OCEANSIDE — Robert Xavier Burden seeks the admiration he once had for sacred relics of the past through his massive, labor-intensive paintings that depict motifs of religious iconography, political commentary and popular culture.
And with his latest exhibit at the Oceanside Museum of Art, Burden encourages people to witness his artistic process firsthand.
The exhibit, appropriately titled “Relics,” showcases several of Burden’s works over the last 17 years. The sacred relics in question are Batman, Star Wars and other classic toys and action figures that Burden once coveted as a child, painted throughout each piece.
Burden grew up in Toronto before moving to California nearly 20 years ago, leaving San Francisco for San Diego during the pandemic.
As Burden grew up, his once beloved childhood treasures eventually began to look more like cheap, plastic toys that represented the dark side of consumerism. With his paintings, he hoped to renew that sense of awe he once had for these former “sacred objects.”
“There’s a reason I’m painting a toy and not a movie still,” Burden said. “I’m not painting Harrison Ford as Han Solo, I’m painting a Han Solo toy.”
In the background of his paintings are decorative, ornate patterns reminiscent of classic religious iconography from Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic traditions that showcase these sacred objects. He found inspiration for this element from the churches his mother used to occasionally take him to as a child.
“The stained glass windows, the altarpiece art… those were the most beautiful parts about it to me as a kid, which is clearly evident in what I’m doing now,” Burden said.
Included in the show is his most famous piece, the massive 8-by-8 foot, intricate “Star Wars” painting with most of the classic toys from the 1970s and 80s.
Burden also makes references to other characters and themes outside of “Star Wars” by including characters like Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings” saga. Obviously, Gandalf is not from the “Star Wars” realm, but Burden said he included Gandalf because the character is said to have inspired Obi-Wan Kenobi of “Star Wars.” The huge piece includes a legend that tells viewers what all of the hidden references mean.
Most of his paintings are largely playful in nature, but some of his pieces also contain historical and political commentary, like “Battle of the Arctic,” which depicts toys from the five countries vying for control of the Arctic: the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Russia.
In addition to renewing his sense of awe over his childhood treasures, Burden hopes to bridge the gap between fan art and fine art with his collection of work.
“My goal is to get the fine art crowd on board with what I’m doing,” Burden said. “You can be a fan artist or a fine artist, but it’s hard to be both.”
As an interesting twist, Burden is also currently working on his “Aliens” painting that depicts alien character figurines from various television series over the last few decades right in the middle of his exhibit at the art museum. Between Thursdays and Sundays until June, museum visitors will be able to see Burden work on his latest painting in real-time.
“I think it is a good idea to actually show people the process. I mean, we’re living in a culture where we don’t really appreciate visual imagery as much as we did in the past,” Burden said. “We’re just inundated with visual images and maybe we don’t understand the process of painting and how laborious it can be.”
These huge, detailed paintings take up a lot of Burden’s time. On average, the artist is putting thousands of hours of work into each painting and produces about three massive paintings each year.
While Burden focused on working on the massive, intricate painting that already has more than 1,700 hours of work put into it with much more to go, he welcomes any questions that visitors may have for him. He also looks forward to seeing visitors document how his painting changed in his four months of residency at the art museum.
Visitors are encouraged to return periodically to the exhibit to see Burden’s progress. Every few weeks, new aliens will change from their blue outlines to colorful imagery that appears to pop out from the painting into real life.
“It’s also fun for people to see the change over time,” he said. “Maybe after three days there won’t be much change, but after three months there will be from when I brought it in to what it’s going to look like at the end.”
“Relics” is on display until June 4.