Slam-Dunk: John Bunker New Collages
Unit 3, ASC, Empson Street from 3-17 November 2018
Collage has a significant 20thcentury history. Inspired by Braque and Picasso, Kurt Schwitters typically utilised “used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps” and, long before re-cycling was a conservation matter, applied his alchemical process effectively. Henri Matisse utilised painted papers and cut out the shapes required for his decoupage that extended his exploration of painting, particularly in his latter years. In the era of the Abstract Expressionists, Robert Motherwell raised the medium of collage (and particularly the Gauloises packet) to an aesthetic height where it became conjoined with painting. With Duchampian whit, and challenging categorisations between painting and sculpture, Robert Rauschenberg produced a huge body of collage and assemblage works (aka ‘combines’) with explicit social and cultural content, introducing ironic reference to abstract painting and contemporaneous subject matter. Matisse aside, an underlying spirit of Dadaism and with a nod towards Arte Povera, a particular type of collage can still exploit a direct embracing of materials from the urban jungle.
Within the visuality of collage as material and process, which still has an aesthetic and fiscal purchase (i.e. material value), it appears evident from John Bunker’s ongoing project that, in the broadest context, collage engages with an interpretation of social reality that has more political and economic discomforts than might be desired. Crucially, this reading is best experienced from being in the presence of the work, which is both visually abstract and embodied in the material specificity of a re-constructive process. Like painting, in the flesh the collages possess a life force that is compromised in reproduction – rendering any notion of duplication as anything close to satisfactory, almost null and void.
One fascinating aspect of these new mixed media shaped collages (though the term ‘assemblage’ better categorises Bunker’s works as many of the parts are objects as much as surfaces) is that the base materials possess idiosyncrasies of substance and surface impossible to replicate on the ubiquitous screen. Materials and objects that had a previous life, used goods as it were, become fresh or new again as component parts of the subsequent artwork. So, in ‘Vilja’, one of twelve works presented in ‘Slam-Dunk’, items such as electrical cable, cardboard packaging or a printed poster are not those things anymore. Identity is reassigned to a very different functionality. Material hierarchy is certainly de-bunked.
In these works the deterioration of the physical conditions of found objects, street and studio detritus, are presented as if new and fresh; where for example, decomposition and fragmentation can be regarded as a primary state and not a proximate condition within a standard ontology of physical manifestations. So the various engineered metal components in ‘Tjádass’, one that may have functioned as part of a musical instrument, another as a sturdy wall fastening (replete with plastic rawl plug), survive destruction and redundancy in a form of re-incarnation. The connection with Schwitters’ synthesizing use of mixed media, which interchanged the material and the visual, is palpable in the ‘Slam-Dunk’ collages.
Twelve months on from Bunker’s last one-man show at Unit 3, the viewer is treated to these new works gathered together with quirky titles. For an Abcrit review for ‘Leave It’ in 2017, I had commented that, “I was reminded that collage is not a substitute for painting.” It was apparent that these collages were potent enough in themselves to stand alone from painting, albeit with similar characteristics – made for the wall; to be read by the eye across the surface, with various implications of spatial congress; shifting the visual interrogation from part to part; colours, shapes and surfaces refreshing the abstract mission; and prompting suggestions for personal interpretations on context or sufficing unadulterated visual pleasure.
‘Slam-Dunk (for Dennis)’, the largest work in the show that filled a whole wall, is something of a punk-mural as many of the various components are torn by hand, burnt and dishevelled. Though discarded, rejected and roughed up, the parts are now rescued and revived. But are the painted parts in ‘Slam-Dunk (For Dennis)’, a little disingenuous if they have been made to be unique collage components? Perhaps they are intended as simulacra of wastage from the production of other paintings/collages? Intermixed with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, including found print, nylon string, fragments of plywood and plastic and cotton material of unknown origin, the inclusion of paint (industrial and artists’ quality?) might reference Rauschenberg’s expressionist painterly gestures – only now the paint might be a spill or composed bluntly from a cleaning of the brush, rather than a personalised action from the hand of a ‘master’.
All of the other works are much smaller (approximating 50 x 60cm each) and you can touch them with your eyes by standing close-to. Keeping your hands to yourself increases the visceral pleasure and tactile frisson of so many moving parts. Though nothing actually moves, except the viewer. Take, for example, ‘Fun Bobby’, which might suggest two dancers in full swing connected by a flash of red feather and white bunting. A wriggling line, with few breaks, starts with a ring at bottom centre, heads north-west into a patchwork maze then bridges east to a counterpart form that is characterised by a figure of eight, and a diamond framework placed over a black disc, overlapped in part by a second little shanty town of patches.
What is so impressive about the works in ‘Slam-Dunk’ is not only the inherent particularity of the stuff of the collages, but the selection and arrangement within the frameless compositions – the choreography as such. As with all of the works on show, there is visual dynamism in every composition. Bunker’s ‘expanded field’ of collage removes the omnipresence of the rectangle and eliminates the edge that preoccupies some abstract practitioners. The various colour-shapes echo spatial placements, propose latent moveability; physically conjoin, meander, occlude and reveal the specific abstract qualities that are somehow vital and fecund in an organic phraseology of materiality. Disjuncture is carefully balanced with ‘just rightness’, whilst visual rhythms unlock the still nature of the fixed parts and the condition of the arrangements are inherently organic, playing with a shift from the visual to the material and vice versa.
As installation, the wall behind each work in the gallery space, and the quality of light (particularly from the spotlights) that enhance low relief in millimetres, activates the collages, especially if the viewer approaches at close quarters. As is typical of Bunker’s collages, there is a painterly aesthetic at work in an agile distribution and handling of the materials. The works have edged towards resolution into an abstract condition that may well emulate painting, but still maintains the independence of collage in the same way that print is both independent of, but inextricably related to painting.
As medium and process, we might still debate the status of collage as an offshoot of painting (and sculpture in the form of assemblage), or as an independent medium. Current artspeak might label the kind of collage that John Bunker makes as ‘expanded field’ of painting. His work is certainly ‘painterly’ and I sometimes wonder what a new series of paintings would look like – although I would imagine that the canvas would simply get in the way.
In Bunker’s press statement for ‘Slam-Dunk’ a revived declaration from three years ago reiterates his contention that, “Collage allows me to constantly test the limits of what an abstract painting can be. I hope to find something like a new hybrid visual grammar in these clashes of matter and forms.”
This notion of hybridity is undeniable. So, is collage eternally bound to painting? The kind that Bunker cajoles and constructs from the detritus of the contemporary situation may well place his works in a broader societal context. Perhaps the medium is the message after all, especially if the collages predominantly employ the debris of the urban, suggesting a dystopian reading in its literal, material content. But if the various fragments appear to be resurrected from the waste bin or the gutter – places of superfluous cut-offs, rejection and abandon – the underlying message is a positive and uplifting one. For there is also visual refinement and elegance on display here. The viewer might also embrace the tangible qualities and materiality of the forms in Bunker’s collages in the spirit of Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese philosophy of beauty in imperfection, where the transient and imperfect is revered.
Or is this just too snowflake?
All images are © John Bunker.
Schwitters quotation from ‘Kurt Schwitters: Collages and Assemblages 1929-1947’
‘Leave It…’ John Bunker: New Work (2017)