausage overflowing from its casing and still be immediately identifiable as Danny DeVito? (Don’t answer that.)

Burke is best when he avoids overt commentary, such as the sniveling face of right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh emitting a tower of orange flames, or depicting Fox News star Bill O’Reilly with a pair of impish ears. Though it has to be said that his portrait of a hulking Dick Cheney, with fists clenched and grimacing head emerging almost from his torso, is an effective distillation of someone’s anger – whether Burke’s or Cheney’s.

When Burke focuses on one or two emotions, he shines. His portrait of the guitarist Slash, whose crushing apathy toward his own fame seeps through the rainbow of colors out of which Burke has constructed his face, is one of the best in the show.

If you’ve only seen Burke’s illustrations in print – whether in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone or in the pages of this newspaper, to which he contributed for many years – a trip to the Burchfield is a great revelation. His free and spontaneous process, harder to observe in miniature, is on full display in the oil paintings, whose size somehow only amplifies their reductive qualities.

Burke’s great gift is to boil someone down to their essence, using the few physical characteristics that make them distinct to construct a window into their souls, or at least their current state of mind. This exhibition does much the same with its own subject.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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What: “The Likeness of Being: Portraits by Philip Burke”

When: Through Sept. 13

Where: Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.

Admission: $5 to $10

Info: 878-6011 or burchfieldpenney.org

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