Comments on the Work of Kendra Bulgrin

Authored by Adrian R. Duran, Assistant Professor, Art History, University of Nebraska-Omaha

Middle America is vast and mysterious, even to its inhabitants.  It fans outward from the headwaters of the Mississippi River.  Old Man River.  The Mighty Mississipp’, which widens and rages wild for over 2300 miles, snaking from the woodlands and dells, through the plains and crops, before reaching the scrubland that gives way to the black dirt of the Delta, until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.  It is a journey that covers such a diversity of landscape and history that it is almost incomprehensible.

 Middle America is contradictory and strange, where a President begins his campaign, where an eight-foot-lumberjack named Paul Bunyan and his blue ox ply their trade in the north woods, where blues migrated north and rock n’roll first came on the radio, where a 600-pound cow made of butter lords over the State Fair.

 Middle America is like the topography of memory.  These are the terrains navigated by Kendra Bulgrin, whose own trajectory has taken her from the farmland of Wisconsin to the flatlands of Western Tennessee to the plains of Kansas.  Her works, like the lands she has traveled, are populated by lonely farmhouses, turbid skies, and the men and beasts that dwell in this expanse of land between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain ranges.

 Except that nothing is what it seems.  Bulgrin’s spaces and places, her creatures and figures are all the remnants of her own personal journey, skeletons pulled from the land and figurines from her childhood play sets, the spectralinhabitants of lives already ended, and yet to come.  They roam across furrowed fields and domestic interiors, wandering along the boundary between the uncanny of remembrance and the insistent mundane of everyday life.  They live within an arid airlessness infused with the foreign energies of scumbled paint surfaces and acrid, hallucinatory light and color.

 Bulgrin is an acute, obsessive painter.  Each motion of the brush, each juxtaposition chosen and calibrated with the care of someone hoping to map paths already traversed, and yet to come.  The paintings puzzle their own rules of perspective and scale, distrustful of empirical observation.  They are impenetrably familiar, perhaps because the dreams and memories, the realities and fictions, of which they are born are each the same.

Authored by Chloe Donaldson


ever cognizant of the silence between them

If ever viewing contrasts, it seems that one may easily fall into reductive discussions of what is not. The doll is not alive. The deer is not a human creation. The doll is a senseless inanimate. The deer is sensory and animate. This sort of listing can go on into eternity, and, indeed, such has been the discussion through much of contrasting art and literature figures, from the binary-opposites of Gothic literature to the colors in a two-toned minimalist painting to the ongoing and rather purposeless discussion of Anthony Burgess titles. This is not invalid. There are contrasts and these contrasts do have differences, at least at a basic level. However, this hardly explains what the subjects are, let alone works as a fitting description of literature and art, and this piece is not an exception to the discourse. The truth is that the finding of an Is can hardly be induced through the sensing of an Is Not, nor may there be a definition through a negative that serves as a positive.

Therefore, what Is in the painting? The figures –a jointed doll, yellow and white, sitting stiffly on a stone, and a deer approaching from someplace that we viewers do not see. The title reveals something in the meeting, that there is a thinker or, at least, a perceiver implicit in the situation. If we are to assume that this is a sentence fragment concerning the figures themselves, then what does that do to any preconceived notions about the doll? If, in fact, the cognizance is as shared as the silence, in that both the doll and the deer are aware of their place, then we are not to consider the piece as materialist/rationalist doll and animal at all. If this is the case, and the figures can sense this silence that stills the scene and lies in the motionless study of placement, then what do the figures mean in themselves? Perhaps the definitions of doll and deer are too limiting. Would we be better to see hominoid and creature? Craft and nature? Plastic and organic? Constrained and liberated? What does the doll see? The staring eyes, seemingly fixated on nothing, lack the warmth and organic feel of the deer’s warm, dark eyes that seem to fix on not the doll but the audience. The doll does not see us, but stares out past the viewer, past the canvass, on one hand the blind eyes of a toy and yet seeming to see something beyond the awareness of the painting and the viewer.

Or, perhaps the cognizance isn’t between the figures at all. Perhaps it is the artist who is aware, and the doll stares on unseeing, and the deer looks on. Perhaps this is a meditation on the characters. Is it about alienation, the contemporary, technological society’s removal from nature? Or is it the helplessness to actually discourse with nature, the way that nature may not be recreated in human likeness, like the doll, but is always resisting personification and human purpose? The animal may morn its young, express joy, sorrow, delight, wrath, pride, shame, all recognizable to humans, and yet we still cannot break through the species barrier and project our rationale and objectives onto wolves, foxes, birds, and deer.  When a pet expresses pleasure in a new toy, are we understanding this pleasure as a dog or cat, or is it our own pleasure we understand? When a mother bird feeds her young, do we understand birds and chicks or mothers and babies? When the jungle chimpanzee, the closest human relation, drives through the trees the competitive tribe, the dead young of its foe in its teeth, can we even then understand the purpose outside of biological imperatives, or are we projecting? The deer approaches from outside the painting and seems to be heading toward the doll. There is an atmosphere of curiosity, of anticipation. But, is this animal curiosity and anticipation, or does the answer to that question lie in the silence?

The silence feels as powerful as the undefined cognizant force. The force of thought is as uncertain as Nietzsche’s Thought, of which he said one may only hesitantly say that “there is thought”, without expressing whose it may be. But, the silence is very real. The tone of the painting, from the muted colors to the out of focus backdrop that leaves space and context in question, expresses deep quiet. There is only the sense that movement may come, but not of movement. Perhaps the deer will run, perhaps after noticing the viewer peaking in at this scene, the deer will flee. But, nothing moves now. Now is only silence and observation, like a view from a blind or a lonely snapshot. Nature does not speak, humanity does not speak, and the rest of the scene is rock, light, and shadow. There is no discourse, no question, no conflict, no resolution. There is only presence in a moment, frozen.

The doll’s face is colorless. Perhaps she isn’t a doll at all, but rather a person. Perhaps her body has been trapped. Perhaps the human part of her has been replaced, through standards and propriety and expectations, into an automaton. Perhaps this is why she sees without seeing, her gaze echoing the all-seeing eyes of women through history, silent and still. Maybe this is an enchanted meeting, like the finding of a spirit animal in a Native ritual. One may hope that she sheds her form, and runs away with the deer. Fancy and desire may wish her to be reborn on these rocks, `as a child, as a woman, as another deer, as a blossom in the stones.

Maybe she isn’t a living being at all. A doll is, after all, not a breathing creature, and she possesses no heartbeat. Perhaps her eyes only look with the melancholy of ghosts. Rocks may be the heights of mountains, but may they not also be wastelands?

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

And, if this may be the case, what does it mean for life to be here, and for it to be a non-human life? Who is our thinker? What is the cause of the silence?


I find the painting to be meditative. The delight of visual arts is that, apart from literature and theatre, they do not demand answers or supply any of their own. There is no imperative certainty to paint. It touches on emotion, on desires, on unconscious feelings, and on archetypal imagery that can draw reactions from the viewer based purely on association. In this sense, it is more certain because rather than offering one meaning, it offers many, and instead of saying one answer, it joins in a quest for final answers.

The painting doesn’t craft a solution. It opens a door. The viewer looks in. the viewer sees a small portion of an eternal world, surely no less vast than our own, one that extends beyond the boundaries of canvass and into the minds of the audience. There is not a defined thinker, but there is thought. There not a known cognizance, but there is a sense of the cognizant. And what is left is mediation in the silence. © Kendra Bulgrin 2012