This is what art says
Eat a bread
Make a fire
Use your umbrella
That is art
That are the laws
That are the things
Art never tells you go voting
Art tells you not to be in parliament and be a politician
Art doesn’t tell you to be religious in a church
Art tells you to play around
Use this, make this, this, this,
Use costumes, buy things, use your underwear
Look at pornography
Play with [indecipherable]
This is what art tells you all the time…
~ Jonathan Meese
Somehow I managed to completely escape Jonathan Meese until I happened on a VICE interview with him yesterday. He’s the type of artist that gets labeled “visionary” and “genius”, or both, and believes it. He squeezes paint directly from the tube. He speaks with passionate zeal. He looks like a madman. And he refers to himself in the third person: “Jonathan Meese likes Matisse”. Given that I’d never heard of him, if someone had shown me a clip and explained that he was a comic character in a mockumentary, I’d have believed it.
Meese strikes me as a German Jean-Michel Basquiat, with a healthy dose of Picasso, and as the poster boy for everything Postmodernism and conceptual art are against. He is the anti-Koons. This sounds like a good thing, at least to me, but Meese merely occupies the other extreme of the ridiculous. He is the incarnation of the myth of the heroic, loner, outsider, genius artist. Where everything Koons does is cerebral, removed, calculated, polished, emotionless, and absolutely perfect, Meese’s work is messy, unpremeditated, hysterical, intense, and a smörgåsbord of mistakes and rough edges.
Meese’s self-absorption and self-referentality are insufferable. Whatever his rhetoric, in his interviews everything comes off as dramatic, urgent, and personal: “I was shouting this into the woods…” He constantly gestures with both arms, and has his eyebrows in a permanent, raised, pleading configuration. He has utter conviction in whatever he says, even if it makes no sense: “Art has to dominate everything. All politicians have to resign, and art has to be empowered. That’s the reason I play and do what I want”.
Some of his art sits on the fence between the sublime and garbage, at least at first sight. Other works are obviously junk. Some paintings straddle beauty and ugliness, and many are just hideous.
There’s a kind of energy to his work though: to using line for dramatic emphasis; words as iconic emblems (even if they are nonsensical); smeared and dripping paint; and childlike scribbles. I wondered about his style as I have wondered about Basquiat’s – if it is indivisible from the presumed passion with which it is rendered, or if it is just another style with its own set of techniques.
I decided to try to make my own Meese, just to see if I could do it. Since I don’t have access to his bottles and tubes of paint, I had to do what I could with just Photoshop (which means trying to imitate his style AND the medium of paint). Mine is the one at the very top, “Die Canary”. Yeah, I just said it was by him to try to pass it off, which would help make the point that the style is a method that can be employed without the overarching passionate intensity about eating a bread, or whatever.
It wasn’t very difficult – I knocked it out in an afternoon – and if I had a studio stocked with similar canvases and paints as he has, and especially if I had a chance to study some of his work in person and watch a few more videos, I think I could pull off some passable approximations of the better ones, though it would be hard to not make them parodies.
I do like some of the loose, wild, messy techniques, and gloppy paint, when they seem to give a sense of immediacy. I think there’s something there I could learn from. However, if I had to choose between master and nutter, I’d pick the latter. If you doubt my choice for even a second, I invite you to watch a minute of the video below, starting at 3:35, when he explains that he only had 10 words at age 12, and supplemented this range with three grimaces, which he reproduces (and as bad as those are, his gibberish words are the cherry on the cake).
Comic protagonist in a mockumentary would, however, be the most persuasive. In fact, I was taking a shower and thinking about all of this and for a moment I was convinced I’d been pranked, and the whole “Jonathan Meese” thing was a sendup. I had to remind myself that there are over 60 gallery shows, dozens of reviews, collaborations with Albert Oehlen, and videos.
I find myself feeling a little bad for being critical of Meese, and it occurs to me that we are all nutters somewhere on the spectrum. Nobody has perfect objectivity, or sees things exactly as they are. We all have our blind spots and areas of distorted vision. There are people right now chopping off other people’s heads in the name of God, who are not aware that their actions are insane. Others are doing everything they can to despoil the environment they live in, in order to turn a profit, when they already have enough money for dozens of lifetimes. To quote a snippet of lyric from The Man of La Mancha, “nutsy cuckoos are in season”. Popular as irrationality and solipsism (living in your own little world) are right now, it’s not a good thing. We need to be aware that we are all looking from our own imperfect vantage points (gender, age, location…), and not mistake our particular niche for all encompassing reality. But, yeah, some of us are a good deal further out on the limb singing in the cuckoo berry tree than are others. It seems almost cruel to encourage Meese in his ridiculous rants about making art with underwear and being the Führer of art.