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Entering Jonathan McBurnie’s survey exhibition is like visiting one of countless scenes in Hollywood thriller and horror films, when the hero detective finally discovers the lair of a murderous psychopath. The room is dark, and the walls are plastered floor to ceiling with figurative drawings of nudity, gore, and obtuse superhero scenarios, as well as urgent, block letter messages with dubious meaning. It is easy to consider such rampant production the result of obsessive behaviour, and in a way, it is, but in McBurnie’s case the driver is closer to a biological compulsion.
The reason McBurnie draws superheroes is closely linked with why he draws at all, and like such characters his practice has a compelling origin story. Diagnosed with leukaemia in his late teens, the artist was forced to endure chemotherapy for extended stints in hospital. While most who presently face the same situation would likely binge countless streaming entertainment options or immerse themselves in social media, McBurnie’s only recourse from the consistent chemically induced nausea, apart from equally nauseating daytime television, was drawing and reading comics. He chose the latter activities: drawing allowed him to refocus on sensual material and psychological output, and comics permitted escape into their allegorical universes and heroes who derive power from their conditions. Prior to his illness, McBurnie had studied animation, but confronted rather early in life with his own mortality, and engrossed in this world of imaginative expression and immediate creation, the artist decided that all he wanted to do was draw. Given these circumstances, it is not implausible to infer that the act of drawing kept him alive, since it sustained him though his treatment for a fatal disease. Thus, McBurnie’s practice, subject matter, and motives are inherently linked to his survival. As he has stated, for him drawing is not a medium or discipline, it is a biological imperative.
While it is possible and sometimes necessary to take artistic rationales and conceptual motives with a pinch of salt, it is difficult to regard McBurnie’s practice with cynicism. His dedication to his practice is so total that dedication seems an inappropriate word. Every spare moment is spent in the studio: after waking before breakfast, after breakfast before work, after work before dinner, after dinner before bed, all accompanied by a soundtrack of brooding metal and post-rock. If he is away from his studio, his sketchbook is constantly being scratched and splattered with pencil, pen, and watercolour. One gets the impression that if he ceased to draw he would cease to exist.
There are very few flimsy references or aesthetic decisions in McBurnie’s work. Many of his tropes and characters are cyphers bearing personal meaning, but with a practice so closely linked with an artist’s very existence, whimsical decisions, the occasional nudity, and private jokes become meaningful and valuable. We are literally viewing someone sketching out their life before us. The appropriated, redrawn, amorphous, distended figures in McBurnie’s work are carefully selected from an array of sources: comics, fashion magazines, bodybuilding magazines, national geographic, and pornography. Selected purely for their visual appeal or violence (in both the physical and visual sense since McBurnie attributes many ‘attractive’ images with an inherent violence), they are cut out and assembled into collage compositions and then transcribed onto art paper, usually in watercolour wash and pen and ink.
To discuss individual works would do an injustice to the scale and extent of this survey exhibition. However, there are a few notable standouts within McBurnie’s many, many motifs, and the several hundred works on display give the viewer a good look at their evolution over time (the artist gave up on plaques or room-sheets early during installation). Batman, the subject of numerous psychoanalytical case studies, due to his childhood trauma and resulting split consciousness, is a particular favourite throughout. Ravaged landscapes and stark precipices are typical backdrops, as well as sterile galleries containing the odd piece of nameless, generic contemporary art. Within these spaces, random muscle-bound superheroes, pro-wrestlers, and bodybuilders duke it out, while fashion and soft-porn models pose nonchalantly in their midst.
McBurnie does not attribute any particular narrative to individual works, feeling that a rigid didactic limits its aesthetic potential. However, while viewing years of prolific production all at once certain themes emerge: sexuality, isolation, violence, and death. Such themes would seem cliché if they were not those of some of history’s most celebrated artists, and since they deeply affect all of us. These concepts are the conditions of life, and given the origins of McBurnie’s practice they are particularly appropriate and understandable. Returning to one’s initial impressions of the exhibition, it is perhaps due to the sheer vitality and copiousness of McBurnie’s practice that he chooses to install his works in this way. If anything, murderous psychopaths in Hollywood film seem obsessed with controlling and annihilating existence because they feel no immediate connection with it. McBurnie’s obsession seems to be the opposite, deriving from a keen sense that life is a valuable, fragile, and constantly dwindling resource that must be thoroughly savoured.
Jonathan McBurnie, Dread Sovereign, installation view, Pinnacles Gallery, Townsville, 2017. Image courtesy Pinnacles Gallery.