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.