A Quiet, Creeping Reality: Buddy Bunting’s Valley Fever at Prole Drift

A tortoise, a gas station, a sleeping dog, a shadowy tree and a juvenile detention facility: these are the subjects of Buddy Bunting’s five new paintings. At first sight, the mystery of their connection hangs in the air with a sense of heavy deliberation; these unlike things are somehow meant to be together, but it is hard to see how. Then, slowly, as you linger inside Seattle’s Prole Drift gallery, that sensation of heavy air becomes more pronounced and persistent across the scenes—the stillness of the dog, the haze surrounding the tree, the immobility of the tortoise. The title that gathers them together—Valley Fever—evokes the slowed pace that feverish heat commands, and this proves to be the best approach to journeying through Bunting’s thick environs. — Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor


Buddy Bunting | Antelope Valley Juvenile Detention Center, Lancaster, California, oil on linen, 2014. Image courtesy of Prole Drift

“Valley fever” sounds like an ambient, metaphorical feeling, but the term refers to a specific fungal disease that is endemic in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, where spores of the fungus reside in the soil. Disruptions such as earthquakes, farming and construction cause the spores to become airborne, at which point they can be inhaled; the resulting infection causes flu-like symptoms including headaches, rashes, and the namesake fever. Wikipedia notes that, for almost one hundred years, California state prisons “have been particularly affected” by valley fever—a statistic with particular relevance to Bunting’s paintings, given the dominance of the massive Antelope Valley Juvenile Detention Center, Lancaster, California, an oil painting that blockades an entire wall of the show.


Buddy Bunting | Convenience, oil on linen, 2014. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.


Buddy Bunting | Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, (after R. Stebbins), oil on linen, 2014. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.

The correctional facilities, substance abuse treatment centers, and maximum security institutions of the west and southwest have played a major role in Bunting’s practice for over ten years; in Valley Fever, the painting of the Antelope Valley Juvenile Detention Center occupies center stage through not only its size but also by the way its clouded sky and barren tone bleed into the surrounding paintings. All five works were made on a sand-colored linen that makes fleeting appearances between the crevices; it browns the outline of the tree, collects beneath the shelter of the gas station, lines the patterns of the tortoise shell, and seeps through the cracks of the house in which the dog sleeps.


Buddy Bunting | Interior with dog, oil on linen, 2014. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.

When I learned of Bunting’s upbringing near a prison in Maryland, it brought to mind a recent essay by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, on how the Baltimore City Correctional Center—the oldest continuously operational penitentiary of its kind in the United States—developed a porous relationship with its surrounding community, largely through the co-dependent relationships between inmates and guards. Despite being almost a country away from the soil and the spores that generate valley fever, the affect that Bunting’s paintings materialize so well reads as one in the same: a creeping, quiet system gets into the lungs, the air and the lives of everything around it, relatively unseen to those outside its jurisdiction but pronounced and menacing to those who must breathe its damaged air.


Buddy Bunting | Tree at night, oil on linen, 2014. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.

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Valley Fever is on view at Prole Drift, in Seattle, WA, through August 30. Buddy Bunting lives and works in Seattle. He received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and his MFA from Boston University.  Bunting’s work has recently been exhibited at The Art Gym (Portland, OR), The Telephone Room (Tacoma, WA) and Vermillion (Seattle, WA), among other locations.

Erin Langner is a writer and museum professional based in Seattle, WA.

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