Architecture of fantasy — an interview with Jonathan Monaghan

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Jonathan Monaghan‘s animated video projection “Into Temptation (French Penguin)” stood out in the recent emerging artist show, Vox V, at Vox Populi.   The competition to get into the show, which was juried by Ryan Trecartin and Larry Mangel, was fierce; and the immersive installation, which wonderful, made it hard for one work to speak louder than another. Nonetheless, Monaghan’s silent and eerie piece — a mash-up of a cathedral with a penguin — intrigued me.  Reverberant of the age-old struggle between flesh and stone; man and animal; religion and the id, the piece has beauty, weirdness, exquisite craftsmanship and a kind of goth-cinematic style.  In our era of vampire-obsession it is channeling ideas about “the other” in a way that doesn’t use vampires!

Jonathan Monaghan, "French Penguin" 2009, 3d animated HD film - edition of 7.  Shown at Vox V.
Jonathan Monaghan, "French Penguin" 2009, 3d animated HD film - edition of 7. Shown at Vox V.

I emailed Monaghan — who is getting his MFA at the University of Maryland and lives in a suburb of Washington, DC — and asked him some questions about his studio practice, his influences and what he is working on now.

Can you give me a little bio?  You were born in New York city in 1986…what neighborhood?  Did your parents encourage you in art or did you come to it on your own?  What do your folks do for a living?  Did you grow up going to church?  If so was it Catholic (you’re Irish…so I’m guessing yes?)  And what’s your relationship to religion?  You use altars and spaces that evoke cathedrals and while it’s hard to tell I sense a fascination/repulsion.
I was born and raised in Queens NY, by the ocean. My whole family and a lot of people I knew were Irish Catholic and I went to Catholic school so it had huge impact on my life. Like most young people today, you reject all that stuff at some point, but I still have a huge draw to religious art and stories. For me they have a power to them that transcends religion, and I am very interested in that.

Jonathan Monaghan, "French Penguin" 2009, 3d animated HD film - edition of 7
Jonathan Monaghan, "French Penguin" 2009, 3d animated HD film - edition of 7

When did you get your first computer?
I got my first computer when I was around 8 or so, but this was before windows and so I could only play a couple of MS-DOS games and write in a journal. It wasn’t until I was around 11 in the late nineties, that computing became more accessible and I quickly got into some basic coding and even web design. The web, which was just starting to get big at that time, became an important interest for me as well.

Did you play video games growing up?  While your works don’t really have the architecture of a video game they do have some of the sense of looming threat and …the gothic architecture that evokes (for me) some kind of game playing (Dungeons and Dragons?) If you had video games in your childhood, which ones did you like?  Which ones did you not like?
I got my first Super Nintendo when I was six-years old, and up until I was about 17 or so, not a day went by when I didn’t play a video game; they were a huge part of my childhood. But I was never very interested in actually playing the games; I always used cheat codes. I was far more interested in the stories, imagining my own stories in them, and simply enjoying the environments you were free to roam around in. I liked games that let you create things, like SimCity, or games that allowed you to role play, but of course shooting stuff was always fun too.

Jonathan Monaghan, "Calling All Angels" 2008, 3d animated video
Jonathan Monaghan, "Calling All Angels" 2008, 3d animated video

How and when did you make the transition from paint and brush to computer-generated imagery and sculptural objects or have you always worked variously?
As a kid I always drew and painted, but I also picked up computer graphics when I was very young, about 15 or so, because I wanted to make video games. As a result I lost interest in drawing, but when it came time to go to college, if you wanted to make video games for a living you majored in art, so that is what I did. I became far more absorbed in art than I ever thought I would and tried seriously to be painter but I just felt more comfortable and free with the computer, so I wound up using it to develop a serious body of work.

It’s funny though, looking back as a young kid the thing I love to draw most was cities and buildings. I was always fascinated with them. I would layout entire detailed cities, with no perspective, much like technical drawings actually. There is something in the repetition, the grid, the layout, the technicality of it, which makes me think computer graphics was just a logical step.

What programs do you use on the computer?
I mainly just use a program called 3d Studio Max, it is a very popular and versatile software for creating everything from legitimate architecture to Pixar-style animations to video game content.

Jonathan Monaghan, "Rock Hard Weekend" 2009, laser-cut acrylic, face-mounted archival print, chrome bolts
Jonathan Monaghan, "Rock Hard Weekend" 2009, laser-cut acrylic, face-mounted archival print, chrome bolts

And how do you like using lasers to cut the acrylic in your chessboard and Target altar?  It seems really painstaking process.
Laser cutting is an interesting process because it is used in the commercial and industrial realms very often, and you are dealing with 2d planes building up to create form. I like taking technologies like these and push them to their limits. I like to find out how to use them to their fullest potential for my creative ends, and develop something for that technology, as opposed to using the technology to develop another idea. I think that mentality is important when you work with technology, because it is easy to let the techniques characterize and limit your work.

Jonathan Monaghan, "Rock Hard Weekend" 2009, laser-cut acrylic, face-mounted archival print, chrome bolts
Jonathan Monaghan, "Rock Hard Weekend" 2009, laser-cut acrylic, face-mounted archival print, chrome bolts

Your work has a pristine, hermetically-sealed sensibility.  It’s all a little Alice in Wonderland only she tumbles into a cyber hole.  Any thoughts about Alice or wonderland?
I like fantasy, but not fantasy as mere entertainment. I think we are sort of in a wonderland, and sometimes art and media that tries to directly show the truth or horrors of reality inadvertently winds up fictionalizing it, or devaluing it. And so I feel that fantasy and stories, if done right, can sometimes be more effective in helping understand ourselves and the true nature of our world.

What are some authors you like to read?…I see references to McLuhan in your writings (on your website).  Is he important for you?  What in particular?  How about fiction…do you read science fiction…or other genres?
I have a certain disgust and utter fascination with the commercialized media-saturated culture we live in, so Marshall McLuhan’s writings were certainly a source of revelation, and well as other media thinkers like Neil Postman. Moreover in my work I have always played with the relationship between our bodies and technology, something that was integral to McLuhan’s writings.
I am not really interested in sci-fi, actually I am more interested in ancient myths and stories, and things like alchemy. I have read Jung extensively and his connections of those notions with innate psychology were very influential on me as I began developing my artistic sentiments and directions.

Jonathan Monaghan, Deliver us from evil, 2009.  digital image on photo paper, mahogany, chrome bolts, laser-cut acrylic.  45x46x1.5"
Jonathan Monaghan, Deliver us from evil, 2009. digital image on photo paper, mahogany, chrome bolts, laser-cut acrylic. 45x46x1.5"

Your video projection at Vox V was impressive for its scale and its quietude.  It held its own by pure visual power in a show that had lots of “noisy” art calling for attention.  Do you like your videos projected?
I would like my works to have a solemn and complete, yet sharp presence. Projections can be effective in achieving this. Monitors have a certain connotation which can interfere with what I want. Ultimately it is a constant challenge to get my imagery out of the computer in effective ways and I am always exploring the latest techniques, like HD etc…

Jonathan Monaghan, Deliver us from evil, 2009.  digital image on photo paper, mahogany, chrome bolts, laser-cut acrylic.  45x46x1.5"
Jonathan Monaghan, Deliver us from evil, 2009. digital image on photo paper, mahogany, chrome bolts, laser-cut acrylic. 45x46x1.5"

But I like seeing the works online, too, because there’s an intimacy you can get that’s not quite possible when they’re in a public space.  Some of the imagery is transgressive (organs that devour themselves) and so I wonder if the intimate viewing online fosters the sense of voyeurism a viewer has when looking at the piece?  What do you think of the scale and viewing of works online?
When someone views my animations online, they are literally viewing it in the same way that it was created, and so there seems to be more connection to the work on the small scale and I like that. But also the reality today is that the majority of the people who see an artist’s work will see it on their computer screen, as opposed to in the flesh. Like it or not, this changes a lot of dynamics when we think about making art.

Anything you’re working on now that has you excited?
I am always excited about the work I make, that is why I do it. I am currently working on a large print that takes the old story of the pelican ripping a hole in its chest to bleed out blood and feed its young. It is representative of the self sacrifice of Christ and appears on heraldry and architecture often. I am combing this narrative in a virtual space with the architecture and materials of the House of Lords in the UK Parliament.

Any shows coming up?
My animation is screening at the Phillips Collection and the Hirshhorn Museum as part of an experimental media series put on by the Washington Project for the Arts on Sept. 24th, Oct1st and Oct.15th. I will also have a focus show at my gallery, Hamiltonian Gallery in DC, on December 12th.

How did you like being in the Vox V show?  Did you get out to see anything of Philadelphia?  Had you been here before?  Any thoughts on the art scene in DC?
I was very happy to be a part of Vox V, I enjoy Ryan Trecartin’s work and I think he and Larry Mangel did an excellent job of putting the show together; everything fit so well. I worked for a gallery in NY and have many connections to the art world there, so I was very worried about leaving when I came to DC for grad school. However there are a lot of nice galleries showing some pretty edgy and good stuff down here. Philadelphia seems it like really supports young artists and there is a lot of energy there. So I guess you can be somewhere if you are not in New York after all.

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jonathan monaghan, studio visit/interview

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