Artists today are relentless in their quest to articulate and explore ever-shifting modes of subjectivity. Central to this investigation is the body. Its pervasive regulation, in our time, has seen the body emerge as a key problematic in socio-cultural, political and economic mores. In art practice, as it is in any other field, the body struggles against the tyranny of mediatisation, surveillance, institutionalisation, and medicalisation to name but a few. It is in this last category however, that has had profound impact on artist Jonathan McBurnie's practice. If the body, they say, is a battleground, then McBurnie has fought and won his fair share of battles. Surviving a year-long encounter with leukaemia and its aggressive treatment, McBurnie remains philosophical about his experiences, yet the threat of all-that-could-have-been remains in his recent body of work, Precipice.
Looking to Susan Sontag's publication Illness as Metaphor, McBurnie found affinity in her discussion of the body as territory. In this he saw a clear nexus linking the body to site, or in his own context, to the Australian landscape. The desire to understand his practice within the great Australian tradition of landscape has inspired his current fascination with Australian history and literature, citing Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore as containing some of the most captivating and gruesome accounts of our colonialist history. In the same way that Hughes accumulates his account of colonisation through various sources, so too does McBurnie who provides an account of the colonisation of his own body by hostile cells. However, it may be unwise to seek recognisable Australian landmarks in McBurnie's work. There are no antipodean clichés to be found in these landscapes; the artist preferring a post-atomic mise-en-scène that metaphorically portrays a traumatised body. And rather than Hughes' narrative of history, McBurnie provides a narrative of his own life, collapsing past, present and future into allegorical assemblages that invoke psychological dimensions associated with suffering.
There is no denying that McBurnie's unique narratives eschew schemata. His hand migrates as easily across the paper as he does from genre to genre. The confluence of space and plane is pushed to the limit within his work and it is with fluid precision that he demonstrates his mastery of bricolage. McBurnie's characters - his 'cells' - are inspired by those in graphic novels, comics, art and historical reference and popular culture. Looking over his previous practice, one can establish a biological imperative at play in McBurnie's tendency toward obsessive drawing. It is this very obsession that guided him through his own illness, and has remained a constant companion to the present day.
Whether as alter-ego, alibi or enemy, McBurnie inhabits multiple characters that blur his own identity, finding refuge in the surrogates who trawl his landscapes. He apprehends the state of chaos within and recasts himself sometimes as superhero, other times as anti-hero or villain in order to save the day. When the artist is asked to choose who he identifies with, he states that they are all, at once, "me and not me". It is in this ambiguity that the artist finds great freedom, seeing it as a distancing mechanism achieved in order to cope with his experience of chemotherapy. This is evident when looking at Nothing is sacred to me, everything is sacred to me. In this work, the 'body' is out of control, multiple forces are in a battle of wills, and McBurnie takes on an agnostic position so to save himself from disappointment of defeat. One might recognise Tintoretto's epic 1565 Crucifixion painting, but rather than aiming for iconoclasm, McBurnie recontextualises its figures with those he has long worshipped through comics, graphic novels and art history. Of course, the question remains, who or what is being sacrificed and for what purpose?
In works like We have to move on now and Leave the dead for the beasts to return to the earth, we see survivors make do, wandering like fugitives through the ruins of a conflict which now seems distant and unreal. They've struggled against metastasis, and the effects are seen metaphorically wearing the landscape of McBurnie's sublimated body. However, despite the source of inspiration for these works, they are not without humour. Anyone having the pleasure of conversation with the artist soon realises that this is not a tortured man; in fact, McBurnie has the all-clear from the medics. Indeed this gallows humour, which renders Helmut Newton nudes emerging from a crumbling ruin, suggests a sense of perversion that can be deciphered through personal encounter or, if the artist is absent, in the work itself.
Having been released from the grip of illness, it is reasonable to ask whether McBurnie will represent his landscape-body of the future as utopian and full of possibility. One can only wonder whether he is ready to take the leap of faith necessary to leave behind him the destruction of his past. Reaching his own threshold, McBurnie, more than anyone, understands the sublime position of standing at the precipice of one's own limits.
Dr Laini Burton
Queensland College of Art
Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
Jonathan McBurnie is an artist whose bad passport is well worn. Although he now resides almost entirely in the Kingdom of the Well, that 'other' place is still vividly recalled in his art practice. Revealed as a multi-layered, overlapping, monochrome world, McBurnie's inks hold testament to darker kingdoms of the mind. I Am Not Batman is a series of drawings creating passage through the narrative of the artists life- a life in which sickness and health are merely one duality in a multitude of lived possibilities. These possibilities are proposed through the symbolism of art icons, religious saviours, atomic mushroom clouds and comic book references engaged in a losing battle against a sprawling and engulfing landscape. McBurnie utilises the landscape format in this series to consider the impending realisation of mortality as an inevitable consequence of growing up. This is the artists story, his question to us- How do our childhood dreams become demystified over the course of our lives but refuse to disappear completely? How do we cope with the dismally daily nature of our spectacular dreams? What comes next?
Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, a text which McBurnie cites as influential in his considerations of this particular series of work, often finds itself contextualised in relation to his personal battle with Leukaemia. Sontag's rereading of popular literature and culture through the lens of society's preoccupation with sickness helps give meaning to the fragmentation, the incompleteness of McBurnie's superheroes. The use of white-out, the refusal to complete the body, the repeated re-attempting of lines struggling to constitute a convincing form all self-consciously operate to reveal the materiality of the paper surface. This revelation seems to act as proof of the 'fakeness' of the superhero as the idealised immortal. But that isn't all these decisions suggest. For those of us who have never had to claim our bad passport, I Am Not Batman resonates with an unexpected familiarity. Considering the work purely as cartography of the body in alternating states of health and sickness fails to describe everything we are seeing. The broad horizons, the desolate landscapes, the occasional crop of cane, the shrubs, the vast and unchanging skies- this is not a purely metaphoric landscape, this is somewhere real. These works are site-specific. They are undeniably Australian.
McBurnie recalls such scenes from photographs and memories of childhood places in Townsville- his lived interpretation of a physical landscape. In this way we find that sickness becomes merely one chapter of McBurnie's Australian story as other scenarios and living creatures creep in to represent different personal realms. Ned Kelly, Picasso's minotaur, Superman and Batman, Vogue models, skeletons sporting Basquiat's crown and even Jesus converse, battle and embrace each other through deformed bodies. They have not realised, as we the viewer realise, that they are re-enacting daily events of the artist's life and are consequently pulled down to his affected, impressionable, merely human level of which there is no closure. Childhood is a period where we are obsessed with superheroes as we like to imagine the same capabilities within ourselves. As McBurnie travels further and further away from the immortality of childhood, so does he from the confidence in the superhuman persona which this time reveres. The details of particular characters become faded, obscured against an ever-expanding horizon line. They are implicated in another, larger catastrophe through their contextualisation within the sublime desolation of the North Queensland landscape.
The use of the Australian landscape as a place of sickness and psychiatric mania can therefore be seen to propose a picture-perfect site for apocalypse in which all life forms, real and imaginary, are implicated. In this way the Australian landscape does not just bind up the artist's biography but our collective mortality as we become increasingly aware of the realities of global destruction. Australia begins to embody both the internal and external, the iconically national mixed with the creative license of sublime memory- both a personal and global coming of age.
I Am Not Batman can be seen to negotiate the experiences of childhood, place and sickness as they become compromised by adulthood. Unlike McBurnie's past works, the characters who fill this series have struggled in vain against their landscapes, against the impending reality where age and mortality stake their claim. The fights, the sex, the moments of hardship, reflection and epiphany seem insignificant in relation to the rolling excess of the North Queensland landscape. Townsville becomes not just McBurnie's bad passport, but everyone's as unrelenting environmental devastation pushes us closer towards global collapse.
At his exhibitions, I've noticed it's common for people to corner Jonathan McBurnie, usually when they're swaying happily under the influence of function wine. "So, Jonathan," they'll say. "Tell me, darling. What's your art about?" Hey: perhaps you're at such an exhibition right now and want to ask exactly the same thing. So in the spirit of spoiling surprises, I can already tell you McBurnie already has two stock responses to that question, prepared and ready to go. If you catch him on a good day, he'll tell you his art tends to touch upon the usual suspects: love, hate, sex, death. "It's not very cool," he'll add by way of modest disclaimer, "not very hip, but there it is." If he's a little tired, or feeling particularly inarticulate, he'll provide you with a more practical response: "Just listen to Bat Out of Hell, Bat Out of Hell II and Bat Out of Hell III,back-to-back. That's what my art is about."
While this makes sense (the first time I ever met him, McBurnie was wearing a Meatloaf shirt-the man clearly plays a large role in his life), there are perhaps other, more understandable influences at work here too: the grotesque comic-book comedy of Raymond Pettibon; the costumed superhero spectacles of Jack Kirby; the mournful monochromatic lives depicted by William Kentridge; the demented psychadelia of Gary Panter. If there's one thing those artists have in common, it's their representations of transformation. Or perhaps mutation is a better word for it. Either way, it's one particular motif you'll also notice McBurnie tends to revisit in his work-that breed of mutation seen in adventure comics and science fiction movies. Between his paintings and illustrations, limbless, half-formed and injured minotaurs make love, while masked superheroes-those ultimate impenetrable bodies-are transparent enough for us to see their vulnerable organs: hearts, genitals, guts. Elsewhere, Ned Kelly is a woman and Superman is a midget, crashing through a bathroom window on a tampon-shaped bomb.
In her 1978 essay volume Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag also wrote about mutants and mutations. Sontag was particularly interested in those old-school sci-fi freak-outs, the kind of films that made young American teenagers squeal from cars at their local drive-ins: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, The Thing. For Sontag, there were strong parallels in her mind between those science fiction depictions of mutation and-of all things-cancer. Those were the movies which analogised cancer most vividly for her; films that reflected an increasingly dominant idea of cancer as an invasion where alien cells-stronger, superior, sinister-took over the body altogether. Mutant cells, in other words. "Cancer," Sontag wrote, "could be described as triumphant mutation, and mutation is now mainly an image for cancer."
Maybe it's too convenient to acknowledge those parallels between mutations and cancer, and align it with McBurnie's works. But still, when I look over his art, I'm often reminded that his first ever art exhibition took place in 2003, only months after he was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a quick-moving, violently-sprouting form of cancer where malignant, immature white blood cells reproduce themselves in the bone marrow, crowding up all the available space, before moving elsewhere and onwards-usually to organs. It's unpleasant, noxious, shitty stuff. In those months of chemotherapy, and the ones that followed, McBurnie somehow worked prolifically from his hospital bed with ideas for his next exhibition, filling a total of 50 journals before the end of his treatment some months later.
McBurnie's mutations mightn't even always be obvious, but you can usually find an idea of it somewhere. Even if there aren't any beasts or superheroes, his landscapes are often clouded by brewing storms, those in-between moments between calm and catastrophe. Elsewhere, drawing upon comic book motifs, he draws links between what he calls "the parallels between the comic book's constant sense or impending cataclysm, the fire and brimstone of Catholic art and the real life total environmental collapse we now face".
By the time you read this, collapse will be a suitable word to describe what's going on out there. Weirdly, it also feels like the end-of-world dangers we face right now are actually self-imposed: bushfires fuelled by arson and climate change; bad mortgage-generated economic collapse; flattening earthquakes triggered off by bad dam-building processes. It's unambiguously horrible stuff, but perhaps there's also something actually something bleakly funny about discovering the end of the world is approaching, and there's no one out there to blame but us. For all of McBurnie's apocalyptic scenarios, there's still humour. Like Major Kong riding the bomb in Dr Strangelove, or every zombie film you've ever seen, there's usually something to laugh about when things are on the brink of ending. Judging by his artwork, you get the sense that McBurnie-someone who's had to look at finality, and the idea of endings, closely-sees the humour more than anyone else, and has a chuckle to himself.