. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)

An Interview with Jonathan Monaghan

Posted by | Conversations at the Edge | Posted on | October 10, 2014

During his time in Chicago Jonathan Monaghan sat down with Kayla Lewis, a second year Art & Technology MFA candidate here at SAIC, to speak about his surreal explorations of power, value, and the role of technology.

Monaghan presented a series of his works entitles Alien Fanfare at CATE September 18th 2014. He creates sculpture and animated video installations that challenge the boundaries between the real, imagined, and virtual. Receiving his BFA from the New York Institute of Technology in 2008 and his MFA from the University of Maryland in 2011, Monaghan currently lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Monaghan

Jonathan Monaghan

Kayla Lewis: Can you give a summary of where you’re from and how your upbringing or places you’ve lived have impacted your work?

Jonathan Monaghan: I was born and raised in Rockaway Beach, Queens.  It was a pretty Irish enclave, fairly poor, and it was desolate during the winter. The Ramones wrote a song about it. I went to a Catholic School, so there is that connection to some of the religious iconography I use. But beyond that, in my short lifetime I saw Manhattan go from being a prison for the poor to a fortress for the rich. I identity with New York, and seeing its changes, influences the way in which I deal with wealth and power in my work.

KL: Which artists, writers, designers, and directors do you look to for inspiration?

JM: There is so many. I think I steal from Kubrick a lot; there is such a detailed sharpness to his cinematic compositions, which in a way creates this constant menacing sense that something is wrong. Likewise in Franz Kafka and Haruki Murakami, there is this surreal imagery interjected with the banalities of everyday life. I also steal from design magazines. I steal from Pixar. I steal from dead artists, like when Rembrandt paints something gold or furry, or when Zubaron makes a bound lamb seem like a god. I like the saturation in early Netherlandish painting, and I sometimes steal their drapery. Recently I’ve been enjoying the work and writing of Hito Steyerl.

Still from Alien Fanfare (Jonathan Monaghan, 2014). Courtesy of the artist.

Still from Alien Fanfare (Jonathan Monaghan, 2014). Courtesy of the artist.

KL: Your works are permeated with many political and cultural references that could be perceived as rather oblique, yet your work has been shown around the world. How pertinent is it that people understand the references when viewing your works?

JM: I don’t think it is that important. The work is designed to maintain an unsettling ambiguity where meanings barely materialize, or are purposefully hidden. Additionally the reasons for my choice of imagery are due to their universal qualities. There is something menacing and evil looking about the Technodrome, even if you’ve never seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

KL: I noticed Kawara’s Oct.31.1978 on the wall in Rainbow Narcosis. Would you consider this to be a type of Easter egg, given your interest in video games? What was your reason in including it?

JM: When I was designing video game levels in high school, I would incorporate these “Easter eggs,” such as hidden rooms or environmental details like signs, which had specific references into the designs. I do similar stuff in my work today, with fragments of information that most people will never pick up on. It all comes from the nature of the process; you have to make and design everything, so when I am placing a book for instance in this computer-generated environment, I’ll have to pick what book that is. The On Kawara piece isn’t so hidden, but it is certainly intentional. I was creating this luxurious loft, which of course would have your iconic postwar, interior-design-friendly, expensive artwork. Gerhard Richter is placed in that environment too.  But I also like the notion that these worlds I create, operate in some alternate time and place and so On Kawara’s meditations were in mind as well.

Still from Mothership (Jonathan Monaghan, 2013). Courtesy of the artist.

Still from Mothership (Jonathan Monaghan, 2013). Courtesy of the artist.

KL: Your work is hyper realistic, but the characters and settings are often completely bizarre, would you explain what that conflation brings to the work?

JM: There is an environment in my new piece, Escape Pod, which is taken almost straight from an advertisement for a luxury designer walk-in closet. The only difference is there is an escape pod hovering over this designer bed, and it is a cross between a science fiction spaceship, a baroque reliquary and a WiFi router. I think the fantastical interjection into something banal and commercial can help uncover some critical insight on the apparently seamless condition of our lived experience. Media’s distortions of our perception of reality seem to increase exponentially with new digital technologies. When making work with these same media, I think its important the work understands its own artificiality.

KL: What is the process like behind your animations as far as choosing themes and then creating environments and characters?

JM: Things usually start in an art museum, looking at works of art from Western history. Then I create crude little sketches of objects and environments, often with word descriptors, like “spaceship disco,” “oculus anus,” “ATM egg,” “Whole Foods altar,” or “Eames hospital equipment.” From there I begin gathering reference images and I start modeling and assembling my worlds virtually.

KL: How do you see your style evolving in the future?

JM: Well I have been focusing on some sculptural works. I have started on a piece that takes a very direct and potentially controversial approach to looking at imagery of authority, so I’ll let you know how that goes.

Kayla Lewis graduated from Ohio State University with an English degree and is currently a second year MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her focus is in Art and Technology Studies, which centers around the meaning of using technology in art as much as the technical skills themselves.

“Current pursuits include chemical structures, outer space, and the nature of language. I don’t limit myself to one focus or medium. Everything overlaps with everything else, and that overlap is where my work lies. “