by Terry Messman
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n angel makes an unexpected visitation to a San Francisco dumpster. St. Paul the hermit steps out of a Renaissance painting to wind up in rags on the streets of the Mission District, looking for all the world like one more street person trapped in poverty.
Jonathan Burstein’s art reminds us that in many religions, saints and angels appear as beggars or as blind and disabled people. They sometimes move among us unknown to test our kindness. Burstein’s art performs a similar function, challenging us to see the humanity of the homeless people, panhandlers, and down-and-out workers who appear in his paintings like saints walking among us unseen.
In Burstein’s evocative painting, “Dumpster Dive,” an angel appears, unexplained and unannounced, at a trash bin in the Mission. It conjures up images of other angels appearing to announce the birth of a homeless child 2,000 years ago, and reminds us of the streets where that child would be born today. Perhaps this is a guardian angel watching over those who must find their meals in a dumpster. Or maybe it has arrived to usher into the afterlife one of the 100-plus souls who die on the streets of San Francisco every year.
Burstein’s paintings are full of this contemplative awareness of deeper levels of meaning hidden in the most earthbound cityscapes and the most downtrodden people. His art is often most beautiful and shot through with transcendence exactly at those moments when he is portraying people caught and seemingly crushed to the earth by poverty and hopelessness.
The homeless figure in “Proof of Payment” is huddled and crestfallen, seeming to have all the worries and cares of the world piled on his bowed shoulders. On the right side of the painting are discarded Muni bus transfers that Burstein collected literally from the gutters. That is where something striking happens, and a new glimpse of hope arises from these dead-end streets. The discarded bus transfers, so earthbound and worthless, begin slowly to take wing, to transmute into paper airplanes and to soar.
It’s a very subtle glimmer of redemption, a small sign that even when a human being is at his most hopelessly earthbound and oppressed, some uplifting spirit may be poised to take wing, hovering over his head like the arc of a rainbow.
In “6th Street,” Burstein portrays an orange-vested workfare worker forced into involuntary servitude to “earn” a meager General Assistance grant. The painting honors the anonymous toilers forced to do menial labor for a GA check that has been reduced to only $59 a month as a result of Proposition N. But the painting shows an even deeper level of poverty, as an older woman rummages for cans in the workfare worker’s trash bag.
Yet Burstein doesn’t merely depict a faceless worker; he shows his humanity and decency. The worker and the old woman are not painted as abstract socioeconomic categories. Burstein portrays something else entirely — human kindness that has beaten all the odds against it, and redeemed this corner of the Mission.
Burstein lives in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he paints the neighborhood’s cultural diversity. He has served meals with Food Not Bombs in Civic Center Plaza, and has donated paintings to the art auctions held by the Coalition on Homelessness. I interviewed the artist in the San Francisco office of the American Friends Service Committee.
The Street Spirit Interview with Jonathan Burstein
Street Spirit: Many of your paintings portray street scenes and homeless people in San Francisco. How did this become a major theme in your art?
Jonathan Burstein: I live in the Mission District and my studio is in the Mission, so where I live and work I’m passing people living on the street all day. They’re a part of my daily life. There’s a Day Laborer’s program right across the street from my studio. When I started painting, I began focusing on my day-to-day visual existence, and painting for me is sort of a visual diary.
The first volunteer thing I did when I moved to San Francisco was feeding people with Food Not Bombs. That’s when I first started really interacting with homeless people. I did that for a couple years in the early 1990s. We volunteered our kitchen to cook soup for people. I was part of the program that served food at Civic Center around the time when people were being arrested with Food Not Bombs.
Spirit: You’ve done paintings showing the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Mission. Your paintings of homeless people show they’re part of that diversity.
JB: I’ve always had a real interest in people living on the street and I’ve always had a fascination with trying to understand how they live. I’m always fascinated in how they find food and shelter and what their reality is like. What I realized is that the people on the streets are an integral part of our everyday reality, yet are overlooked as we walk around.
I noticed that once I started to really focus on people on the street, I started noticing more and more who they were, and where they were. I became really familiar with the people in my own neighborhood, and I noticed that a certain guy hangs out in front of the Walgreens store, and another guy hangs out in front of the yoga studio, and they have their own rhythms.
Especially once I made a painting of them, then I would start to see them all over the place. These are my neighbors in a sense, and I had overlooked them, stepped around them, stepped over them. Then I started to see they had a routine just like I did, and I knew who moved in and worked the corner of Walgreens and at what time. I started to sort of recognize people. I started to wonder if other people recognized these homeless people or not.
Spirit: By painting them, you make others more aware of folks who are usually unseen. Do you think people resist seeing homeless people as the subjects of art?
JB: There’s a mixed reaction. Generally, I think people have been appreciative of the fact that it’s a very authentic subject for art and it’s a very genuine part of people’s reality and it’s good it’s being dealt with in art. So there’s been a positive response in that way. But there’s also a line between what people appreciate seeing and what they’re willing to have in their own home.
Spirit: You most often paint in a realistic mode, yet you’ve also created art that seems akin to Magic Realism, pieces where you paint a realistic dumpster in the Mission being visited by an angel.
JB: Well, the title of that series is called “Mission Dolorosa” which is a play on the words, Mission Dolores. Dolorosa means sorrowful or painful — Our Lady of Sorrows, which is how the mission got its name. The pieces in this series play with themes and motifs of mortality and death and spirituality, which I was personally thinking about because of events in the Middle East and things that were happening in my own personal life.
I was also experimenting with appropriating images and religious themes from Renaissance paintings. The painting called “The Church” is actually a homeless guy who sits in front of a kind of dilapidated Catholic church in the Mission. He hangs out on the steps. I made the light coming through the doors.
Spirit: He’s surrounded by darkness, but radiant light is coming from the church.
JB: Right. But his back is to it. He’s kind of bathed in it, but oblivious maybe. Also, is the light from the comforting warmth of this gathering of people inside, and is he excluded? Or is he just unaware? And is it an actual church service or is it the gateway to beyond? I was just leaving that open.
Spirit: I love the painting, “Dumpster Diving.” It’s a very moving image of an angelic presence in the toughest kind of inner-city poverty.
JB: To be totally truthful about that one, I was telling someone about this series I was doing, and I said that it’s like Italian Renaissance meets urban realism. And they said, “Oh, like cherubs dumpster diving?” And I said, “Great idea. I guess I’ll use it.”
It’s a bit of a play on so many mythological traditions that gods or saints will appear disguised as beggars and then they test people’s kindness that way. So Zeus, for example, will appear as a blind man. That, and also the fact that a lot of saints did live these very humble, very austere lives.
Spirit: Yes. The Franciscans were mendicants — panhandlers seeking alms.
JB: Exactly. Sometimes it’s interesting to see that that is a theme that runs through a lot of spiritual traditions, both Western and Eastern. The most holy people, instead of being dressed up in finery, they’re in the streets living very simple lives, which is why Buddhist monks still keep going out to beg with their begging bowls in Asia.
Spirit: Who are the figures huddled at the base of the painting in “Munificent”?
JB: “Munificent” is someone who is magnanimous, and there’s also a play on the word Muni in the title, because of the Muni bus in the picture. So, again, I’m taking what is a bit of urban visual drama that I’m attracted to, which is when the antennas come off the electric Muni buses. Sometimes it makes a big spark, and at night it’s really dramatic and it lights up like a big flash strobe. I think it’s a really cool bit of urban theater.
I had this Renaissance series in mind, so I took that light and made it into something divine. And I took some people from Italian Renaissance paintings who are looking at the crucified Christ, and I substituted the Muni light glowing like this.
The figures in the lefthand corner are holding Mary in her grief. That’s from Sodoma’s painting, “Descent from the Cross.” The figure in the lower right is St. Paul the hermit. He was an ascetic monk and he went and lived in a cave. In the original painting by Jusepe Ribera, he’s holding a skull and he’s contemplating mortality. He’s just this old man in rags and a loincloth, but he’s a saint. I dropped him in there on the street in my painting; he fit in even though he’s from this old painting.
Spirit: Many of your paintings might be called urban realism. You took this realism one step beyond by painting a series of homeless images on cardboard. It’s almost as if you used the back side of a panhandler’s sign for your canvas.
JB: I wanted to do that series on cardboard in the gold frames for a long time. I really did it for myself and never expected that they would sell. I think it’s interesting that people can appreciate the social commentary, but they don’t necessarily want them in their homes. This is what people see on the street every day, and it would almost be like having a homeless person in your home. You don’t want to be reminded. When you’re home, the street is outside and you close the door, and why would you want to bring a homeless person inside?
Another interesting thing: I had the one called “Urban Jetsam” — with the trash on it as part of the painting — hanging in a local cafe and they asked me to move it! It does have street trash on it. I explained that it had been carefully sprayed and sealed with an acrylic coating; but they said it was too close to the kitchen and they had me move it to a different corner. I can respect that, but I thought it was very interesting that they wanted to shuffle it away from the middle of the cafe.
Spirit: [laughing] It’s very symbolic, because if homeless people themselves sat in some of those cafes, they would be shuffled away for similar reasons.
JB: There have also been positive reactions to this series. One of the cardboard pieces is called “6th Street” and portrays a workfare guy. A woman came to that show and was really moved because she works with the workfare program, and she was so touched that someone not only had noticed one of these people, but had dignified them with attention.
When you make an oil painting and put a frame around it and hang it on a white wall in a gallery and put the light on it, you’re dignifying the subject and elevating it. To her, it was almost as if I was elevating that person. She said, “This could be one of my guys. I work with them all the time and no one notices them; and the fact that you paid so much attention to this person and the truth of his life…” She was really touched.
Spirit: That piece is part of a series of four paintings on cardboard. And they’re mixed media, meaning you have hunks of cans and BART tickets attached to them.
JB: Those pieces are all paintings with found objects, which has been a movement in art for a long time.
Spirit: In this case, objects found on the streets of San Francisco.
JB: Yes, objects found on the streets. Even the gold frames were found in the trash pile of my studio where I work in this building with a lot of artists. They were not bought; they were essentially trash. And the cardboard is easy to find, which is why homeless people use it for signs or to sleep under. The cardboard is sort of a dual metaphor: it serves as shelter and also as signs asking for help. In the painting “Dave,” I thought it was great that Dave was actually holding up a cardboard sign, and I let the cardboard show through and just wrote his appeal on it.
Spirit: It seems ironic to put together cardboard and gold frames. Cardboard is a disposable, throwaway thing — like homeless people are to society — yet by putting it in a gold frame, the viewer can see it as honored, like a museum piece.
JB: I was trying to set up a tension both between what the subject of the painting was and what the object was, which is made out of trash, basically. The subject is a figure or a person that is often disparaged or downtrodden, not really heroicized at all, which is what painting often does. And sort of putting in a contradiction by having it in this classical gold frame, a symbol of “high art.” So the tugging between the “low” and the “high” is what I was trying to accomplish.
And if something is in a gold frame on a wall, you should pay attention to it because it’s important. So here’s the situation and the people we often try to avoid paying attention to, but I’m going to draw attention to it. Also, with the found objects, for me it was interesting collecting all the stuff off the street. I had this real experience of, “Oh, wow, this is what some people do all the time for a living.”
Spirit: People scavenging and recycling are doing the same thing every day.
JB: Exactly. So the process of making this piece was also somewhat parallel to what was going on in the lives of the subjects of my paintings.
Spirit: In your painting “Dave,” a man who is disabled has a sign asking for help around his neck. He is sparechanging and in the corner of the painting, are those real coins he’s collecting?
JB: Each painting in this series has one element that I think relates to the subject of that specific piece and also one little sort of sculptural, three-dimensional element. With “Dave,” he’s panhandling, asking for change in front of Walgreens, and he’s got a bilingual sign. I started talking to him and it turns out he’s an artist too, so that was kind of cool. The mixed media with “Dave” is there’s a bunch of coins and ripped-up dollar bills in the picture in the lower part. And the sort of sculptural element is, I made his little cup out of tinfoil in 3-D.
Spirit: So his cup is a real three-dimensional thing you could put a coin in?
JB: You know, it’s funny, in one of the shows someone put a nickel in that. It was not part of the piece, but I thought it was funny it turned interactive all of a sudden and I left the nickel in there.
Spirit: That’s authentic art when the painting can successfully panhandle.
JB: Yeah, yeah! Really. I never had a painting earn its own money this way. I thought it was really funny.
Spirit: In another in this series, “Proof of Payment,” a man is huddled on the street and there are old BART tickets.
JB:And Muni transfers. They’re folded into little paper airplanes. It took a really long time. I made a whole cascading shower of paper airplanes out of Muni tickets and BART tickets. The subject of that painting was a guy at the 24th St. BART huddled over in a parka so you couldn’t see his face. He made a really striking image, and the shot of the light was really dramatic with the shadows.
The title, “Proof of Payment,” comes from the fact that I was folding up Muni transfers I had collected from a Muni parking lot, out of the gutter. I noticed on the back it says buying and selling the transfers will result in your arrest. I just thought, “Here’s someone making a quarter out of selling them, and a guy could get arrested for this?” It just seemed absurd. I subtly highlighted that warning on a couple of the transfers. So the theme of “proof of payment” — this guy seemed like he’d already paid his dues.
Spirit: He’s paid a lot. You made the bus tickets into paper airplanes, signifying a desire to escape being earthbound?
JB: Yeah, it’s a little bit transcendental. They sort of go from formless in the lower right, and they slowly start to become the paper airplanes in a kind of arc above the man. There’s something transformative about it. It was kind of origami-like and it reminded me of the way they make the paper cranes for peace.
Spirit: That is a very earthbound, sunken-in figure, yet somehow these wings are taking flight above him.
JB: Part of the irony for me is that he’s stuck at a BART station and there’s Muni transfers and it’s all about movement and transportation and mobility and freedom.
Spirit: In “Urban Jetsam,” a man is drinking, sitting on the curb next to garbage, bottles and food containers. The man and the litter have been discarded by a wasteful society, and they’re both jetsam.
JB: Yeah, exactly. You got it right. He’s sitting on the curb and he’s half in the gutter, which is where I found the trash I put at the bottom of the piece. So they’re in the same spatial realm, and in a sense, they’re often treated as if they’re in the same material realm, which is like a waste product, unwanted trash. So I put them together in a gold frame on the wall.
The trash in “Urban Jetsam” I collected right around my studio. We are in an area with a lot of speed addicts; there’s migrant workers and people looking for work hanging out; and there’s a big population of people living in their cars. So the trash I found was fast-food wrappers, a syringe, there were condoms and stuff — it was pretty gnarly. My friend was at the studio at the time and she just couldn’t deal with it. It’s pretty intense. So I put it all on there and I think it made a really beautiful kind of collage.
Spirit: You think the street trash is beautiful?
JB: Yeah. It looks like the driftwood. You know the tideline at the seashore? That’s where I got the “jetsam” idea. Sort of the tide of urban life comes in and deposits this. Just like at the high tideline on the beach where there’s driftwood and seashells and styrofoam, a collection of both organic and manmade things. So in this painting there’s leaves and twigs and a lot of urban refuse.
Spirit: “6th Street” portrays a workfare worker letting an older woman rummage through his trash for aluminum cans. You portray his kindness and patience, and that seems so true. I’ve seen that sharing and kindness among very poor people over and over again. It’s real.
JB: You’ve nailed it. The little vignette that happened around that piece was that he was sweeping up and an Asian woman came up and went to see if he had a can, and he said, “Yeah, there’s one in here.” She didn’t see it right away, so she turned to go. He called her back and said, “No, I know I just picked one up recently.” He kind of shuffled the bag so she could reach down and get it. He went out of his way to make sure she got it. It was such a moment.
Here’s someone who is already at the bottom of the heap, yet it was such a moment of human kindness and gentleness, almost a tenderness. It was just so touching. It’s like she could have been his grandmother or something, even though they didn’t speak the same language probably and they didn’t even know each other. (He’s African-American and the woman is Asian.) This big guy was being like a Boy Scout, like a teddy bear to her.
Spirit: The theme of recycling comes up again in “Carte Blanche.”
JB: The title, obviously, is a pun. A blank cart, an empty cart. And also “Carte Blanche” means you have the freedom to do anything, and I thought there was a bit of irony in that.
Spirit: We’re a free enterprise country, and all of us are free to go out and be rich, so here’s this person with their cart collecting a few pennies worth of stuff.
JB: Right. That one has a mixed media aspect. There’s a bunch of smashed bottles and cans in the corner. The 3-D part, the sculptural part, is one of the plastic garbage bags in the back of the cart. I used a piece of Hefty bag I found.
These people are out there and they’re a major part of the structure of the city’s ecology. You leave a bottle out on the street and someone’s going to pick it up and it’s going to get recycled. In the city there’s this amazing amount of really, really ground-level recycling and reusing going on. And his shopping cart is empty. The shopping cart is from a supermarket and supermarkets are such depots of excess, and here’s a man with an empty shopping cart he’s not even supposed to have — emptiness in the midst of excess.
Spirit: Some of your paintings have an unusual focus, not on beautiful vistas, but on prosaic, even ugly urban surroundings.
JB: Well, I live in the City, in the Mission District, in a very urban, very dense environment. I don’t live in Marin; my daily reality is not sweeping vistas of Mount Tam and the ocean. I choose to live in the Mission because I find it really fascinating and interesting and stimulating, and it’s a great place to be an artist because there’s so much visual richness and cultural richness going on.
It’s sort of a feedback loop. I focus on the minutiae of daily life that often goes unnoticed; and by painting that, I bring that awareness to people who see my work. But it’s also training my own eyes. The more I paint my neighborhood, the more details I see of my neighborhood. It’s both a way to express what I find beautiful in the neighborhood to other people; but it’s also a way to train myself to be more perceptive of the place I inhabit.
Spirit: You also paint the markets, street-cleaning machines, even dumpsters and fire hydrants. Why are these routine parts of the city a focus of your work?
JB: A big interest for me is color and a big draw of the city are the colors — the palette and combinations of funky colors that really just grab my eye. I think they’re part of this mosaic of city life that is not always appreciated. I could just paint the five blocks around my house and be happy for years — there’s so much going on. The Mission is very colorful; there’s murals everywhere, and fruit stands. There’s people from a billion different cultures, and they’re all dressed differently; and there are shops with knickknacks from China that are brightly colored, and gumball machines. When I first started painting, all that really caught my eye.
Then there’s also a real fascination I have with the color-coding of the technological infrastructure of the city. There’s so much going on in the city that we need this color-coding system to decode what’s going on; that’s why there’s a yellow zone or a red zone or a green parking meter or an orange cone and people in orange vests. I call it an anti-Disneyland.
There’s so much color going on and it all means something. It’s really overlooked, but we depend on it. A yellow zone means don’t park there, and blue zones are okay if you’re handicapped. Buses are a certain color and trash trucks are a different color and recycling bins are a different color. They’re all bright, primary colors. They’re not subdued, there’s nothing subtle about them. It’s freakish almost, but people take it for granted.
Spirit: Who are some of the main influences on your work?
JB: Edward Hopper is a big influence on me. He was drawn to how the figure, the human subject, was often an alienated and isolated part of this urban landscape. He was fascinated with the geometry of cities and the light; and he also had a real special place for the characters, the people who live in a city. They’re mostly lonely.
Another influence are painters such as Rembrandt and Michael Sweerts. The Dutch masters started using homeless people, as we call them now, people off the street, as character studies. They might do a Biblical scene, but they’d use for the models people that actually looked like people you’d see on the streets, as part of the crowd around the Cross or whatever. Kind of the urban realism of their time. And they painted with a modern-day sense of light and shadow.
Michael Sweerts used prostitutes or beggars on the street as subjects in his painting. He did a whole oil painting of a milkmaid. Painting started with portraits of the rich because they were the patrons. So here was Michael Sweerts doing a painting of a milkmaid; in terms of class, it was really weird to elevate her and do a portrait-style painting of someone on the bottom of the social hierarchy.