Taurus Burns makes trouble at Hatch Art

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Taurus Burns' "Touched" at Hatch Art through May 26.

"Troublemaker," an exhibition prompted by police killings of unarmed African Americans, pulses with gallows humor and rage. 

The one-man show at Hamtramck's Hatch Art will be up through May 26, with an artist's talk on Saturday.

Taurus Burns, 44, has long been recognized as a painter of powerful urban landscapes, but here he's stretching himself and swinging for the emotional fences, with portraits that are alternately affecting and deeply unsettling. 

"Troublemaker," said Detroit art critic Dennis Nawrocki, "is a potent, powerful show," one he called beautifully painted: "You feel the hand, and the swing of the brush."

One of the exhibition's most dramatic paintings is "The Shooting of Philando Castile." Burns, who repeatedly watched the 2016 video of Castile's girlfriend shot as he was killed, captured the moment seconds after the officer's pistol, visible in the car window, went off. 

Castile slumps against the driver's door, an oval, red stain spreading across his white T-shirt. 

The incident was a turning point in Burns' art career. 

"It was a difficult painting to do," said the Paw Paw High School grad, "but I wanted to do it, because that (video) really shook me. Once I saw that, something in me broke, and I felt I could no longer focus on landscapes."

Burns, who studied at the College for Creative Studies, stresses that he's not an activist, much as he admires those who take that on.

"I’m a regular guy. I work a 40-hour week," Burns said. (He's a clay sculptor in the automotive industry.)

"But I’m connecting to Black Lives Matter in my own little room here." He sighed. "I’m deeply affected by what’s happening."

Vince Carducci, a CCS dean who founded the online Motown Review of Art, admires Burns' recent work. 

"It has an edge to it that sharply captures, visually, the mindscape of America in the age of #BlackLivesMatter," he said.

Perhaps the most commanding piece in the show is "Touched," a large, circular work painted in shades of grey, with the dreadlocked artist himself front and center, disconsolate and staring out at the viewer.

Faces in the crowd behind Burns include Malcolm X, gangster rapper Eazy-E, Richard Pryor, legendary black artist Jacob Lawrence and — most jarringly — Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee. 

The titans of the Civil War stand on either side of Burns, each with a hand on his shoulder. 

"It’s me looking back at America’s past," the artist said, "and trying to understand why this keeps happening, this terrible part of American culture that just won’t go away."

Not all the art on display is funereal. Indeed, in some Burns gets revenge.

"America Be Like..." is a large portrait of a hooded Klansman astride a horse — only in this case, the horse is My Little Pony, the dappled cartoon character beloved by elementary-school girls. 

"The Shooting of Philando Castile" by Taurus Burns at Hatch Art.

Was this meant to be subversive? You bet. 

"I wanted to emasculate the Klan figure," Burns said. "So it looks like a guy in a rodeo, that most-American and masculine event. But here it’s completely ridiculous and you want to laugh."

Funny and not funny at the same time is an official-looking, yellow highway sign that reads "Racism Ahead." 

Much of what he's created for the show, Burns admits, has to do with his figuring out his place in an America that seems to be sliding backward at a scary rate. 

"I’m responding to things that are happening on a national level," he said, "the change in our leadership and the rise of hate groups. Part of what's going on is me trying to figure out how I talk about this stuff."

By almost any measure, Burns has succeeded. 

'Troublemaker' by Taurus Burns 

Through May 26 

Hatch Art, 3456 Evaline, Hamtramck

1-6 p.m. Saturdays only 

2 p.m. Saturday Artist's talk at gallery