Six Fugues by John Bunker
On my trip to London on what must be the hottest day of the year so far, even though it’s now about 7 o’clock in the evening it’s still really warm and here I am wearing a suit, carrying luggage and chasing across the capital to visit Westminster Library, to see collages by John Bunker in the show Six Fugues, curated by Sam Cornish.
The moment I set eyes on them I know the effort was more than worth it. I have seen one of these in reproduction and liked it, but seeing them here for real is so much better. Why is it that not being able to hold them in my hand and perceiving the depth of the supports and the proper sizes makes a difference? Also, that they have weight, they are on MDF rather than paper, (no glass – excellent), adds to the sense of their physical presence. That, as well as the stuff they’re made from, “torn posters, shattered CDs, abandoned chicken-shop boxes,” combined with the painterliness of the gestural flourishes, even in collage there are plenty of those, all adds to their materiality. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of them as paintings, the construction method of which is collage, rather than collages made with painted elements.
In the exhibition notes Sam Cornish reminds me that collage is a century old, and the many library books open at appropriate pages assembled on a table and in a display case connect Bunkers work clearly to this tradition, a reproduction of Kurt Schwitters’ The Hitler Gang from 1944, having immediate resonance, for me, with Bunker’s Falling Fugue with it’s strong triangular figure and concentric circle motif. As in other works here, the figures(torn and cut shapes and gestural painterly marks), seem to occupy a fairly narrow cubist space, blues often being interpreted (by me at any rate) as sky, which sometimes opens up into a much deeper space than I was first perceiving, especially in Shady Hill Fugue where the blue plane on the right hand edge becomes as sky seen beneath, but also beyond, an archway suggested by an arc in sandstone ochre, possibly the MDF support. A triangle of a similar colour inserts itself at the bottom right hand corner which is different enough tonally to bring it forward of the darker and more saturated central ochre colour, allowing the other shapes to dance within the space created. I say dance because they seem ungrounded, there’s no sense of an earth or floor other than the bottom edge of the support.
In Falling Fugue the obstructed blue circle along the left edge doesn’t quite become open space, unless I focus on the bottom half of the work and then the blue area does seem to recede further than when I have the whole image in view. My eye seems to be taken downwards, I guess it must be because of the strong direction lines, pointing towards the lower edge. I do indeed get a sensation of things falling. Also, I feel that I may be looking slightly upwards, as if I am nearer to the bottom of the frame, whereas in Night Fugue it’s the other way around, enhanced in the photo by the downward angle of the shot, but still taking place when looking directly at the picture. Here the light blues and greys also sometimes become infinite space against which the flatter coloured areas jut forward or within which ink splatters become forms. Then the arrangement shifts so that the large flat area of red becomes a plane in front of which ochre, green, orange blue and grey cut outs jostle or float. The pink triangle at the bottom edge positions itself in front of the ochre but behind the grey/blue pentagon, in front of which a pale yellow triangle hovers, itself obstructed by a dark blue shape that is echoed higher up.
And then, of course, they are simply torn papers (etc) randomly assembled on a flat surface. I get to wondering about how much randomness there is in Bunker’s process, I imagine him scattering this week’s finds across the floor and then frenetically rearranging them. What do I know? His method may be quite the opposite of that.
Looking in other library book reproductions, I see similarities also in Cubist works from 1913 or 14, especially perhaps Juan Gris still-lives, with extensive use of collage and creating similar pictorial spaces as these I see in this show. What seems different though is the continued link in the still-lives to representational content. However much a Picasso, Braque or Gris still life is ‘abstracted from’ reality it still maintains that connection, I can recognise a guitar here, a rum bottle or a fragment of newspaper there. In Bunker’s work such elements are almost completely absent, and where for example, a fragment of newsprint or a star motif might be recognised they seem accidental.
The overriding similarities however, might be in the method of composition, according to rules, that are indeed abstract, in the same way perhaps that the strict laws of counterpoint and fugue in music are abstract.
Speaking of musicality in regard to Cubism, most of the following words by Paul Erich Küppers, director of the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover, writing in 1920, could apply to Bunkers collages:
“…from pale harmonies of colour lines ascend, prisms shoot up, advance towards us or jump backwards, cutting steps out of the infinite space…They multiply, cluster into chords animated by the rhythm, executing their dance against the backdrop of that absolute music which is space. One experiences this transcendental dynamism no differently from the counterpoint of Bach’s fugues, so far removed from reality”∗.
And I say “most of the following words” only because “pale harmonies of colour” understates the power of the colours in Bunkers fugues, and also I don’t really find “prisms”, his shapes are flatter that that, as indeed they often were also in the collage still-lives of Gris.
If that modernist innovation collage is 100 years old, so also is the tradition of speaking of visual abstract works in terms of the musical structure of the fugue. Whilst allusions to fugue are only occasionally found in nineteenth century writings about art, they abound in the early twentieth century, the dawn of abstraction. Kandinsky entitled a 1912 painting Fugue (Controlled Improvisation), and by the 1920s lots of artists were doing it, Paul Klee and Josef Albers, amongst them.
In a fugue, one instrument or voice follows another echoing note for note the initial tune, as in a ’round’, the voice that enters last reiterates the opening melody (the fugue subject) whilst the preceding voice carries on with its own independent tune (the counter subject), with three or more parts the same process is repeated several times, amazingly the voices fitting together and making sense in ‘counterpoint’. There are usually three sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. Melodies might be repeated backwards or upside down or played again with doubled or halved note values, and counterpoint intervals may be varied.
Such a structure can easily be translated to the visual modality, a figure being inverted, rotated, mirrored, drawn back to front, etc and it all exists simultaneously in the same space. Hence its attraction perhaps for visual artists, and specifically for abstract artists because the structure is entirely formal, no rushing water, no bird song, no bell ringing, no Wagnerian images.
So, for example, in John Islip Fugue, we get arcs and circles each echoing another, in similar and contrasting hues, impossible now to tell which one was placed first, and rectangles that may have been rotated and layered one over another. What I am not sure about is just how systematic Bunker’s method is, the extent to which the fugue is a strict compositional device or whether it’s a fairly loose metaphor. I suspect it is the latter.
Another attraction of the fugue for abstract artists is that it offers a structural method that offers an alternative to more arbitrary approaches and it appeals more to the intellect than it does to the emotions (though we shouldn’t overlook the emotional impact) . The Constructivist tradition comes to mind for me now, with its own take on collage, structure and fugue-like systems of rotation, repetition, inversion, etc. but I will leave those reflections for another day. Enough now to say that Bunker’s six fugues are a delight!
Six Fugues: New Collages by John Bunker was showing at Westminster Library between 1 July and 19 July 2014.
∗Paul Erich Küppers quote taken from The Music of Painting by Peter Vergo