Nancy Bunnell and Chinese Art Reproductions

In Montreal, where she lives and works, Nancy Bunnell is a phenomenon. She arrived on the scene with the exclamatory power of the Tunguska event and has left an equally unforgettable impression on Chinese art reproductions. Working feverishly, somewhere between the Biblical and the libidinal, she left her mark right from the start.

Her fame is based both on art reproductions that knows few equals in Canada and a teaching practice at Concordia University that has influenced scores of young women artists. She has had her way with the human figure for decades, eliciting from otherwise mute flesh a harrowing sense of exactitude in rendering–with no cosmetic allure whatsoever–our finitude as embodied beings in metaphoric reach.

In two recent exhibitions in Montreal, Bunnell revealed dovetailing sides of her oeuvre: the “private” face of her oil painting reproductions (hence the title, Private Views) and the paintings for which she is known publicly. The oil painting reproductions shown at Paint My Photos Gallery are haunting in ethos and execution. While they have been called almost cartoon-like in character, the truth is that they have more in common with Gericault than R. Crumb. Private Views marks the first time that Bunnell has shown oil painting reproductions in a solo show in more than two decades. She refers to the works in Private Views as her “secret” oil painting reproductions but she is also being a little facetious–even though they are indeed the secret plenitude underlying her corpus as a whole. The truth is that she has always drawn, and I have stored in my memory many epiphanies from looking at oil painting reproductions in her studio over the long years. Furthermore, a survey of her private journals–an extraordinary and extensive archive of her practice–shows her working through painting ideas in a marvellous, deft, edgy–if sometimes schematic–fashion over the last decades.

Throughout her career, Bunnell has explored, with rare intensity, the human figure living and dying. In the paintings shown at Battat, the radiance of this exploration is unavoidably self-present. Her two closest fellow travellers are Cindy Sherman and Lucian Freud; Sherman for her “staged” self-portraits because self-portraiture is implicit in Bunnell’s own profoundly autobiographical work; and Freud for his objectivity, although Bunnell’s morgue is hot, not cold, far less clinical in its mien and, of course, not misogynistic. For Bunnell, the studio is the incubation chamber par excellence, an alembic in which the deep pot of the unconscious is stirred and stirred again, in order to see what might rise to the surface and rule there.

In Dottore (2009), the most recent of the paintings shown at Battat Contemporary, we are given a glimpse into the dark side of the care ward, courtesy of a conflation of history painting (think Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa [1818-19]), the characters of commedia dell’arte and a postmodern rendering of the Dantean hell. There is a Watcher with an animal’s head. A rotund woman, all goggle-eyed, seems to be strapped into a straitjacket. Characters that seem to have been teleported in from a St-Henri sports bar sit facing an orgy-in-progress at the rear. Another seated figure in the left foreground, presumably incontinent, is wearing a diaper and cradling his head with his hand, as if trying to hide from the pyrotechnics in the lower right foreground. Is the bouncer in the far upper left quadrant there to keep outsiders from entering or insiders from leaving? And is that the artist’s own brother lying supine, a febrile gesture signalling utter distraction, the last extremity? He is being manhandled by Punchinellos with XXL rubber gloves and seems to be suffering all the horrors of the damned. Many of Bunnell’s latest paintings and works on paper are populated by these sinister Punchinellos who, with their black masks with elongated beaks under Tiepolo-esque tall domed hats, seem less like caregivers than evil harbingers of the Underworld.

Bunnell titled this monumental painting after Il Dottore (the plague doctor), a character featured in the commedia dell’arte plays originating in Italy in the mid-15th century who recalls the European plague that brought Venice to its knees not once but several times. However, Bunnell has taken liberties with his costume, updating it but leaving the long beak mask that lends the character the appearance of a mystical bird immune to the plague. Supposedly, there were disinfecting herbs hidden inside the mask so the costume, much like contemporary Hazmat suits, served as protection against contagion. Even so, Il Dottore was always seen as an imbecile, speaking in a counterfeit and meaningless Latin and issuing dire prescriptions that prefigured his own ruin. So if we ask ourselves if the ministrations of the masked figures in Bunnell’s painting are designed to help the enfeebled figure or the opposite, the answer seems to be the latter.

The raw truth is that Bunnell puts telling paint to our embodied state. Few artists have dilated on human damage so rigorously or so well. She paints figures but central to her portraiture is the evocative portrayal of duende, as the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca meant it, that dark inexorable power of the earth itself that an artist wrestles with and births in creative work. Bunnell evokes it as first-level content in her teatro grottesco, perhaps as a way of talismanically warding it off. In any case, duende is the subject matter that underlies her own struggle, and is mortise and tenon joinery in uniting painted form and implicit subject matter.

Lorca once delivered a famous lecture, play and Theory of the Duende, in which he interpreted duende as a demon whose voice speaks on a mental wavelength of our finitude, our waywardness, of dream-like dissonance in the soul, fevers in the blood and damnation felt viscerally in the gut. There is no better guidebook in all of literature for understanding what Bunnell’s paintings are about than Lorca’s writing:

There are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We
know-only that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass,
that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have
learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no
consolation and makes Goya … work with his fists and knees in
horrible bitumens.

Like Goya before her, Nancy Bunnell’s true fight is with the duende and the damage it inflicts so wantonly on the inside of our nature.

Performances and interventions of Lorena Wolffer

Lorena Wolffer lies on a bed. She slowly sits up and begins to remove her shirt. She displays her breasts to the audience, and then bends over to remove her pants. As she caresses her body, the background music fades and we begin hearing the monotone voice of a police report. Wolffer pulls out latex gloves and displays them to the audience before putting them on. The reports about dead women continue, and we hear details of the victims’ clothing. One was six months pregnant, raped and strangled.

Wolffer removes a pen and begins to carefully mark up her body, as if preparing it for an autopsy, making lines around her breasts, between her legs, on her neck. Periodically, she stops, and assumes a meditation pose. The marking continues, and the lines become something else, less medical and more a circumscription of the parts of the body that are a focus of rage and desire. Finally, she caps the pen and replaces her clothes, slowly transforming herself into an ordinary woman again. She shrouds herself in black blankets and wraps a sheet around her neck and head, covering herself completely.

In Wolffer’s performances like the just-described Mientras dormiamos (el caso Juarez) (2002-04), the Mexico City artist locates a mystery at the heart of violence, creating a black hole of negation and a paradox. It is a place where desire and hatred are closely in-tricated, one where society’s violence against women is cut into the flesh. Physical wounds kill and maim, yet psychic wounds can be inscribed as well: wounds from silence, from memory being driven deep inside into a place of suffocation and emptiness. And this violence not only marks the body of the individual, but also the body of the nation.


“Violence against women.” In what many are pleased to call the post-feminist world, this phrase almost seems to have a dated quality. Most of us are aware of the statistics about domestic violence and rape, as well as the inequalities in pay distribution and the like, but there remains a tendency to detach such statistics from the constellations of beliefs and attitudes that subtend them. When fourteen women were gunned down at l’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal for being “fucking feminists” in 1989, I remember being struck by how swiftly the media suppressed discussion about what the massacre revealed about attitudes towards women in general. No, the killer was a lone gunman. A madman. When Robert Pickton murdered scores of women in Vancouver, there was some talk of racism and poverty, but little about what both the murders and the police inaction revealed about the disposability of women. Why the unwillingness to connect the dots? What is the dirty secret?

The artist can reveal connections that a newspaper report cannot. Watching Mientras dormiamos, I think of Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil (2002), a piece honouring the disappeared and murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. By using their own bodies to display violence–and its consequences–artists such as Wolffer and Belmore remind us of its intimacy, even when violent acts occur in larger socio-political contexts. And underneath violence, hatred remains linked to desire, with the connection between the two operating through bad intensity.

The title of Wolffer’s piece translates as “while we were sleeping,” and it speaks to the hundreds of women murdered in Cuidad, a city on the border between Chihuahua and Juarez Texas. This border is lined with maquiladoras (factories), where poor women come to work. It is a place where the atmosphere of violence is palpable, and fear permeates the energy of the streets. (One is struck by the contrast to El Paso just across the river: bright and shiny and dead in another way.) Black crosses have been painted on telephone poles as memorials to the murdered women. Everyone knows what’s going on here, and everyone deplores the ongoing murders and disappearances, but little has been done. I once spoke to a young Oaxacan woman and her brother who were travelling to Juarez to find work. The girl stared into the distance as her brother told me he hoped to keep his sister safe. It was like talking to soldiers on their way to war.

How can we explain this?

Wolffer is telling us that, at some level, we choose not to see; we prefer a kind of unconsciousness. Why are we sleeping? There is a great deal at stake in veiling reality. For some, it is simply too difficult to confront. It is easier to think of the extreme violence in Juarez, Vancouver and, now, Winnipeg, as something that happens to “them”–to poor women, streetwalkers, aboriginal women, Mexicans–a displacement that derives from a deep fear of our own complicity. It can be reassuring to focus on the specificities of the places and circumstances where these things happen. But all reveal a truth about the disposability of women. By manipulating her nude body, Wolffer underlines the paradox of desire and disposability, intimacy and fear. The Juarez murders are extreme, but violence most likely comes from someone we know and often love, from our intimate enemy. Another paradox, and one that, for many, cannot be said.

Looking at the documentation of Wolffer’s performances, I am reminded of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, which he wrote in 1914. In this story, a machine called the harrow inscribes the condemned prisoner’s sentence on his back, which eventually kills him. The machine works slowly and the prisoner, unaware of the nature of his transgression, understands his crime and sentence only at the moment of death.


So I ask myself, is the crime being female?

Although Wolffer is known for the performance pieces she created in galleries, after Mientras dormiamos she became less interested in the art world’s elite spaces and began to bring her work into the street. In Zona de tolerancia (2007), she created street signs representing prostitution, poverty, violence and narcotraffic and placed them in areas of the city where these activities take place. This intervention brought to light the social realities that are, in fact, permitted in society despite laws to the contrary, suggesting that what takes place on the margins reveals truths about the nature of the larger society. As well, Wolffer began thinking about the women being killed closer to home–often as the result of domestic violence. She began to work with a women’s shelter, and Muros de replica (2008) came out of this practice and out of her desire to create interactive interventions.

Muros de replica began as an experiment: would ordinary women be willing to speak publicly to their aggressors? Some would, and these early responses were published in the newspaper La Jornada. Then the question became whether women would do so in public spaces such as the subway, the university and in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s central square. Banners were raised in the Zocalo, and walls were erected where women could publicly write to the men who had abused them. On the walls was the statement: ” I am a woman who has been a victim of male violence. This is my name and this is what I must say to my aggressor.” Women began to line up and, for four hours, dozens of women wrote their stories while hundreds watched. Some, particularly younger women, wrote quickly; others took their time. At first glance, the concept behind this project seems simple–to create a space for women to speak back–but this intervention has the potential for far-reaching effects on the lives of the participants and for the people viewing the actions. In a conservative society that tends to blame the victim for “provoking” the aggressor, Muros de replica was the first place many women had been able to make their truth visible. And they chose to do so in a public space in the heart of Mexico City.

In collaborative projects like La ropa sucia se lava en casa (2009), with Arturo Ortiz and Federico Gama, Wolffer continues to intervene in public space, this time through the creation of billboards. Based on the look of a real estate ad presenting inexpensive housing as a lifestyle dream of modernity and upward mobility, the image of a pristine house shows a broken window. The title is printed as an advertising slogan that translates as “Don’t wash dirty linen in public,” and is accompanied by the statistic that 88% of Mexicans agree that what takes place in the home should not be made public. Wolffer wanted to raise the question about where people believe the law stops in domestic violence, and remind us that what happens in private space does have public implications. Despite the media’s representations of the dream lifestyle, ugly truths lie underneath the image.

Because of the complex history between Mexico and the United States, Mexico has long been a site of projection for the United States: a place of fantasy, of longing but also of suspicion and hatred–another version of the paradox. In If she is Mexico, who beat her up? (1997-99), Wolffer constructs an analogy between body and nation. The body of the artist stands in for the body of the nation like a magical spell, where what happens in the larger arena is enacted in a small space. Dressed in the colours of the Mexican flag, Wolffer poses on a catwalk, as if part of a fashion show. In the background, a U.S. senator discusses whether Mexico should be “decertified” because of its difficulty in controlling the drug trade. As Wolffer moves, cuts and bruises appear on her body, but she continues to strut and pose, her heavily madeup face empty of emotion. Here, “Mexico” appears as an entity whose social and political health is being decided by an outside entity, namely the United States. At the same time, Mexico must present itself as healthy and beautiful, both to itself and to the outside. Again, reality is papered over. The cuts and bruises on Wolffer’s body remind us of the violence associated with the Mexican drug wars, violence that also links back to what is happening to women in Juarez.

Listening to the U.S. senator’s words used in this piece, I am reminded that Mexico occupies a peculiar place in the gringo imaginary: it is the USA’s more interesting neighbour. It’s a place of lawlessness and excess, the place gringos go to get into trouble. If, in some respects, Canada’s relation with Mexico is more nuanced than that of the U.S.–the obvious media biases and the recent decision to impose visa restrictions on Mexicans reveal a deep set of prejudices. By projecting drug violence onto Mexico, a screen is created for the violence happening here. Drug wars in Mexico? Yes, but where are the drugs going? In Latin America, Canada is known as an exporter of chemical drugs like methamphetamine and ecstasy. Who’s supplying the arms for these wars? Corruption in Mexico? True, but is that to suggest that secret deals aren’t being made in the U.S., or here? Dead women? Only there? I’m not suggesting that, because perceptions of Mexico are structured by long-standing tropes, we shouldn’t pay attention to the reality of the Mexican drug wars or to the murdered women in Juarez but we should remember that projection structures often conceal what’s happening at home.

Foucault wrote that what takes place at the edge of empire reveals the nature of the empire. In a sense, women exist at the border of empire, something Deleuze and Guattari understood when they talked about devenir femme as a way of escaping the fixity of power, the molar lines that emanate from the centre. But an empire is still a system of political power. If we recognize the United States as an empire, the countries that border it can show us something about the structures that make its authority possible. Would the United States exist without Mexico (and Canada)? Would our present social system exist without the women murdered in Vancouver and Winnipeg? The centre does its best to show the benign face of power, but the drug-related violence and the dead women of Mexico’s border cities strip away the mask, revealing the reality that lies underneath for all to see. If we choose to look.

In places like Canada, many of us choose precisely not to see; we prefer the comfortable certainties of the centre. Because wealthier geopolitical entities (like the so-called “first world”) relate differently to the benefits of empire than more marginal places do, the centre’s shininess can disguise the brutality that inevitably subtends imperial power. Here in Toronto, life is relatively easy (for some), the infrastructure is relatively intact (for now), and we have a safety net (in theory), and a belief that the system works and has the potential to be reasonably fair. But if we are implicated in what happens elsewhere, then the south’s drug wars and the killings in Juarez, Vancouver and Winnipeg reveal that our lives are underlain by systems of violence that are closer to home than we may wish to acknowledge.

Wolffer reminds us that we’re all implicated. By embodying the interplay between what happens in the home and what happens in the world–and by bringing this embodiment into the street, she winnows the issues down to their key elements. The spareness of her performances and interventions condenses the paradox to a single gesture: is the woman’s body alive and strong, or has it been abused or murdered?

* Deborah Root is a writer and critic interested in intersections between visual arts, cultural politics and contemporary theory. She the author of Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference (Westview, 1996), and is currently based in Toronto.

Fire watcher

Strathcona is a working class neighbourhood in Vancouver. Bordering China Town, it has always been an ethnically diverse area and is home to a vibrant art community. Containing much of the city’s historical building stock it is a popular location for Hollywood film productions. The recent inflation of property values and rapid gentrification have reinforced the economic disparity of the area leading to severe political tensions. The home I was living in at the time, on Keefer St., was among the sites targeted by these attacks. In view of the conflicts between the various interest groups in the area, speculations ran wild as to the suspect’s motivations.


These events inspired the project Fire Watcher. Self-sufficient and living off of scavenged materials, the firewatcher observes the situation as a vigilant protector. Through the eyes of this ambiguous figure the territorial feuds between property owners, residents, politicians and transients become the desperate clashes of warring survivalist factions.

Your home security and arson attempts

Please read the following e-mail written by a Blockwatch member in Strathcona. It could happen to you…

I wanted to give you and update for the Strathcona Blockwatch, I am not sure if I give you this information or someone else, if I need to forward this to someone else, please let me know. Very early this morning (Nov. 10, 2006) someone came into our yard and took our yellow recycling bags and the paper contents, as well as any flammable items from our blue bin and put a small fire under the stairs that lead up to our house. The fire was set right next to the house and only a few feet from the barbeque tank. There is minimal damage to the home, nothing structural and luckily no one was hurt. The fire inspector has taken photos and deemed this arson. People in the area should not leave any flammable recyclables outside while this person is still around.