Jonathan McBurnie aka ‘King of Nails’ is an Australian artist and writer who first came to our attention thanks to an introduction by fellow artist and our dear friend Ella Condon. We were immediately drawn to both Jonathan himself and his work as both are a perfect mix of high brow and pop-as-fuck.
Jonathan works with classic fine art tropes such as the landscape, the female nude and the portrait. Juxtaposed against the ephemera of popular culture – Objects such as children’s toys, fast cars and giant blow up animals. People such as Bob Dylan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackson Pollock and Ned Kelly. Fictional characters such as The Phantom and Batman. Everyday language and text forms such as signs, and pamphlets – to name but a few recurring tropes.
Put simply? All of Jonathan’s work is high technical, full of beautiful and varied linework, immediately eye catching and pulsating with eros. We just can’t get enough!
(Photo of Jonathan McBurnie below)
With Jonathan about to have his first career survey show in November this year, and making the initial steps into the designer toy world, now is the perfect time to get to know the man and his art, by reading the Art Talk interview below…
Basics/Getting to Know
Name + D.O.B?
City, State n Country you currently call home?
Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
I have actually recently moved back to Townsville after fifteen years elsewhere.
City, State n Country you’re from?
I was born here in Townsville and lived here until I was 17, but I lived in Brisbane for a decade and I still see it as my second home.
(Art by Jonathan, below)
Describe a memory from some stages of your life ….basically trying to piece together your pivotal moments. Concerts, art, action-figures, romance, school, crime… ANYTHING!
* age 5 – beginnings:
I had a pretty good childhood, all in all.
My younger brother and I had cousins our age, and we were a pretty tight knit little gang.
* age 10 – continuations:
I really got serious about improving my abilities when I was about ten. I decided I wanted to make comics, and got really single-minded about it.
Probably a lot of who I am now is tethered to that period of my life when I just thought ‘right, this is it, that’s that’. I didn’t have many friends, and most of my spare time was dedicated to reading and drawing comics. It really formed the basis of the visual language I still use today.
* age 15 – getting serious:
Yuck. High school. What a waste of time that was.
I was bored out of my mind throughout high school. Thank god for music, books, and comics, which I completely immersed myself in, or I would have completely lost my mind. Camus steered me through some bad shit, haha. You know you’re not having fun when you can relate to Camus!
* age 20 – young adult:
I was diagnosed with leukemia just before I turned 20, so that was a pretty difficult year. I got through it by drawing, really. It became very cathartic, to the point where I really hate those drawings now. They’re far too raw and unprocessed, and they take me straight back there.
I prefer these days to be a bit more deliberately obscurantist. I like narrative, but I don’t want people to go ‘oh, that’s about his ex’, or ‘oh, that’s about his fetish for tall women’ or whatever. The work I did while I was sick is very hard to look at for me now. It’s funny, too, because while I was on chemo I started using a pseudonym, Dead Man, so you know immediately if it is a work from that part of my life now. It’s bleak, but hey. Cancer can be bleak.
There were good things to come out of that period of my life, though, including my first real exhibition, which I did with Josh Rufford, called Children of the Poo. That was such a fun experience that it really made me decide to do more exhibitions, and leave film school for art school, because I was an animator at that time. A really bad animator.
* age 25 – goings on:
I had a pretty great setup at this time. I was working at an art school in Brisbane, which was paid dreadfully, in retrospect, at least in terms of the myriad of responsibilities I had. But I had a fantastic, dirt-cheap flat in West End. Dozens of my friends lived within walking distance. I had a studio at home, and a big studio at Old Space in Bowen Hills, with about ten other people. Good times!
I think of those years and I think of lots of studio time, lots of good music around and lots of those brilliant Brisbane summer nights where it rains bang on 5.30 each night, so everyone just hunkers down and talks late into the night over wine and beer.
In Brisbane at that time, you don’t realize it while you’re there, but looking back, I was so lucky to be hanging out with, and learning from, such a great bunch of artists.
* age 30 – adult mode:
The 30s have been interesting in that the crowds have thinned out dramatically all of a sudden. People are getting married, having kids and so forth, and artistic practice tends to take a bit of a backseat for a lot of people when that happens.
That isn’t a criticism, more of an observation, because suddenly I notice that I am one of the few from the old crowd still making work and exhibiting. It’s a funny thing. But I am fortunate in that I always hung out with artists with whom I felt a certain camaraderie, and they’re all still at it too. We’re all spread throughout the globe right now, too, which takes some getting used to.
* age 35 – meanderings:
I am not quite there yet, but looking forward to a good meander.
(Art by Jonathan, below)
‘No fear, no envy, no meanness’.
It’s a good motto for me, because I am very prone one of those conditions, and occasionally prone to another.
Another is ‘Bite off more than you can chew and then chew like buggery’, which is really how I sum up my approach to the studio.
Favorites are too hard so I will have to do top tens for you or we’ll be here all day!
I do have a favorite, which is Mogwai, but I listen to a bunch of music, particularly in the studio. That is really what predicates what music I listen to most. But Mogwai takes the donut.
To round out the ten, I would also include Midnight Oil, Shearwater, Tortoise, the Cure, Drive-By Truckers, Meshuggah, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Russian Circles, and R.E.M.
Favorite TV show(s)?
Deadwood, The Wire, Oz, the X-Files, The Simpsons, Game of Thrones, Seinfeld, Batman the Animated Series, The West Wing, Ren & Stimpy.
Favorite sport(s) + teams?
The Australian test cricket team that had David Boon and/or Merv Hughes on it.
Does Boonie still hold a record for drinking most beers on a flight? You don’t have big characters like that anymore. They were also masterful sledgers.
My favorite film is The Proposition, but to round it out to a top ten I would include Brazil, Barton Fink, Heat, Crumb, Alien, the Empire Strikes Back, 13 Assassins, the Thing and Whiplash.
Favorite books and comics?
My favorite book is easily My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, but I would also include in a top ten the Plague by Albert Camus, the Stranger also by Camus, the Vivisector by Patrick White, the Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, the Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, Ask the Dust by John Fante, the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance also by Haruki Murakami, and And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave.
Akira is my favorite comic series of all time and has been since I read it, and I would include the Incal trilogy, Watchmen, post-‘Crisis’ Superman, the Filth, Marshal Law, Judge Dredd, the 2012-2016 revival of Prophet, the Fourth World Saga, and 100 Bullets in my top ten.
Why the name ‘King of Nails’ for your online handle?
It grew out of a series of drawings around 2007. At that time I was starting up a blog, and it just fit well somehow.
It’s a phrase from a Sparklehorse song, possibly a Jesus reference, possibly not. I really like open-ended things like that- it might be, it might not be, and now we may never know because Sparklehorse killed himself not long after that.
Favorite other artist(s)?
Moebius, Jack Kirby, Raymond Pettibon, Gary Panter, Josh Bayer, Thomas Houseago, Vija Celmins, Julie Mehretu, Robert Preston, Euan MacLeod, Gilbert Hernandez, Juan Gimenez, Francis Bacon, Farel Dalrymple, Eduardo Risso, Simon Bisley, Jon Bogdanove, Brendan McCarthy, Charles Burns, Kevin O’Neil, Mike McMahon, Christian Flynn, Chris Weston, Richard Corben, Giabbis Milogiannis, Brandon Graham, Zak Smith, P. Craig Russell, Don Simpson, Steve Parkhouse, Julie Fragar, Cam Kennedy, Brett Ewins, Joe Kubert, Miles Hall, Ian Bertram, Simon Roy, Guy Davis, and my Dad.
Worst aspect of the contemporary art-hustle?
Well, the hustle, really.
I have been enjoying my thirties, because a lot of the art frauds and the art school cool kids are starting to drop away because it isn’t ‘happening’ for them. There are, of course, those lucky chosen ones that get propelled up the ladder, based on some kind of trend or taste, and that is neither here nor there. But by and large most of the best artists are the ones that stick at it no matter what, because that’s just what they do.
But the hustle can be pretty frustrating. I’m not a very good arse kisser, and I am not good at disguising my thoughts, so I have probably upset a few people, but that’s okay, they probably deserved it.
Criticism, and I include when people criticize my work in this, always reveals something about both the critic and the critiqued, so you can actually take a lot away from criticism. I try to take it in, mull it over and then veer hard one way or the other- either way is a response, though.
Best aspect of the contemporary art-hustle?
It looks pretty good from a distance…
(Art by Jonathan, below)
Do you consider what you are making to be ‘art’, ‘design’, re-hashed crap?
Art, I think, but you know, a lot of things claim to be art that are, frankly, deluded.
Sadly people get this thing in their head that it is cool to say, so you get these landscape architects or whatever saying that they’re an artist or a curator or whatnot, so in a way I feel like stepping one step in the other direction. So I don’t get upset if I get referred to as a comic artist or an illustrator, because that’s a bit of a badge of honor to me.
I refer to myself, only half-jokingly, as a submerging artist. There is plenty of truly great art being made every day, but it can get drowned out in the throng of white noise.
When and why did you first start making ‘art’ (drawings, paintings, anything)?
It was so long ago that I don’t actually remember.
I have always drawn. I am one of those children who just never stopped.
What did you draw as a pre-teen child?
The same as I do now, more or less, but without as many backgrounds, which I always found hard.
Lots of drawings of cartoons I was watching. I was big into all the classic ‘80s cartoons, and there were a lot of them. So I drew a lot of He-Man, the Ninja Turtles, Batman, Superman, that kind of thing.
What did you draw as a teen?
From about age 11 onwards I was drawing comic books almost exclusively. I self-published them on the photocopier at the Art School Mum and Dad lectured at, and would sell them at any comic shop, gallery or record shop that would have them.
Between grade six and grade 12 I managed to self-publish something like 24 comics, and most of them were part of a series called Non-conformist Heroes, which is probably still my longest continuous project I have ever started.
Any pivotal artistic moment/influence?
There are a few.
One of them was on my eleventh birthday, somebody gave me a copy of 2000AD, and it blew my mind, and really led me immediately into drawing my own comics.
Another was a weekend life drawing workshop I did with David Paulson when I was 14. His approach to drawing just really struck a chord with me, and I learned more about drawing that weekend than I have since, because it gave me a kind of studio framework, and a self-criticality, which has been helpful every day since.
(Art by Jonathan, below)
Why + when did you decide to go in on the art hustle?
I can’t really say, it has just always been there for me. My parents, and much of my family, are artists.
I suppose it is an exposure thing, I was just always seeing people making things, it was never really a decision, I just did it. Drawing has always had a strong appeal to me. I get a bit grumpy if I don’t get some studio time in.
Describe the method of making your work? (dot point all o.k.)
Usually I work up a collage and then draw from that straight in ink, or with minimal pencils and then inks. I use the collage instead of a sketch or a study. I find that if I do a rough drawing first, it stiffens up too much in the real thing, and of course it takes longer, whereas if I draw something straight up it usually keeps some of that freshness of the line, you don’t second-guess anything. It’s actually really good for discipline, and it helps you keep it up at a pretty steady clip.
I have a pretty short attention span so I prefer to work on lots of small things than just couple of big things. I never get there with big things, I get sick of them before I am done.
Lately I have also been using watercolour as the very last step, which has been very enjoyable. A lot of my favourite comics are watercoloured, a lot of British and French stuff, as well as the odd U.S. exception, like Dark Knight Returns. It seems to have made a comeback lately, which is great, because a lot of computer colours can be pretty bad.
If people wanted to collaborate, work with you or just buy some art – how should they get in touch?
My website has all my details, and actually, a lot of people contact me through Instagram too.
Instagram is a terrific promotional tool!
Toy + Collecting Questions
What role did toys play in your childhood?
I was obsessed.
My Mum claims that she took me to the toyshop on my third birthday, and I chose a He-Man toy, and there was no going back. The Masters of the Universe series, I think, has been a surprisingly influential toy and cartoon series to me over the years, even when I don’t realize it.
A few years ago, I started drawing a lot of fantastical mountains, and I realized that the colours and forms from the MOTU cartoon were all there. Even the packaging still looks great with all of that painted art work.
I also really liked Transformers, Super-Powers, GI Joe and the Ninja Tutles. I would have loved to get some other stuff like M.A.S.K., but I was from a small city and unless something was massively popular, you would never get the exact ones you wanted, so it was always a very mix-and-match bunch of toys I would play with.
What are your thoughts on the current designer toy scene – i ask as i know you are a collector and fan?
I love it.
Unfortunately I can’t always afford a lot of the more artistic, small-run or one-off stuff, but that’s not a gripe. Or sometimes, even if I can, you have to get in quick!!
This stuff is a legitimate art form, and so much care and attention goes into them. I am actually looking into going into toy making myself, as an extension of my artistic practice. I love the guys that do their own packaging and everything, and I want to do that too.
Please write a brief timeline of your collecting history?
I have just always enjoyed the aesthetics of pop culture detritus. I like toys with a bit of wear.
But yeah, collecting, the first thing I really collected were comic books, which I still buy a lot of. There is some fantastic stuff coming out right now.
But I have also had big phases in toys more recently and trading cards when I was a kid. I still have all those cards, they’re a nice collection because they take up so little space!
(Art by Jonathan, below)
Item(s) you have lost, sold or given away that you wish you still had and why?
I remember a few from when I was a kid, because I was so upset to lose them.
My ‘Crimson Guard’ GI Joe figure. I just loved his outfit, and I remember looking for that toy for months after I realized it was lost.
I remember being absolutely mortified when I got home one day from preschool and He-Man’s legs came off, as they were prone to do. I have replaced him, and many others, when I discovered eBay!
I also saved up my pocket money for ages to buy the original Optimus Prime toy. I wish I still had that. I don’t know what happened to him! There are many others, but they’re the ones I think of most.
Favorite 3 items you own and why?
I own three original pages by Chris Weston from the Filth. This includes the double page spread of the ship sinking… anybody that has read it will know what I am talking about. They’re pretty special!
They have the speech bubbles on there, too, so you get the wonderful Grant Morrison dialogue in there as well.
Top 3 grail items you would like to own and why?
I would love to own original art by Jack Kirby, Moebius or Richard Corben!
Odds n Ends
Please describe your experiences growing up in Australia?
It was okay, but I was a pretty shy kid.
I really disappeared into music, comics and books, and drawing. I found a lot of other kids really dumb and narrow minded, so I preferred hanging out with adults really.
I was different enough to get picked on a lot, but luckily for me I usually had a few inches on the other kids, so I could defend myself pretty effectively, even against a pack of the little shits. As such I developed a pretty serious temper.
Who was your 1st crush and why?
My first crush on a non-animated person was Gillian Anderson.
Some things never change.
I don’t really need to explain that, do I? Some truths are self-evident.
Does sex change everything?
I wouldn’t want to speak for Gillian.
(Art by Jonathan, below)
Please describe your latest dream in detail…
I am very bad at remembering dreams, but I do know that there are places that I visit again and again.
Which 1990’s era cartoon, would you most like to see as a sex toy, and why?
See, if it was 1980s, that would be easy! Teela from Masters of the Universe!
I was incredibly attracted to her and I don’t think I even understood it. I think it explains my lifelong predisposition for red hair.
But 90s… hmmm. Maybe Poison Ivy or Summer Gleason from Batman: the Animated Series?
Who would win in a fight and why: 1970’s Arnold Schwarzenegger Vs. 1960’s Batman
Oh, Arnie for sure.
Unless Batman happened to be carrying anti-beefcake spray, which he probably would be…
Have you ever tried psychedelics of any sort? And what was the experience like?
I don’t enjoy not being lucid personally.
I had leukemia when I was younger, so I have been subject to all kinds of hallucinations and fever-dreams through various and sundry medications.
If anything, I prefer to slow down and relax if possible, which is much easier said than done, so if a friend rocks up to my house with two tabs of acid and another with two bottles of red, the choice is easy! I need to be able to think, or I am not going to have a good time. So psychedelics are out for me.
Of everything you have done what would you most like to be remembered for and why?
For my drawings, I think, because they’re more bound to my own sense of self-worth than I would care to admit.
(Art by Jonathan, below)
Drugs – waste of time or gateway to the universe?
Kind of neither.
Having been on morphine at several junctures in hospital, I can definitely understand how people become addicted. I found it incredibly comforting amongst the seemingly endless day-to-day of extreme pain. But I’ve never used them in aid of my art.
Please describe what you think the Australian Psyche/Zeitgeist is today?
I feel like Australians are pretty messed up right now.
We’ve been so busy trying to be the USA for the last decade or two, and the quality of life has really deteriorated here. We just keep selling out, it’s horrible, and now the United States has had this moment of self-actualization and bought into its own myth, and elected a corporate construct.
I think Australia really desperately needs to turn its eyes to better role models as a country, starting with New Zealand.
Australia’s continued mistreatment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples is completely appalling. It’s like punching somebody and then chastising them for being upset.
Ditch the Union Jack too, because that is the flag of the people that did some nasty shit. We have some bad karma going on.
I see a continuing and deliberate ignorance that is institutionally promoted by our government and I loathe it.
Be kind, good manners don’t cost you anything!
Any collaborations on the horizon?
I have a comic that I have been working on for about ten years, maybe more, and a friend of mine, Jonny Powell, came on board as a penciller and colourist a few years ago. It is taking us a long time to get very far, because we have so many projects.
I think, maybe in 2018, I am simply going to have to forget about exhibiting that year and work solely on the comic. It is actually a revamp of the first comic I drew as a kid, expanded to encompass the full breath of a world that I just didn’t have the ability to properly explore when I was eleven. I could see it, but I had so far to go as a storyteller, and as a writer and artist. Maybe I will never get there, who knows?
I am also working with somebody right now to help translate some of my designs into 3D printable files as toys. I just don’t have the skill levels required to design a file like that, and a friend of mine is very adept, so it should be fun!
(Art by Jonathan, below)
Any major projects you want to hype?
In November I have my first major survey show at Pinnacles Gallery here in Townsville. It will be drawing from my last decade of works, and will include an awful lot of them. It’s a massive space. The show is called Dread Sovereign.
- Jonathan McBurnie – site
- Jonathan McBurnie – Instagram
- Jonathan McBurnie – twitter
- Jonathan McBurnie – blog