Jonathan McBurnie’s current survey show, Dread Sovereign, is a compelling, if not overwhelming experience. On display at Pinnacles Gallery in Townsville, North Queensland until late January 2018, the exhibition highlights McBurnie’s formidable skill as both a draftsman and mischievous provocateur. His revelry in the role of the latter is such that it was deemed necessary to include a warning of ‘subversive, shocking, satirical, ironic, erotic, sincere, explicit, challenging, self-depreciating, contradictory and critical content,’ which some may consider offensive on the inside cover of the exhibition’s catalogue.
Dread Sovereign assembles 2000 drawings and watercolours on paper (and some drawings committed directly to the wall) consuming almost every available space. The suite is littered with collisions of McBurnie’s suburban Townsville observations, comic and pop culture icons, rippling bodybuilders and ’80s wrestlers, porn stars and Gods, and pointed art and indie culture quips – the menagerie of absurd characters and scenarios are most often set to the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic landscape or gallery interior. Approximately 1300 of the works were completed in just three years (averaging to an incredible three or four works each day) and points to the artist’s self-confessed short attention span, undoubtedly spawned by an age of media over saturation, and perhaps an itch to experience every moment of life born from a previous year-long struggle with his most notable nemesis; leukaemia.
The prolific output is made all the more incredible by its timing, with McBurnie striking a balance between his artistic practice, and his role as the Director of Townsville’s Umbrella Studio where he has taken on an everyday hero likeness akin to the suburban supermen he frequently depicts, sans speedos. Adopting this alter-ego position in January 2016, he has provided inspiration and a steadying hand for the local arts community throughout recent tumult; the conviction of thought and action we often associate with moralistic comic tales has clearly not only informed the artist’s works, but also his character. A prominent example of McBurnie’s ‘keep the bastards honest’ approach came in his opening address as Director of Umbrella Studio in the gallery’s 2015 Annual Report, in which he penned a stinging assessment of political vandalism of Australia’s arts sector. Where others would take a conservative approach for self- and institutional-preservation, McBurnie didn’t hesitate in delivering a withering critique of the Australia Council cuts delivered by George Brandis under the destructive eye of Australia’s most prominent speedo-clad anti-hero, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott… cuts which came in quick succession to hurdles presented by Campbell Newman’s Queensland government and which also pre-empted Townsville’s own struggles.
As a crafter of absurd scenes, it is possible McBurnie would find some humour (though undoubtedly no pleasure) in our current national and international political climate. Our new world order increasingly reflects McBurnie’s imaginings, filled with Mickey Mouse world leaders and obsessed with size – most often of public profile or wallet – forces which combine to drown out proper consideration of skill, vision, progress or, heaven forbid, compassion. Heck, Arnie, who features prominently in familiar bodybuilder poses in a number of McBurnie’s works, took public office, so perhaps McBurnie’s works will date such that in 20 years they won’t appear ‘subversive, shocking, satirical, ironic,’ etc. in the slightest.McBurnie’s journey to this exhibition has been as energetic as his compulsive drawing. He studied animation for two years, a pursuit which he abandoned after his first two-man show; fought the big C; completed a Fine Art degree with honours and a subsequent PhD; has been the editor of, and published in, numerous magazines and publications; enjoyed residencies in Tokyo and France; and held 11 solo exhibitions and over 80 group exhibitions since 2006, including his 2016 show Four Day Bender with David Kurzydlo, Anthony Lister, Jamie Preisz which showed in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
An unpublished interview I conducted with the artist in 2009 revealed many of the enduring influences which have fed these many and varied creative endeavours, most obviously his drawings. At the time he cited heroes and villains such as Superman, Batman, the Maxx, Marshel Law, Judge Dredd, Dr Doom, Two-Face, Mr Gone, Cyborg Superman and Magneto, and artists such as Gary Paynter, Raymond Pettibon, Hannah Wilke, Goya, Jack Kirby, Grant Morrison, Bosch, Devin Townsend, Robert Crumb, Marlene Dumas, David Lynch, John Carpenter, and Chloe Vevrier as sources of inspiration. Recurring characters in art, such as Ned Kelly, Jesus, Judith, and Trucanini also get a frequent run, sometimes in a pure form, and at other times as Frankenstein’s Monster-esque re-imaginings, such as McBurnie’s ‘Kirby-Kelly’ composite of “Nolan’s version of Kelly, and those Incredible Hulk-like characters that inhabit Jack Kirby’s work,” or his composite Bono and Satan character called ‘Saint Paul.’ (Non-influences are also humorously listed in McBurnie’s piece, Things I’ve Tried to Like But Just Can’t).
I had planned to also expand on the erotic parallels between McBurnie’s work and that of Tom of Finland in this piece, however on reading Adam Geczy’s fabulous catalogue essay for Dread Sovereign, found that ground, along with a succinct timeline of socio-political-comic-erotic history, had already been ably covered. Geczy’s essay ‘What If?’ is highly recommended to underpin a deeper understanding of McBurnie’s practice.
Also revealed in my 2009 interview with the artist was a new focus on landscape through the work Precipice II. This particular series is now well into the hundreds, however McBurnie explained at the time of creating Precipice II:
“I was reading Susan Sontag’s ‘Illness as Metaphor’ and I was really interested in her ideas about the body becoming ‘territory’ when you take yourself to get treated for cancer, how the Doctors will sometimes detach in that way and you become territory to be won back. They use a lot of military language. Chemo works on the same kind of principal as napalm. You destroy all the fast growing cells, which includes cancer or enemies, to regain control of the rest of it.”
While the body as landscape metaphor is foundational to these works, they remain landscapes in the truest form, with McBurnie also intent on examining his ‘place’ in relation to the art traditions of this country. The sheer cliff renderings of the Precipice series, devoid of characters, or ‘cells’ as Dr Laini Burton aptly described them, also provide a contemplative and delicately handled escape for the viewer. The chasms and valleys allow the vacant space for us to consider life, to ponder if we are atop a mountain or staring over the edge into the abyss.
While McBurnie’s world as shown in Dread Sovereign appears shocking, erotic, explicit, challenging, and contradictory, even absurd, on the surface – just as we were warned it would – a more accurate reading reveals a world of common human qualities, both virtuous and flawed, taken to the absolute extreme. McBurnie looks inward to identify these shared qualities and lays bare an unending internal struggle between hero and villain we could all identify with.