Jonathan Monaghan works across print, sculpture, and video installation. His work challenges the boundaries between the real, the imagined, and virtual. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from science fiction to Baroque architecture, he creates bizarre, yet compelling narratives and imagery with the same high-end technology used in Hollywood or by video game designers.
His work has been exhibited internationally, including solo exhibitions at bitforms gallery in New York, Spazio Ridotto in Venice, and Market Gallery in Glasgow. Group exhibitions include New Frontiers at the Sundance Film Festival, The Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Postmasters Gallery. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, VICE, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, and The Village Voice.
Brett Wallace: What is your origin story and what inspired to start creating art?
Jonathan Monaghan: I grew up in Rockaway Beach in Queens, and it’s a wonderful place because if you look out one window you see the Manhattan skyline. And if you look out another window you see the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve always identified strongly with New York City, and I made some work recently that I think deals a little bit with the visual fabric of the city. It was traditionally an Irish Catholic enclave too, so sometimes that comes into my work as well.
I grew up in one of these huge Robert Moses-era an apartment projects. We had a beach, but there were not many outdoor activities that you do when you grow up in an apartment building. So, I was always drawn to video games and online or imaginative virtual worlds.
BW: There appear to be some conceptual underpinnings around the transformation of the urban center in your work. What are some of ideas underpinning your recent work?
JM: I think the work definitely tries to confront the aesthetics of modern material desire through architecture. And, I think what the work is trying to do is navigate through a type of contemporary myth and peel back the veneers that kind of cover up desire, power and wealth. I try and do this using absurdity and using subversive humor. So, with the works in Disco Beast for instance, I began looking at the mythology of the unicorn. The unicorn is this kind of otherworldly, mystical, magical beast. It’s also associated with purity in a way. But, it also has this history of something that’s highly desired and sought after. People would always try and find the unicorn or hunt the unicorn. So, it has the kind of darker history associated with this kind of imperialistic desire.
“The works are of these dehumanized spaces and the animals that populate my films and sculptures often stand in for people in the modern contemporary experience.”
I kind of appropriated the unicorn as this mythological symbol but created a modern myth in a way. In the video, we see the unicorn juxtaposed with these discordant spaces, like a Starbucks or this never-ending abandoned mall. And it creates a discordance, which I think is part of the subversive humor. The works are trying to think about what we’re developing in this hyper-capitalist era. And, how that reflects on values and desires of a society. It’s not meant to be overly critical or prescriptive, but by subverting and dealing with a lot of that imagery, maybe we could unpack what it means and what’s behind it.
BW: I definitely took away inferences of the hyper-capitalistic, packaged, refined branding of architectural spaces that we see today. There was another reading I had too, which is around the concept of the mundane, the everyday, through the uncut, ongoing loop of voyeuristic activity. Is that something of interest?
JM: Yeah, the unicorn is something that’s kind of the opposite of that. So, I was trying to create a contrast, and the unicorn comes back to life in a Starbucks bathroom, which is just kind of this strange thing. It just seems like so many people, whenever we have to go to the bathroom we go to a Starbucks bathroom. So, it’s kind of a funny place to have this magical kind of disco resurrection thing going on. But yes, you’re right. The works are on continuous loops, and there are no cuts or edits, and there’s no real start or stop. And, so we are witnessing these endless cycles that keep repeating. It’s kind of voyeuristic, almost like we’re just visiting these spaces, and the creatures are kind of stuck in this endless loop cycle.
“I think the media industry also needs the artist’s voice as a way to compete with the entertainment and industrial complex that has developed these tools”
BW: I think that one of the other interesting things that I took away from the show is there’s also this exchange between the digital and physical – not only in the actual production of the work – but the idea of transposing these different elements together. Can you talk a little bit about the use of the materials and objects?
JM: Well, I’m very interested in the aesthetics of wealth and power. And, for instance with the gold and porcelain piece, we see a unicorn, and he’s surrounded by a TSA checkpoint. So, it references a number of historical artworks and aesthetics from the baroque era – the pure white porcelain and the gold have an aristocratic association. And it’s also referencing a famous tapestry that’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Cloisters called The Unicorn in Captivity, where we see a medieval tapestry with a unicorn trapped in a fence.
The piece references that and it’s a way to unpack what’s behind those aesthetics. And additionally, I’ve also worked with marble as well. But what’s interesting is I always use digital fabrication in this process, so really all of the sculptures come out of the same virtual space that I have developed the films in. Same with the prints as well. So, all of my work is connected by this virtual space, where everything is designed.
I also like making that connection between modern aesthetics of wealth and power and historical ones from western history. And there’s a lot of violence and imperialism associated with that era. And these things still play out today, but I guess I’m partially trying to see where they’re coming from, how they play out today by subverting these modern, corporate aesthetics.
BW: It’s not a huge leap to also think of the connotation of Trump Tower where everything’s painted gold.
JM: It was very much in my mind when I was making these things. In fact, some of the historical architecture I used was from the St. Regis Hotel, which is across the street from the Trump Tower, which was an early 20th century luxury hotel built by the Astor’s, from another era of ostentatious wealth. There’s something about that gold surface that has this sinister quality to it. It’s desirable, but then there’s something sinister and dark associated with it. So, I think the work is trying to deal with that.
And we saw with the Starbucks logo that was inverted. It was turned with this kind of black fur coming out of it, this horse-hair-like fur. So, it turned it into something kind of organic and sinister. And, then we also see in the Police State Condo series these spikey gold forms – almost like mouths that are opening. And, so it’s something that’s seductive, and it draws you in, just like the films, but then it makes you a little bit uncomfortable after it draws you in.
BW: Could you talk about sense of speculation and space/time in the work?
JM: I think the work is more speculative about the present than about the future. I think of the works as a slightly different version of our reality. There are no people. The works depict dehumanized spaces and the animals that do populate my films and sculptures often stand in for people in the modern contemporary experience. So, for instance the unicorn is entrapped in this security state, and I think that’s very much a metaphor for our society today in the digital age.
BW: Let’s also talk about the Fabergé exhibition that you have at the Walters?
JM: I created a series of work called After Fabergé in 2015, and I exhibited the works initially at bitforms Gallery. And, for me the Fabergé egg has always been this symbol of high desire and status. As part of our cultural lexicon, we see it pop up in popular culture a lot. And I wanted to take that as a symbol and subvert it and redesign it for the digital age in a way. So, the works are large scale photographic prints created using 3D modeling and animation software. And, the works appropriate some of the various original Fabergé eggs but placed modern accouterments of the digital age, whether it’s loading cursors or a Starbucks.
The works come across sometimes looking like spaceships or weird alien creatures. They have a conflation of different things to create these ambiguous forms. At times, they look like they could be a commercial product. The works are on exhibit right now at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The Walters Art Museum has two of the original Fabergé eggs in its collection, and they mounted a show about Fabergé and the Russian Czars, the dynasty, and my prints are on display right next to that show.
It’s up until next summer. And it’s really exciting. It’s the first time I’ve been able to exhibit my work alongside historical artworks. I use historical artworks as a framework in my practice. So being able to exhibit them alongside the originals is something very exciting and unique, and I think it creates an even more kind of challenging experience for the viewer to look at these originals and think about their history and then to look at my pieces.
BW: The craftsmanship on the eggs is just extraordinary. How did you take the level of detail (and work) into account in re-imagining them?
JM: Yeah, those eggs had an incredible level of craftsmanship, and they definitely come from a time of a completely different type of labor. And the digital age has a totally different type of labor involved. And you’re talking about lots of apprentices and lots of people working very long hours, probably for little pay, to make these precious little items, but the results are incredible from a visual standpoint. These tiny little eggs have multitudes of layers of detail. You go up close to them, and it’s just the detail never ends. I mean they’re incredible.
And I was drawn to that aesthetically as well. The works that I created try and maintain a kind of similar level of detail in the way you can step back and look at the works, but then you go up really close to the prints, and the details are accentuated. You could see tiny little reflections and see tiny little elements. And, the digital software lends itself to that process, in a way, because these objects are created virtually. When they’re presented, the rendering software I use allows you to create these incredibly detailed images.
So, there’s definitely a level of craft and detail that carries over into my work as well because I have to place all those elements. I placed that satellite dish. I determined the reflections. I placed these baroque elements or these pieces of furniture. There’s a Starbucks store in one of the eggs, and I placed all the little mugs and things hanging on the shelves, and I had to create the menu items and all that stuff. So, I fabricated all of that, much like a set designer would or somebody constructing a doll house or something in the virtual space. You could go up close and stand right in front of the print and see all those tiny details.
“I think artists must adopt and leverage these tools because they’re so powerful, but at the same time, I think the media industry also needs the artist’s voice.”
BW: As an artist who has mastered 3D modeling software, how do you think about how the methods and materials align to the conceptual production of the work?
JM: What I’m doing is I’m appropriating tools and techniques that are designed for commercial uses. So, the animation software is designed to make commercials or films or animated entertainment. They have a much more specific commercial function. And I’m appropriating those tools and techniques but for a more intellectual or contemplative end. And it’s a similar way with the digital fabrication process.
These digital fabrication processes, 3D printing, CNC milling, etc., are designed for, or initially developed at least for, aerospace or engineering or other kinds of large scale industrial processes. So, being an artist I’m able to appropriate some of those tools and techniques but for different means. A lot of it is experimenting, and a lot of it is referencing these historical artworks. So, the decision comes from aesthetic choices but also what is going to help portray this narrative I’m developing.
BW: I found Alan Warburton’s essay, Goodbye Uncanny Valley, timely and insightful. This supports your point of leveraging these tools and systems but not within a studio like Pixar but actually leveraging them to push the frontier, build new things.
JM: Well, they’re so powerful, you can’t just leave them. I think artists must adopt and leverage these tools because they’re so powerful, but at the same time, I think the media industry also needs the artist’s voice as a way to compete with the entertainment and industrial complex that has developed these tools. Now we are seeing many artists use 3D software, and I think it’s a good thing because we’re seeing new possibilities, and we’re seeing different stories and narratives that aren’t told by the mainstream commercial media.
We’re seeing artists taking ownership of these very powerful creative tools. I began using 3D software back when I was 15 or 16, and I began developing images for no real reason. I was interested in photorealism, being able to create something that appeared like a photo. So, I had this strong desire to create images that were completely computer generated but could pass as a real photo.
And I just began doing this for no reason. I didn’t know anything about art at the time and I think it was this excitement that you could create anything. Once you have the software, theoretically, you could make anything. You could make a film. There’s nothing that can’t be done with this software, and I think that was something really exciting to me, even as a 16-year-old kid playing around with that stuff.