Signs and symptoms

Roderick Bunter: go on—call in sick
Plotz Gallery, Brisbane

Do paintings have a voice; are they able to speak to us? It seems that, today, communication and entertainment are intravenously absorbed. Comic books, digitalised music and computer-generated graphics present information in a quickly digestible form. As passive receivers of messages which have been sent (or at least intended), and yet others again which have gone astray, people today seem to have little time for, or desire to think twice about, this intercepted information. For several years now Roderick Bunter has been articulating this space between image and text. His images often marry improbable advertising slogans and logos with conflicting images. We are not permitted to read words such as "dry" in The Drive to Distraction IV (sign language) without noticing the accompanying tracks of tyres which seem to have smeared through pools of wet, black paint. The contrast is not particularly confronting nor humorous. We are merely asked to note the disjunction and then continue to look for something more.

There is always an uneasiness in works such as this, that the artist is simply presenting the finds of his "bower-bird"1 activities without any sort of critique. Bunter side-steps those issues of paedophilia, marriage separation and mass communication which are linked to the logos and symbols he employs, with all the charming naivety of someone complicit with 'the system'. Essentially his work thus becomes a pastiche or parody of the art system which produced it. As such, it is a symptom not a cure.2

Go on- call in sick, the title of Bunter's exhibition, draws attention to the layers of meaning in speech. One might well imagine the receptionist at the other end of the telephone meekly taking down the message, and then the respective manager, employer or fellow work-mate sneeringly replying, "sure, sure; 'sick'!" The title also invites us to speculate under what circumstances a person might be persuaded to 'call in sick'-two lovers, reluctant to leave one another of a morning? And the plaintive protest which follows: "Oh but I can't possibly ... ", hints at an oscillation between desire and denial.

It is this oscillation between written words and the reality they supposedly describe, between substance and dissolution, between carnal knowledge and 'wanking', that emerges as a theme to Bunter's current work.

In Bizarre love triangle (youth culture killed my dog)! Where were you while we were getting stoned, Bunter comments on our visual laziness when looking at 'pictures'. The large ply-board is divided into two not-quite-equal parts. On the left, Linus and Lucy of Peanuts comic-strip fame have an altercation. Linus's word-bubble contains only a symbol of a dog; not Snoopy, but rather the cock-eared dog from the record company label, 'His Master's Voice'. Cartoons are concerned with narrating a story as quickly as possible, using short-hand, abbreviated images and stream-lined text. However without the printed word the two Peanuts cartoon characters are without context. Instead a visual icon is used to represent the ... umm, language/text/words (which themselves are the "written or printed representation of a sound, used in language as the sign of a concept").3 So Bunter is using a pictorial symbol (the dog) to represent sound (or music) which is normally formulated visually in 'words'.

By substituting the representation (that is, word) with a symbol of what was being represented, Bunter internally sabotages his painting's own communicative function. The cartoon characters are frozen at a critical moment, at precisely the moment when their inherent value as symbols is called into question. Note that the all-important written title to the painting also changes, chameleon-like, into a song line from Oasis's "Champagne Supernova". Whether this musical reference is correctly sourced or even intended really doesn't matter; what does appear to matter is that the plurality of communicative forms (sound, symbol, word) struggle for dominance not only on the ply-board surface but even in the title. In Bizarre love triangle the pictorial image seems to emerge (for once) as victorious 'underdog'.

Japanese comics in Everybody dies, frustrated and sad and that is beautiful. (The Sex Butler and other misdemeanours) repeat the use of cartoon imagery. With only four works in the exhibition and the incorporation of comics in the two largest panels, the impression of "facile appropriations of popular and low culture "4 seems inescapable. However this leering smoke-screen of facetiousness veils more than just rib-digs at urban society. Bunter's logos, icons and popular images are not 'elevated' by their re-situation in an artspace. They also do not function as meaningless Pop pastiche- the look minus the ideology of a Juan Davila for instance. Rather, elements of mass-produced products help Bunter address the rhetoric of art-making.

In the early eighties painting was said to have reached its end.5 This mannerist impasse could however be overcome by a declaration of objectivism.6 The crisis in painting had to be interiorised, reabsorbed, whilst an 'open-market' approach was simultaneously adopted which aimed to discard notions of authorial genius and of historical direction.

In such a manner Roderick Bunter forsakes his own commentary to allow space for the chorus of voices which are intrinsic to the found objects in his work. For example, The Court was satisfied (Messerschmidtt) explores less Bunter's feelings about the divorce than it does the cold impartiality of 'officialese' as it appears on the screen-printed divorce certificate he presents, and the abstracted processes of disintegration and dissolution. By silencing or subtracting himself from the communicative equation, Bunter more clearly articulates the space between the art object and the spectator.

On a superficial level, the paintings do have 'voices' due to, as mentioned before, their constituent elements. The most overt narrative evident in this exhibition is in Everybody dies, frustrated and sad and that is beautiful. 'Frustration' is portrayed in the form of a wanking doctor. The doctor fantasises about his young female patient, mentally substituting his own phallus for a spoon which he used to administer her medicine. The board again is in two parts. On the right, an abstracted version of this frustration and desire is created. The ply board is painted with glossy, yellow enamel paint, over which grey cement is spread, leaving only a stark diagonal cross of yellow revealed. On top of the cement surface, a series of three squares, constructed from the same Quik Crete, seem to march in regular pattern, parallel to one arm of the yellow cross. One square is cropped at the bottom of the picture plane. The squares seem to represent the uniformity and dullness of urban life while the yellow cross represents the 'wild ', instinctive desires which are habitually repressed. (The vivid yellow recalls Bunter's "Caution Painter Working" and anarchic "Smiley" signs exhibited earlier this year.)? The stark shape of the cross simultaneously suggests the sacrificial element-the futility of the masturbatory gesture-and the taboo of paedophilia.

Beyond such a literal reading, Everybody dies also comments on the relation of text to image. Whilst Linus' word bubble had contained a pictorial symbol, the words here are Japanese characters and hence even more illegible to most Brisbane viewers. There is a consistent refusal to let 'words do the talking' alongside an acknowledgment of spectatorial involvement. Viewers will interpret symbols and will form their own understanding of the work. It is an artefact of the consumer market in which art circulates, that the image and spectatorial interpretation must be inseparable. 8 This is here acknowledged by an oblique reference to a well known art writer; the writer's "(mis)representation" is as much a part of the work as the Quik Crete and enamel.

The materials used in the works illustrate the relationship between author, narrator and viewer. In Bizarre love triangle, the right-hand-side of the panel appears to be covered in dot-matrix-style diagonal stripes. These resemble over-enlarged computer graphics (related to the newspaper print Peanuts characters) which have dissolved and become incoherent in the process of magnification. The space between viewer and picture surface must increase before the viewer 'sees' any recognisable form. The irony of course is that the apparent computer-generated graphics are really tightly controlled (though free-hand) drawings in graphite pencil.

Roderick Bunter might see his work as symptomatic of urban trends and realities. However it functions as a sign of the pictorial voice which when listened to, discloses more perhaps than we were ever meant to hear!

notes: 

1. Ray Field, press release, "Re: 'Generic' exhibition of paintings and assemblage work by Roderick Bunter", September 1 g95, Brisbane, Isn't Studio.

2. Roderick Bunter, press release, "Placebo", March 1995. Brisbane, Isn't Studio.

3. The Conc1se Macquarie Dictionary, Lane Cove, NSW, Doubleday Australia Pty Limited, 1982.

4. Paul Taylor, POPISM, ex. cat., NGV, Melbourne,1982, p.2.

5. Douglas Crimp, 'The End of Pa1nt1ng', October, no.16, Spring 1981, quoted by P. Anderson, "Rod Bunter ... Paint1ng: The Third Degree", Normal Soon ex. cat., August 1 g93, Brisbane, Isn't Studio, p.2.

6. Arthur C. Danto, "Art after the End of Art", Artforum, April 1993, p.67, quoted in Anderson, ibid., p.7.

7. These works were titled respectively: Get a Real Job (Wanking Nation) and Innuendo Overdrive No. 2. Both exh1b1ted at P16tz Gallery, April

1996.

8. David Broker, "Roderick Bunter", M & Text, 54, 1996, pp. 90-91.