Chris Burnett has always had an affinity for hummingbirds, but over the last several years, he’s felt their presence mount. “It felt like they were following me, like they knew where I was at any given point in time,” he says, in an interview just outside the opening of his first-ever gallery show, Colibri, at Northeast Portland’s Fisk Gallery.
Back in early 2020, before the pandemic, on the last day of a weeklong ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica, a hummingbird flew into the room where Burnett was tripping. “Oh, this seems like you want me to notice you here,” he said to the bird.
As he’s telling the hummingbird story, a woman comes up and asks Burnett to sign a hat she just bought—collaborative merch he made with Fisk for the show. (“This is the first time that’s ever happened to me,” he promised.) It’s embroidered with a logo that matches the necklace Burnett is wearing; his other necklace spells out “colibri,” the word for hummingbird in several romance languages.
“The more I noticed them, the more I started to see a parallel between my behavior and theirs. They're quiet and elusive, and they’re quick: they might be here one second, and then they fly off, and you have no idea where they go,” says Burnett. “I realized that I kind of operate like that. I don't put myself out there much.”
The collection of mixed-media collages on display in Colibri through December 4 are reminiscent of illustrations Burnett has published in pages everywhere from the New York Times to the Harvard Business Review, and on clothes worn by some of the last decade’s biggest musical heavy-hitters. Odd Future’s signature dripping doughnuts logo was Burnett's first claim to fame, and recently, he’s been designing for Kendrick Lamar and the Pulitzer-winning rapper’s cousin/protégé Baby Keem.
Burnett has made his living thus far as a graphic designer, fleshing out the ideas of others but only sometimes being asked to contribute his own. “At the end of the day, they’re hiring me for what I can do, but they want something,” he says. The freedom to bring his own perspective to contract work has grown, but it’s always a balance of satisfying someone else’s needs.
Enter Colibri. An aversion to the gallery system, Burnett admits, has held back his fine-art practice up to this point, but he says now feels like the right moment to put more energy into that corner of his career. He studied graphic design at the California Institute of the Arts with Fisk founder Bijan Berahimi, and the two moved to Portland together after school in 2014, bringing their crew of young designers along to float in orbit around Nike. Now, Burnett is back in his native Los Angeles, but a growing desire to put a show together lined up with Berahimi’s recently rebooted gallery space, which has a habit of showing artists with a background in client design work.
“I wanted this to be a takeover experience,” says Burnett. “It's not just like, ‘Here's the artwork.’ It's like, ‘Here's the art work. We also did the merch. We did all the promo for it. We did the photoshoots ourselves—the video interviews.’ It’s felt like we’re back in school doing a project together.”
“He wants to create his own world, you know? And he has the capability of designing everything around him,” says Berahimi. “All of the layers [of the show] are heightened because he's involved in every aspect.”
The opening reception, with three DJ sets, an open bar, and a food cart parked out front, delivered on the promise of an immersive experience. A series of Fisk-designed T-shirts, hats, and skateboards brought the work off the walls and into viewer’s hands, and the collages themselves give tactile life to Burnett’s digital design. What appears seamless when digitally rendered and printed on a shirt or tour poster now has layers and marks of making. A blend of iridescent gradients, glossy mirrored patches, and high-contrast hummingbird images—some whole, some fragmented, some consisting only of negative space—make up the bulk of the show. Burnett abstracted textures from iPhone photos by scanning, printing, and blowing them up before cutting them into sharp, jagged shapes reminiscent of swooping bird necks and air-cutting wings.
At the opening, old friends drop by, give hugs, and call Burnett “Mr. Hollywood,” then ask where he’s been. “I’m secretive, no one knows what I'm doing until I show up,” Burnett tells me. He's managed his success without the megaphone of social media.
“He’s always put the work first and wanted the work to be the reason that people give him accolades,” says Berahimi. “It’s frustrating, because I want more people to find out about him.”
It's true, Burnett's work has been mostly behind the scenes—until now. Professionally, Colibri marks his stepping out from behind the screen.