20 December 2023

Concrete Willows

Stephen Burke examines the social
fabric of urban architecture


by Kate Mothes

In channeling what he describes as “the raw, untamed soul of the city and its inhabitants,” Irish artist Stephen Burke orients his work within the urban realm, considering the nature of barriers in an ever-evolving cityscape through a multidisciplinary artistic and curatorial practice.

“Picture protective fencing bent out of shape, adolescent signatures etched into walls, or accumulations of illicit sticker adhesives,” Burke says in a statement when describing his influences. “To be most impactful, these works frequently draw material inspiration from the very streets where the original acts occurred.” He is drawn to physical boundaries and visual cues that developers and city planners prefer to keep on the periphery, like anti-climb apparatus, pigeon spikes, or mobile barriers. Repurposed street furniture or architectural details find their way into pieces that evoke the built environment and its embedded histories.

“The sculptural work I’m making at the moment serves as a commentary on the dynamics within public spaces, shedding light on how architecture is employed to control these areas,” the artist says. Using reclaimed anti-climb blades, which he then manipulates by warping and fracturing, he draws attention to features that physically prevent entry to a place while also symbolizing anti-accessibility and division. “They tell the story of how this architectural regulation can fail, is often flawed, and can be exploited for the gain of others.”

This guy loves his job, 2022. Spray paint, canvas, oil, steel, and anti-climb guard, 220 x 210 x 60 centimeters. Exhibited at Pigeon Park, London

A series of sculptures made from concrete, steel, and spray paint comprise the artist’s recent interest in the continuous tension between the built environment and nature as new development encroaches ever further into green spaces. In pieces like Palisade Bouquet and Concrete Willow, anti-climb spikes transform into sickly, unnerving flowers or drooping, leafy boughs. Burke says, “The weeping willow is used as an aesthetic and symbolic reference in this work, a tree that is often related to loss and grief in many cultures.”

Much of the artist’s work stems from an interest in the aesthetics and ideas around graffiti, especially related to resistance and protest. He founded the platform Post vandalism, and in an ongoing project called Buff, Burke documents social narratives playing out on building walls in the form of graffiti covered up by colorful swatches of paint. Traces of the original tags or artwork are obscured by anonymous fixes, generating curious, spontaneous compositions emptied of individuality.

Through his photographs and sculptures, Burke questions the status quo and the efficacy of barriers and deterrents, both physical and symbolic, reflecting on the way architecture attempts to govern who can move where. He is quick to point out that his work does not revolve around a fetishization for urban decay, but rather a a continual investigation into and challenging of “the breaking of societal systems and the artist’s refusal to succumb to urban sterilization.”

Burke is also the co-founder of London based curatorial collective Pigeon Park. Find more on his website and Instagram.

Jack of All Trades, 2021. Spray paint, emulsion, detritus, chewing gum, and anti-graffiti spray on perspex on road traffic barrier, 215 x 100 x 50 centimeters
Beach Soot, 2023. Acrylic, emulsion and spray paint on canvas with fabricated anti climb frame, 78 x 64 centimeters
Left: Concrete Willow (detail), 2023. Concrete, steel, alloy and spray paint, 215 x 120 x 110 centimeters. Right: Etch, 2023. Acrylic, emulsion, and spray paint on canvas with fabricated anti-climb frame, 78 x 64 centimeters
Found composition, Southside suburbs
Brassaï 2, 2023. Acrylic, emulsion and spray paint on canvas with fabricated anti-climb frame, 78 x 64 centimeters
Left: Brassaï 2 (detail), 2023. Right: Palisade Bouquet, 2023. Concrete, steel, plastic and spray paint, 145 x 80 x 70 centimeters
Found composition, Southside suburbs

Header image: (Foreground) Palisade Bouquet 2, 2023. Concrete, plastic, steel, spray paint and oil, 146 x 76 x 50 centimeters. (Background) Concrete Willow, 2023. Concrete, steel, alloy and spray paint, 215 x 120 x 110 centimeters

All images © Stephen Burke

Share your thoughts