Jonathan Meese

° 1970

Born in Tokyo (JP), lives in Berlijn (DE).

Jonathan Meese, born in Japan, is a German painter, sculptor, and exuberant performer whose installations could be described as gesamtkunstwerk. Among others, Meese studied under Franz Erhard Walther, Martin Kippenberger, and Daniel Richter. It was Richter who took care of his first exhibition. Germans consider Meese a successor to Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz.

He creates gigantic installations, often raucous explosions of paintings, sculptures, toys, and videos that serve as scenography for his performances, in which he plays the role of Messiah, dictator, soldier, Dr No, and Humpty Dumpty, inspired by history’s infamous and famous, e.g. Adolf Hitler, Wagner, Little Red Riding Hood, and Klaus Kinski. The intensity of his provocative acts, accompanied by references to Lolita, Freud, Barbarella, or Scarlett Johansson, for example, give it all the air of an exorcism. In fact, an exorcism is exactly what Meese has in mind when he does his own version of the ‘Heil Hitler’. That ‘Heil’ earned him a lawsuit for his Megalomania in the Art World performance in Kassel; however, he was acquitted the same year.

According to Meese, the provocative urge only lasts a few seconds at most, and he is usually the target, he and his own hardwired deference for, embarrassment by, or even fear of (in the case of the Heil Meese) re(using) certain cultural elements. When art calls, Meese wants free rein to play his own way, like a child unwilling to be shoved into the corner by stuffy old rules and commandments.

At 22, Meese still looked like a 14-year-old. Those in his circle worried about what in heaven’s name would become of the boy. When he was little, he would hole himself away, usually because he felt like it, but also because he was asked to. As a child, he invented his own vocabulary accompanied by grimaces and guttural grunts, as if to say: ‘Thanks a lot. I’m out of here. But you’ll find me alive and well on a different planet. Have a nice day.’

Meese argues for a tyranny of art in which politics, ideology, and art itself become a game to rid us of taboos and every other possible usurpation of power that results in actual death. Art has always survived everything history throws its way. Art is art’s sole reference, according to Meese. Like child’s play, it can liberate humanity. Art destroys the reality of ideology.

‘Without masks, we are entirely helpless, defenceless against the onslaught of reality, and we would be slaves to our limited ego, relegated to mere Mitläufer. Without masks, reality, i.e. ideology, would leech all our power, turning us into brainwashed devotees of evil and horror. Masks are our protection and potential to overcome reality...’

His paintings mirror this same intensity. They look like figurative variations on action painting. Meese channels his energy as though he’s kneaded the paint into the canvas with his hands or as though he were a samurai, at one with his brush or tube of paint. Meese’s impulsiveness sings from his paintings, childish in the free-spirited sense of the word. The child lets everything go, becoming one with the moment, what Meese calls art’s natural law.

The balance in colour and composition, along with his frequently funny textual references to and symbols and images of himself, suggest a more affectionate disposition. By proxy, his mum has always been his trusted sparring partner. She encourages him to keep dreaming through her natural authority while simultaneously challenging him as devil’s advocate. That started when she noticed that her youngest, at about the age of twenty-two, had found what he wanted to do in life. On that topic, Meese claims that art found him and not necessarily the other way around. Ever since, he’s played the child or jester’s game. After shouting about how great art is from the rooftops, he makes sure to mention shortly after that art also happens to be ‘Total Lasagne’. During his performances, the character portrayed often acts like a klutz, loser, or clumsy oaf, a dictator sometimes clueless about what to do, with long hair that gets tangled up into the pieces of his grotesque pile of artwork. He’s an authority figure making a fool of himself in an equally formidable setting that, in reality, is just a child’s naughty camp. This chaotically arranged innocence is often the ultimate provocation of public opinion.

The self-portrait is a recurring theme in his oeuvre. Like the diverse characters he plays, in his self-portraits, he depicts himself as an unusually gifted painter, referring to art and its history as well as the ruinous battle fought by his ego to hold a mirror to the art world’s frequently pompous nature. Here, he depicts the child surrounded by a clamorous world, a child who longs to keep playing uninterrupted amid the ever-expanding mountain of trash that preys on art itself, especially its freedom. The child can’t help but play on, persevering in anger, independent of everything that art actually fights due to assumptions made about what it should be. Language, titles, and quotes pop up sporadically in his work, painted in thick layers like graffiti or word balloons slammed down on the canvas. In his early work, archaic German made a frequent appearance. Satire was always around, pointing to what mattered to him.

‘Art is about necessity, not human will. Society is becoming increasingly brainwashed, confusing itself with art. Art is at the heart of just about everything people create and achieve. It’s a chemical supermatter, something created during the Big Bang. It’s older than humanity. It precedes time and will remain long after. Art created all worlds. We live in its living collage, taking from it what we need.’

Meese continually hammers how art has outlasted every dynasty, war, and ideology in interviews. Any idea or innovation, whatever the was elicited by art. It can celebrate and neutralise the perversity of reality in a gesamtkunstwerk. Above all, Meese aims to introduce this liberation to our world, a creativity detached from the now, which might be the only thing capable of flourishing in the future. 


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