Built from the cultural fabric of his schooldays, Daniel Burley’s self-mythologizing solo show, ‘Skelf II’, feels demented yet necessary. The show combines sculpture, video and installation works informed by the lurid aesthetic of video games. Revelling in its lunacy, ‘Skelf II’ is brash, bonkers and hard not to smile at. Yet, while Burley’s sculptures may be fantastical, they aren’t an escapist’s fantasy. He sifts through what has made him, channelling the cultural overstimulation of early 21st-century London into acrylic, foam and epoxy resin. A ‘skelf’-portrait, if you will.
Entering the gallery, visitors are confronted by a vault door in the shape of a skull and cross bones (Grim 04 N16 / Chick Pyraktical Vault Door, 2019). A bottle of Courvoisier sits in an alcove on the other side: a hidden Easter egg, displaying Burley’s penchant for hip hop that might raise a smile, but does feel a little contrived. Opposite, a sculpture with a paragraph-long title is the most striking work in the show. Wielding scythes with fleshy butterflies impaled upon them, An undead Gini under purple tartan coif of death mad drunk on brandy… (2020) holds back rabid dogs on chains. Having spent my own time as a young nerd painting Warhammer 40,000 models (1987–present), I see a direct lineage to the thumb-sized Tyranid figurines of the tabletop game. An undead Gini … balances on a plinth with a symbol emanating fluorescent green light – the colour of queasy skunk – which oozes on the walls, on the figure and between the works, giving Burley’s symbols a nauseous energy.
In the main exhibition space, Slossy / Skelf Family Tree II (2019) is a large death’s-head resembling a fireplace. This is a totem pole for Burley, commemorating family members and streets that he lived on, painted as if half-remembered. Demons, bats and death itself embellish the skull, popping up like acne around a screen playing videos that, though witty, lack the convincing craft of the sculptures. In Undead Si Chick Revenge (2020) – a decent rendition of a first-person, shoot-’em-up game – an oversized sniper rifle shoots a vampire jumping out from behind a wooden door, while in Grimz: You Can’t Escape It (2020), a skateboarding Death decapitates the camera operator. The titular text appears on screen flanking a pair of customized trainers; the spectre of mortality is ever-present.
Burley’s musical influences (grime) and aesthetic (oversized toys) are reminiscent of hip hop’s late polymath Rammellzee, whose costumes resembled Power Ranger toys. Burley – who is also known to perform in costume and is likely the figure of death in Grimz: You Can’t Escape It – looks, instead, to Warhammer. Yet, while Rammellzee’s bizarre outsider theories, such as Gothic Futurism, were hard for people to relate to – despite the fact that his 1983 Beat-Bop record with K-Rob, and cover painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat, is now considered the Holy Grail of rap records – Burley, who only completed his postgraduate studies at London’s Royal Academy of Arts last year, is working at a time when street art and hip-hop aesthetics have found mainstream acceptance.
‘Skelf II’ balances shout-outs to Burley’s hometown (N16 – Stoke Newington in North-East London) with obscure phrases and symbols that build an overarching narrative which, for the audience, remain indecipherable. Despite the opaque references it is enjoyable being a tourist in Burley’s totemic mindscape, and it leaves me itching for whatever infectious oddity he reveals next.
Main image: Daniel Burley, Undead Si Chick Revenge, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and GAO, London
First published in Issue 210