Abstract Critical

John Bunker: Vital Signs

Written by Emyr Williams

John Bunker, collage, 2012

“Vital signs”: looking for life in the deathly pit of the rubbish bin: bits and bobs that once served other purposes have been resuscitated, re-energised, reconfigured and pictorialised. Mary Shelley would be proud: detritus, distressed debris, angles, curves and awkward bits, stringy and sticky, tape and paint, stain and scuff, card marred – stuck and torn, ripped and ruptured, rumpled and worn – diagonals forced into framing rectangles that echo the edges, with drawn tears in surfaces that want to be something significant again, something more than they once were: from the mundane to the particular, from the scrap heap to the gallery wall…. It’s alive! An artwork is born.

These works: often seem more successful when contrasts of dark and light are used to underpin their colour and punch past the irregular factures of surface. A tonal colour prevails (not dominates), rather than a painterly one, which is present too; tones lend themselves to the art of the found, I have found. This exhibition is a mix of the poetic and the prosaic, switching haphazardly between the two, as I feel obliged to, too.

John Bunker, collage, 2012

There is a nonstop unrelenting pace to this show which has 21 works all in the average family sized home’s conventional picture frames which are better when the disparate elements are integrated into the whole and the shadows of the card are not disturbing the continuity of the passages of colour and the fracturing incident and dissonant elements are dissolving into the backgrounds of the found cardboard in these old frames which have been discovered poking up through the rubble maybe or on streets or waste grounds or simply loitering with intent in the emporia of the previously enjoyed and have been assembled with troubling incongruity or artful poise at times knowingly anarchic controllingly almost tastefully split splattered crumpled and crocked taped and splintered and composed…occasionally maybe too willfully? I need a breath before I go on. They are busy in this first viewing.

Much stuff to see and take in as a whole: split pieces of orange hessian, mdf panelling, semi-architectural, fragmentary pieces of string, looping, very consciously looking for pictoriality. Maybe we all need to find a more surprising pictoriality? What is pictoriality anyway? That question floats in the air somewhere on this occasion, around the streets of Limehouse, East London.

John Bunker, collage, 2012

Collage: found stuff in skips, bins, corners of the studio, dribbles and scribbles of paint and ink, semi-illusionistic devices, photo copies, printed pieces, pieces of this, pieces of that, a piece of text, placed in the scene – not to be read, but to animate with that sting of black and white, there’s a keen eye and a sort of taste at work, but by the back door, the worn out door, after all, it takes taste as well as an eye to find these picture frames and respond accordingly; a greenish one, lots of degrees of wooden browns, a warm orangery edging which is picked up on, a thick one in light wood or a thin one in black, a hard one, an old one, a many time bought and sold one – a box frame or two – which calls for a different approach. The more relief works would be better left unchecked by painterly incident where shunted shapes and forms could occupy and impose themselves more in the space of the shadow box. Geoff Rigden’s recent works spring to mind – a master of the found, who can make a stiletto look good in an assembled, deep box-framed, artwork; art which has its precedents in the early 60′s: Daniel Spoerri or Harry Thubron’s “Anything can be art” teachings, or even (unwelcomely?)back in the thirties and forties with Joseph Cornell’s surreal poetry boxes. Cubism is the root stock though. Back to the show: There are a myriad opportunities afforded in the making of these collages, to travel in all sorts of directions, though decisions about colour and tone will surface at all points and junctions along the way. The colour and drawing would possibly benefit from bigger scales at times – maybe more unpredictable illusions and a greater sense of frankness with some of the larger components. A glimpse of photo paper looked good, and what about that dreaded word…imagery? Could imagery make an appearance? Could that be integrated? Would that become more, or less visual in character? I know the sculptor Clay Ellis has been mining this territory in his recent collages, through the pre-made though, rather than the found.

John Bunker, collage, 2012

Exhibition spaces: are not always neutral, and these works are a little overhung in the space. There is clearly a keenness to show a body of work, but it would have benefited from knocking out a half dozen to tidy up the hanging. I don’t think the previous frame owners would ever recognize their discarded property, though there is an element of recognition in the space and it was tempting to name check references that materialized for me at least: Motherwell, maybe, maybe not, Rauschenberg, maybe, maybe not, Picasso, Miró, the usual suspects, Schwitters, who knows? Perhaps even a Bacon buts in, a Spanish still-life? Léger, qui sais? Is that a 13th century vibe or are we in Persia? So much attention to detail; the mind’s eye plays funny tricks when so much is up for grabs. Can this tendency to spark a referencing be headed off at the pass in some way? Can an artist produce a work that did not allow that or are we always prey to these comparisons? Are they courted even? Does subjectiveness emerge when the material content becomes so open-ended, or is it always latent or, am I guilty of not looking hard enough and dragging my looking into my already known? I have only seen the exhibition once, but will revisit.

The frames seem to act as a start, a visual prompter, yet they are vulnerable to interpretation as a poetical device, whether intended or not. Ultimately they serve the purpose of unifier. Even considering this point, I would still question their importance to the success of the actual collage. They may not be as useful as they look: all that flattering, flattening glass can hide some of the technical issues of the collage’s manufacture, for instance. Also, why was the frame not on the image of the handout? How significant are they really? The works build structure earnestly, through layer upon layer of incident devoid of, or minimized in, accident I’m sure; however, the irregularities can feel a touch arbitrary at times. This is not a criticism of the approach, more a critique of the results. The work feels to be in an emerging state with the ensuing hit and miss outcomes; this should be seen as a sign of artistic health. I enjoyed the instances of ‘disturbing’ colour when they were in there as this made everything work harder and avoided any vestiges of the artful.

John Bunker, collage, 2012

Also better to see too, was when works were less respectful of the rectangle, which is so strongly asserted by the frame. Often the internal echoing of this frame with ‘angled’ card, seemed to be dictated as a prerequisite strategy for composition – creating centralized weightings of activity, which in turn had the effect of closing in the space and darkening the work accordingly. Sometimes a bit of ‘open the curtains and get some light into the room’ was needed. Then again, who am I to talk? For moonlight and shadows also have a light and colour, and then there’s neon, the backlight of consumerism; tawdriness can be a form of beauty as well. After all, as someone Bloomsbury way once said: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Vital Signs is on at the Half Moon Theatre until the 28th of January.

  1. Robin Greenwood said…

    Merry Xmas to everyone.

  2. Noela Bewry said…

    In the link John Bunker says the collage material is found in his neighbourhood and so , rather than painting Stepney , the materials represent Stepney and bring the world, or, real life into his work. I wonder how important that is .
    I am wondering how connected John is to the found materials and whether there is any significance beyond colour and texture.

    • John Bunker said…

      I’m wondering about this all the time. At the moment I see my immediate everyday environment as the building blocks of a launch pad into the work. So right now my launch pad is Stepney. I don’t think I could possibly represent it! Its far bigger,better,older and far more interesting than I’ll ever be! But this is where I live and work and I take objects directly from its streets, so I think it comes through sometimes. Chuck me anywheres and that place would be the launch pad. But at the end of the day each piece of work has to survive on its own term

  3. Robert Linsley said…

    I like the asymmetry and the way that shapes break out of their frames, frames within frames.

  4. Sam said…

    I think Motherwell is present, part of an embrace of gestural abstraction (the organisation and sense of dramatic arrival found in gestural abstraction, rather than gesture itself). For me this is an important move beyond John’s studio show earlier in the year, where there was a greater sense of neat arrangement or composition that owed something to Schwitters (who is unsatisfying because of this?). By coincidence I picked up a Harry Thubron catalogue yesterday and he also on occasion used gestural type organisation, though with less artifice, drama and high-toned colour than in John’s work.

    I agree that the frames are a problem; and find the idea that some of the larger found objects could be left more as themselves intriguing (though if it was a toss-up between this and the manic invention that runs through the work in general I would certainly choose the latter). I also like the interruption of actual imagery into the work; though I still think at the centre of John’s work is the ability to make abstract images (which is vital to his going past arrangement / composition).

    We need a more surprising pictoriality could be Abstract Critical’s slogan… It is certainly what I would like to see

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Or less pictoriality? whatever that means – do we know? ‘Pictorialism’ seems to have been invented for photography.

      • Emyr WIlliams said…

        I use that word specifically (hijacked from photography, granted) because the weighting of much painting seems to me to be photographic. Abstract art is maybe prone to this more than figurative ironically. (Another thread another time maybe?) It’s as if we gravitate to certain conventions of activity that are centralised. It plagued the cubists – in fact Picasso used to remark that one of Matisse’s still life paintings used to “set his teeth on edge” because it went out the side of the ‘picture’. Although these are abstract works, the framing and use of found bits that relate to pictures or images seems informed by ‘pictorial’ sensibilities to a certain extent. I think all of us – especially in this day and age – are affected by imagery whether overtly or covertly (flittering it out is generally the challenge if you are an abstract artist). Therefore, I agree with the sentiment of being less pictorial, but in this instance could that be achieved by hitting it head on to try to neutralise it, as it would be a shame to have a heirarchy of found elements where “pictorial” elements such as images even, are rejected – after all text is pictorial really. If everyone looking at art really does have this expectation in their sensibilities ( and I am inclined to believe it is present in the art ether) then can it be jolted out of its comfortability – either removed as you say or disturbed out of recognition as being “pictorial” – which may be the same thing I suppose? (so in answer by “new” I must mean “yeah get rid of it!”)

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Interesting…and replace with…?

      • Sam said…

        I suppose I meant ‘pictoriality’ in quite a basic way of wanting to see a new approach to making abstract pictures. I’m not completely convinced about this relation to photography in John’s work – or at least I don’t think the presence of ‘framing devices’ is especially photographic. A more convincing way down this route might consider the pictures’ artifice, and their speed?

        I thought this was intriguing: “use of found bits that relate to pictures or images seems informed by ‘pictorial’ sensibilities to a certain extent.” Do you mean use of found bits is like photography because they are both overtly involved with an anterior source?

      • Emyr WIlliams said…

        By pictorial, I mean that the centre of gravity in a work is the same or very similar to that experienced by a single lens. It seems to be a common quality. It’s a battleground for abstract art I think and is something that painting and sculpture are uniquely equipped to deal with too – and due to their inherent physical qualities, I don’t think we need to meet imagery in any half way situation. If others do though, I don’t have a problem with that as such – the proof will of course be in their puddings. I’ve never enjoyed a virtual cake though.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        speaking that Welsh again…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        This is, as usual all a bit painting-o-centric. If pictiorialism is important to painting, and I’m not sure if it is, or what it means, it certainly has no relevance whatsoever for the future of abstract sculpture.