The Crazy Light of Desert Prisons
Buddy Bunting's Breakthrough
For the longest time, Buddy Bunting's paintings looked like they'd been made by a human who's opted to become a machine. They were huge, chilling panoramas picturing prisons. The Seattle painter would drive all the way out to these prisons and look at them with his own eyes. Prisons had always been part of his life, growing up in a Maryland prison town, and as a young artist, he made whole groups of paintings of other things, but maybe with one painting of a prison. Then, for a decade, he faced prisons head-on, like a challenge, painting almost nothing else. "It was kind of based on fear," he says. He became less a painter and more a maker of architectural blueprints, using a ruler and ink, plotting out views of real prisons and coldly executing them. And then, at some point after registering all that shock in the face of something as horrible and giant as the American prison system, he just broke through. "It was like craving meat after you've been a vegan for five years and suddenly you smell someone grilling and you just can't take it," he says. There's feeling rushing out of his new paintings, having been contained so long. His show at Prole Drift is full of color and brushstrokes that just happened on the spot. This is the new Buddy Bunting, and it's enough to split a heart open. I interviewed him about three of the paintings.
1. Prison Basketball Court, Grants, New Mexico, 2009, oil on paper, 5 by 7 inches
"That basketball court is in a medium- security area of a big prison on the outskirts of a town in New Mexico; I was just there for an afternoon. The court is, like, right on the road. It's this white platform of cement. It was a nice day and there were a whole bunch of guys just milling around in orange jumpsuits. They were off to the side. I was mesmerized by that platform, the way it caught the light. Off in the distance, you could see the maximum-security prison and the guard tower. The fact that these guys are so close to you is one level of what feels really strange when you're there. And the fact that it looks like something at a high school. It's, like, out of Giorgio de Chirico, these Italian surrealist painters in the empty streets of Rome—there's a very odd sense of distance and yet you're right there. There's the stuff you can't see in the painting, which is two layers of chain-link fence and two layers of razor wire—which, believe me, is impossible to paint. But I'm not taking much liberty. That white cement was catching the light, like, directly. We were there midday, so the sun was in the middle of the sky. Honestly, it didn't look like that. But that's how it felt."
2. Motel Room, Flagstaff, 2011, oil on cardboard, 8.5 by 11 inches
"I was traveling with a friend, a guy I've known since we were 14 or 15. He was in LA and he agreed to go with me to Albuquerque, so we spent the night in this place in Flagstaff. It was nothing exciting, and it wasn't particularly seedy, either. It was a long drive. My friend was ill. He was sick all night long, and when we rolled into Flagstaff, it was black as soot, and then in the morning, we opened the door and he went out to get a smoke and there was this crazy blinding light. He left the door cracked while he was smoking, and I sat down on the floor and took some snapshots and did some drawing. It's a very, very simple painting, but it represents this midpoint in being between a couple of towns, and it's sort of special to me. I've done lots of paintings of interiors and beds I've slept in—I have a painting of a bed that's like 12 feet long that I did maybe five years ago at the peak of my grand, hard-edged photographic thing—but this little painting, I think the thing that feels really wonderful about it for me is to condense and intensify what would have taken 12 feet to do onto an 8½-by-11 piece of cardboard."
3. Grande Ronde, 2011, oil on paper, 22 by 30 inches
"Very frequently when I go to prisons, I'll break it up, go hiking, and a lot of times there's, like, scenic riverways or national parks that are quite close by. I was doing some prisons in Eastern Washington and Oregon, and I'd read about this place that's supposed to be one of the most geologically interesting places, a spot where Washington, Idaho, and Oregon come together. I drove all the way out, and there were forest fires in Central Washington that day. There weren't really trails, but I was trying to get to this place that was supposed to be awesome. I didn't know where the hell I was and I was scared shitless of rattlesnakes. It was August and hot as hell. The point is, it was one of those places where there was a quality about that afternoon. If you've ever seen the kind of light that exists when there are forest fires and when the smoke is blowing across the state, it just gets all orangey and weird, and I can't say that's exactly captured in that painting, but it gave me the sense that there was something epic about this place and this day. For a long time, I've been looking for another place like this. It's a long damn drive."