The Uncanny Carnivals of Jonas Burgert

Affenfalle, 2010, oil on canvas; photo: Lepkowski Studios

You haven’t really experienced the power of the contemporary surreal until you stand in front of a Jonas Burgert painting. The canvases are massive, sometimes spanning whole walls, depicting carnivalesque apocalyptic scenes of mass confusion and strange beauty. The bodies within these scenes are beyond human, something in between our most animalistic selves and the zombie creatures we love to fear. Burgert’s works hold the paradox of the participatory street celebration that is a hallmark of carnival coupled with a profound sense of isolation.

Take, for instance, Affenfalle (2010), which Burgert made for the collaborative exhibit Daydreaming…with James Lavelle and inspired by the music of London based UNKLE. Bodies perform, play, and erupt from another with an energy reminiscent of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly delights. There are aspects we recognize among them – the extended hands of the woman in the foreground as if about to sing, the horn-blower at her feet, and the clown holding up his rings directly above her head. But then what to do with the child-like slaves who carry the cart, doubled over in their exertion? Nature hangs in the background, a pretty picture to aspire to in this urban dream that boasts of creativity nonetheless.

Ich Sticht, 2011, oil on canvas; photo: Lepkowski Studios

Ich Sticht (2011) gives us two children engaged in playing with dolls, except that these toys appear to be somewhat alive, despite their alien nature. The uncanny begins to unravel whatever innocence we might have wished to hold on to since this picture evokes a sense of Freud’s heimlich for us, a familiarity we all recognize, even down to the brightly colored ribbon that wraps around, or perhaps binds the children to their counterparts. The dolls are static, yet the little mouth on one remains open as if in anger, fear, or even perhaps pain. The doll on the right seems to be looking up at the other one; these frozen movements create that opposite feeling of strangeness. These automatons should not move, should not have consciousness – and we’re not quite sure that they do. They only hover at the edge of life, playing on the in-between of doll, zombie, and captive.

Spatzchlag, 2011, oil and canvas; photo: Lepkowski Studios

Spatzchlag, 2011 and Sand Brennt Blatt, 2010 represent a common theme throughout Burgert’s work – that of consumption and toxicity, but in such lurid, seductive colors that the works holds beauty and horror in perfect, disconcerting tension. The giant figure could be urinating into the metal barrel. But then we notice it is the tiny human figure that pours more toxic liquid into the drum, one small, pitiful bucket at a time. Is the bird being lowered into the can, rescued from it, or dunked several times over? The blue figure hanging to the giant’s right waves hello, feet turned as if about to go out for a walk. Given the way the rope is looped and hangs from the edge of the canvas, we might assume at first he is being lowered down to the ground. But the spoke is firmly attached the wall; this little one is going nowhere. And what about that little imp with the orange face who stares at us so bewilderlingly? It is he who throws off the scale of the painting, shows me just how grotsequely massive that drum is; how much poison it holds. The little boy’s gaze is not accusatory, but the wide, inhuman eyes vacillate between horror and anger. Perhaps we are watching a zombie in the making.

In Sand Brennt Blatt it seems as if a paint-ball war has gone awry, for isn’t that a dead body in the upper right hand corner? The human arms are certainly at a wrong angle, the bird’s head, still peering into the deep hole. Did the others lose a comrade in that deep chasm? Their attention is completely captured by what resides deep within that chasm, their animal/human bodies holding various poses of crawling or dying. It is communal and static at the same time, a place of uncanny paralysis. But I think that might describe the carnivalesque effect of all of Burgert’s art. His paintings make you work through the scene as each body’s narrative conflates, unpeels, erases, and erupts from the other. Cultural binaries are smashed, mixed together, and resurrected in true grotesque fashion not so we can revel in our isolation, but continue to question what is creating it.

To view more of Burgert’s work, go to his website

Works Cited:

Ross, Millie. “Dreaming With…Jonas Burgert.” Jotta: Exploring Collaboration in Contemporary and Design. Web.  23 Aug. 2010.

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