Katie Burnett, Cabin Fever

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Art Paper Editions (here). Softcover with poster dustjacket (17×22 cm), 80 pages (Japanese binding), with 84 black-and-white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Jurgen Maelfeyt and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many artists, the work of art making is an ongoing exercise in creative problem solving, often within self-imposed constraints (like subject matter, medium, or style) that force the innovation to happen in a particular direction. So when the pandemic lockdowns and quarantines of the past year kept artists inside their homes (and in many cases, away from their studios), it was perhaps inevitable that many would feel compelled to find improvised outlets for their creativity, regardless of the constrained circumstances.

Katie Burnett’s photobook Cabin Fever fully embraces this sense of isolation-induced experimentation. Confined to her home in Brooklyn last March, and armed only with her iPhone and the everyday objects at hand, the British stylist and fashion editor made the most of her limited options, creating a flow of playful images that recombines the available elements into increasingly complex and sophisticated photographic compositions.

Most of Burnett’s black-and-white images draw from a common framework of initial tools – her own body (often nude or partially so) and the addition of plates of glass and mirror that alternately flatten, distort, and reflect that body. In the same ways that artists like Ana Mendieta and Jenny Saville have used glass to squish female bodies and see from underneath them or Hans Breder and B. Ingrid Olson have used mirrors to multiply, invert, and double various body parts, Burnett reconfigures herself (and her loosely tumbling dark hair) in a range of dizzyingly energetic, inspired, and unlikely ways. Legs are reversed and doubled, silhouettes are sliced and inverted, and knees and arms are overlapped and entangled, creating hybrid forms that extend the usual boundaries of the body.

But the formal possibilities of these kinds of interventions actually don’t keep her attention for very long, at least on their own. Burnett quickly introduces a series of circular shapes – rubber bands, bra inserts, felt pads, painted circles on her body, soap bubbles, lemons and oranges, even plastic googly eyes. With the addition of contrasts of light and shadow and a swirl of steep camera angles, she iteratively shuffles the component parts together, often finding a frenzied edge of surreal glamour, and the circular theme pulls the photobook along from pageturn to pageturn.

The remixing continues unabated throughout the 80 pages of Cabin Fever. Once the circle motif has been exhausted, Burnett moves on to other shapes and textures, including blocks of dry ramen noodles, shredded paper, a metal Slinky, a few plastic food containers, some letter shaped cookie cutters (which she uses to form the words in the book’s title), a pair of melting popsicles, and her cats. When pressed against the glass and seen from below, the cats are particularly feral, their wide eyes and sharp teeth caught in distorted closeups. Other works edge more toward temporary still lifes, with hands holding agglomerations of objects that may or may not resemble something recognizable, but in some way, still feel immediate and urgent.

In the confines of her home, Burnett often uses bubbles as an interrupter, with handfuls of frothy bubbles held in front of her face, smeared across the glass, or encouraged to drift up into the air. They also create an opportunity to move outside into her backyard, where larger hovering bubbles float into the sky, reflecting and distorting our view of the clouds, the backyard fence, and the nearby greenery. Once outside, Burnett continues her improvisations with about-to-disperse dry dandelions, a squiggly garden hose, and a lawn sprinkler which shoots lines of water up into the air. The flares of warm sunlight ease the closed-in pandemic claustrophobia just a bit, with swimsuited child-like playfulness infusing the resulting images.

While Burnett clearly has talents as a stylist and arranger of images, it’s her COVID-induced obsessiveness that gives her photographs their punch. Csilla Klenyánszki offered a related version of cooped-up inside creativity in her inspired 2019 photobook Pillars of Home (reviewed here), but that was pre-pandemic – we all have our own stories of lockdown itchiness and boredom now, so Burnett’s efforts to fill the hours by entertaining herself with photography feel altogether relatable. Like those few who somehow found the wherewithal to write novels, compose songs, remodel their homes, or get fit during the pandemic, Burnett has made something positive from a bad situation, channeling her creative energy into a body of imagery that brims with exuberant and mischievous vitality.

Collector’s POV: Katie Burnett does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Exhilarating photographs & such a lucid review from LK.

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