Jonathan Mcburnie Drawings and the Idea of Masculinity Crisis

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In an interview he did of himself, Aussie artist, Jonathan Mcburnie, says that the concept of violence plays a crucial role in his works, and although a lot of his drawings consist of reappearances of masculine, heroic personalities, and comic book figures like Batman in action, he isn’t just speaking of physical violence. Mcburnie is interested in the kind of violence that “better penetrates your consciousness and your sub-consciousness.” The heroic figures are not alone; they co-exist with western cowboys, film personalities, pop icons, porn stars, and all of the array of characters have different stories going on within walls like that of a gallery's where you’d least expect to see them, especially together, or outside in landscapes scenarios. Sometimes the characters overlap each other through Mcburnie’s drawing style. However, the artist points out how the superheroes tend to stand out with viewers, “dynamism is in its blood.”

Regarding the use of heroic figures in pop culture, including antiheroes that commit “acts of heroism,” Mcburnie himself wonders whether it is indicative of humanity’s desire and belief that the actions of the individual can bring change to the status quo, or of the opposite, where the figure acts as a potent reminder of how people are in so many ways “powerless to put any such change into effect” most of the time. Perhaps this is the “masculinity crisis” (a phrase he uses in one of his drawings) that he investigates.

A lot of your pieces include people engaging in what would be considered “inappropriate behavior” inside of galleries and museums amidst art hanging on the wall. You even have a full separate collection devoted to and titled “Sexual Encounters Inside a Gallery Space”. I'm curious as to how this idea for the series came about and why you like your characters hanging out at galleries so much.

This series started I think, through some collages I made using the exhibition publication of an artist who shall remain nameless. I make collage as a composition for drawing rather than sketch out the drawing first. Anyway, he makes these big, highly rendered paintings of really kitsch, opulent furniture and such objects, and they sell for hefty sums of money. So I started making collages of people having sex on these opulent tables and couches, kind of the underdog who doesn't sell getting his own back. And it grew from there. The gallery scenes were a logical step, because the gallery can be such a sacred space, so sanctified which, I understand. But for me there has always been a bit of an appeal in subverting that really serious view of the art world. We can take it so seriously but a lot of great art is not actually like that.

And would you also say it has something to do with how certain things are more acceptable as art but not so much if it's outside the boundaries of a picture frame?

Oh, for sure. Although, living in Australia, politics have gotten really conservative here, really kneejerk, and art is really being judged here right now. I like to subvert these sort of things, poke fun, but it is a pretty humorless political environment. They don't really understand that art has a function outside of making things that are 'nice' to look at.

You've been drawing since as far back as you can remember, and your dad is an artist. Did you also go to art school or anything like that?

Yes, I am actually in the fourth year of my PhD. So, almost there!

While talking to Noir Notebook about the role of drawing in contemporary art you explain how it is no longer secondary to art forms like painting and sculpture after the industrial revolution brought photography, lithography, offset printing, and more so now, now that the digital age has really “cemented it as a dominant paradigm.” Is there anything you’d like to add to this?

Actually, it is pleasing to me that I still agree with what I said there! I suppose what I mean by that is that drawing has been incorporated into so many aspects of life now—design, architecture, graffito, tattoos, fashion, film—that I refer to this as metadrawing. Metadrawing is the principles of the drawing discipline applied to other areas. We have drawing programs now, yet we still draw, because there is a tactile or erotic enjoyment to that. It is just the same as painting's continued life over a century after the invention of photography. I don't think we can help it.

A lot of your works are mostly black and white but I noticed you’re coloring some of them, like the “Be proud of your art collection”, which looks neat. What type of materials and technique are you using for coloring?

That drawing is from a new set of work that I am developing right now. I have always struggled with color, my sense of which was fried at an early age, I think—too many comics. So I have historically avoided using it. Last year I did a residency in France and I was really blown away with the differences in the colors of that part of the world. At that time of the year the light was very pink and purple even. Very different when compared to Australia, which has quite a harsh, white light. So I did a lot of landscapes over there, a lot of watercolors, and it really stirred a desire to get some color into my work just to see what would happen. So the work you mention is from a series in which I am working with a restricted palette of watercolor washes. I mixed these up using a faded 1950's Donald Duck comic as the color template, so the colors themselves have gone acidic and a little weird. I have been enjoying it immensely.

Looks like you also like Basquiat.

Yes I do. I don't think he was the most consistent artist around, but he was a restless painter, he just went for it. I can really relate to that. I think he gets obscured by debates that revolve around his massive popularity in his lifetime, rather than the works themselves. He has also had a pretty substantial reach beyond the grave. I see a lot of people trying to do what he did and failing. Arguments of talent and commerce aside, he was a hard worker.

The collection “This looks too much like art” is kind of funny. What do you really mean by that, though? And what was your process like in completing that series from thinking “I'm going to write this on a bunch of images” to obtaining the pictures to, selecting them, writing on them?

I started these as an attempt to get myself laughing at bad art. I go to a lot of art exhibitions and see what is going on, and I am sure you know when it gets to a point where you start seeing patterns and trends emerge. People influence each other. But I was also seeing a more worrying trend where artists were just sort of handpicking things they liked from magazines and emulating them, and not with any kind of critical eye. It was upsetting me, I was getting way too mad about it and I realized, 'what am I doing, this is so ridiculous,' so I started the text works. They are very quickly made, very light-hearted, which lets me be a bit whacky. It is also a jab at myself really, for when I get too heavy, too serious, which I can do sometimes.

“There is something really wonderfully obsessive about just smashing out all these drawings, so many that you almost don’t know what to do with them. I have been trying to figure out whether it is some kind of cathartic moment, or a sexual thing—drawing is very erotic and fetishistic I think. In terms of Bataille’s definition of eroticism as a kind of transgression of taboos, or cultural norms, I think the act of drawing is very satisfying, particularly in terms of mainstream culture, which is just begging to be satirized, aped or just outright butchered in some iconoclastic way.” — Jonathan Mcburnie