Bo Bjerggaard

Jonathan Meese

17 Jan - 26 Apr 2014

© Jonathan Meese
Oil, acrylic and acrylic modelling paste on canvas
210 x 140 cm
17 January - 26 April 2014

The artist from the other side

Sometimes it is difficult to see a painting as just a painting. This applies toa Jonathan Meese painting, for example, perhaps because Meese makes a virtue ofkeeping up a high level of activity. In previous videos shown at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard,he has caricatured himself as what the French disparagingly call a"productivist", effortlessly painting by frivolously jumping and dancingfrom one canvas to another with unrestrained creative zeal. Meese's newpaintings - at a first superficial glance - even resemble so-called "JonathanMeeses": yet more examples of a stream of signature paintings that sharefeatures with a lot of earlier Meese paintings. The "JM" signature is the lastlayer atop the many other layers of paint. There is no doubt about the identityof the signatory.

But even a Jonathan Meese signaturepainting can be hard to see as a painting by Jonathan Meese, as it also recallsother painters' signature paintings - if you ignore the signature, that is. Onecan easily slip into confusing "a Meese" with Jonathan Meese the person. Hispainting resembles figurative expressionism in the tradition from Vincent vanGogh through Willem de Kooning to Jean-Michel Basquiat. It looks at first likea private life that has been turned inside-out on the canvas, affected andnaked. But his painting only looks like that tradition; it does not extend it.Unlike many other expressionists, Jonathan Meese does not seem to be expressinghimself. He seems rather to overplay himself and his role as an expressionistpainter to the extent that one begins to have doubts about who, what or whereJonathan Meese really is. While one might suspect an intimate knowledge of vanGogh, de Kooning and Basquiat, it is different with Meese. He does not remindone of an artist expressing his own inner, emotional life - not least becausehe seems to be viewing himself from the outside. For example, he likes to talkabout himself in the third person singular: "Jonathan Meese is not anindividual, Jonathan Meese is just the most flexible toy of art nowadays...Jonathan Meese is wax in the hands of art and does what the total leader 'Art'wants: Jonathan Meese is always on duty and plays, plays, plays withoutrituals."[1]

Meeses paintings are dramatic, justlike those of the great expressionists, but the drama is not played out in thepainter's intense encounter with the world, as in van Gogh's images, nor in thesort of direct working on private problems that one detects in de Kooning's andBasquiat's paintings. He does not in the least believe in the great artist withgreat feelings. As soon as his art appears to have a grandiosely romantic glow,he deflates it with parody, as if it were pathetic. He is one-of-a-kind,alright, but what kind?

The image of Meese the painter thatfirst meets the retina is always the same. Like a cartoon hero, he always cutsthe same figure. It is well enough that he has long, dark, wavy hair and a beardlike the venerable court painter Diego Velázquez, but his uniform is an Adidasjogging suit, like that of the local drug dealer on the corner. It is one thingthat Meese uses Richard Wagner, for example, as artistic guiding light, but themuse of his total oeuvre is ditsy blonde Scarlett Johansson. Meese is a cartooncharacter who is presented in widely differing scenarios. Despite the clearcommon thread in much of the material Meese hauls onboard, it seems as thoughhis filter is a sieve. It seems as though Meese is ready to embrace anything atall. He is reminiscent of the people of our era at whom Nietzsche sneered: thetourist roaming around in the garden of history, seeing it as "a repository fortheatre masks, which he can put on and take off at will",[2]a tourist whom philosopher Gianni Vatimo has therefore called postmodern.

As a postmodern artist, Meese enjoysweaving works out of a host of historical, art-historical and contemporaryreferences, but at the same time, he is still too grandiose to fit into thiscontemporary programme. There is more, or rather something else, at stake inMeese's play. When Meese makes a fool of himself - as well as various real andmythological figures - as a great painting star, he represents not only himselfand thus the individual as small, but also art and the world as large. Meesecalls to mind the ancient Greek figure of the rhapsode, which in Plato's Iondialogue is described as a medium through which God speaks. But Meese is rathermore like the little pink sponge that he left in the middle of the painting ERZCHEF"KRAKE" VERWEIGERT ALLE SOZIALEN NETZWERKE, DENN ERZCHEF"KRAKI" KENNT KEINE VOLLGESEIERTEN "ICH-SPIRITUALITÄTEN",ZUM GLÜCK... that fiercely sucks all the material into itself in order towork it over and spit it out with great force onto the canvas again.

It is not himself that Meese expresses, but rather all that material that already has a life of its own and therefore is more or less difficult to inhabit and control. It is quitespecifically thick paint directly from the tube, which does not blend with theother elements in the picture, or the thin paint that drips and flows out ontothe canvas. It is language that Meese speaks or smears onto his paintings:language that all of us not only speak, but are spoken by. And then there areall the unmanageable figures, from the Roman emperor Caligula to the ThirdReich's Fuehrer, who embody a cruel evil that is larger than themselves. In thesame vein is Alex Delarge from Clockwork Orange, to whom Meese refers in hisnew exhibition's title - a probable sociopath, but in a society that is itselfsick. Nor is there a single individual in Meese's universe. It is not possibleto distinguish the heroes from antiheroes among his gallery of figures. Meesehimself is the artist who is, in Theodor Adorno's words, "obsessed with hismeans". He is not just concerned with his material, but also haunted andoccupied by it, but no more so than he can be said to be the one who has chosento give in and give himself over.

Formerly, much of painting and a great deal of portraiture was devoted to individuals who dominated others. That genre can be found in Meese's portraits of unspecified great raging monsters and demons, who like certain sovereigns, allow themselves to be thoroughly unruly.They remind one of Francisco Goya's royal portraits, but in Meese's case, thecaricature is so excessive that it is no longer possible to recognise thesovereign. Indeed, one can barely find any shape or figuration whatsoever. Thepainting is no longer for the sake of the portrayed subject. Here, the painterhimself becomes the regent. Perhaps it is a self-portrait, and a gruesome oneat that. But it is especially a comical view, as the painter appears to haveamused himself in deploying his power.

The painter wallows in luxury. He paints characters wrapped in the trappings of power and adornments of wealth, but it is the precious tubes of fantastically coloured paints - none subject to another in an already given chromatic harmony - which comprise the painter'sreal life of luxury. Here there is no slave labour for the King; Meese is themaster. But, as they say in Germany, he is the master by virtue of someoneelse's slave labour. He amuses himself like an assemblage artist in materialsthat others have extracted and processed, and is as such a slave to otherpeople's work.

It is this master's tragedy that Meese turns into afestive comedy in his work. This is the twist that Charles Baudelaire alsofinds in Francisco Goya, not his Royal portraits, but rather in his caricaturesof some monks: "I imagine that he had no love for monks, for he made them very ugly. But howbeautiful they are in all their ugliness and how triumphant in their monkishsqualor and crapulence! Here art dominates - art which purifies like fire."[3]

When the waves are at their highest, and the art is best, the poet thus no longer speaks of the artist's dominance, instead talking about art's dominance. So does Meese, who isfamous and infamous for having given in to "The Dictatorship of Art",which in his own words is "stronger than all political, religious,spiritual or esoteric leaders we know."[4]In Meese's version this dominance of art means that art can and must encloseall the above-mentioned figures within its universe. No matter how suspect andmorally reprehensible they seem, they are welcome here, for in the art theywill be disarmed. That is why Meese can, in the oddest way, go from talkingabout art as dictator to talking about it as total love in just a few lines:"Art is the chief, art is No. 1, art is total authority. In Art you don'thave to kneel down, in Art you have to play, play, play. Art is the totalleadership of the future. Art is total love."[5]

Meese is not an expressionist, just as the rhapsode and sponge are not. It is not his soul he is baring here, and not necessarily because there is nothing inside the artist or because the artisthas not rounded off his autobiography. It is rather because Meese plays theartist who has been sacrificed to art. And according to Meese, there is nooutside of art - other than what that art takes in and records. The artist doesnot reveal himself in the art, but gets absorbed in it and therefore is lost init. As such, art for Meese is not counterculture, even though his style appearsto be quite punkish. Meese does not seem to stand decidedly in opposition toanything. To be sure, he does speak constantly about being anti this or that,but it is not anything that he is going to go out and fight. He is ratherdeeply buried in what he calls art, laid out in various allegories. In thepast, he has called art "a cave". As the title of his new exhibition, ZOO (M) DE LARGE (JAIL D'ART), suggests, one can perhaps alsoconsider art a prison. Art is an enclosure. There is no way out, but if onegoes deeper into art - if one zooms in - it only becomes larger. And for Meese,what becomes larger is not culture, but nature: an apparently zoologicalcondition with which he becomes one vegetatively, through art. Viewed from theoutside, however, it may best be explained as counterculture to whatever issetting the agenda in the world - particularly the art world - in which Meeseworks and functions.

In modern art history, there is a tradition of talking about and dismissing the painter as a monkey. The painter is portrayed here as an unconscious artist who in the first place has got lostin painting's wordless material and in the second place is doomed to mimicprior painting, since everything within this history-intensive discipline has alreadybeen created. When the artist Sol LeWitt wrote his Paragraphs on Conceptual Artin 1967, it was as a response to an Artforum editor whose program was toavoid "the notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to beexplained by the civilized critic".[6]When Meese speaks and writes so much, on the other hand, one gets the feelingthat it is to guard against the civilized art critic who could get the ideathat he as an artist is anything other than a monkey. For Meese animals areexemplary, since they are in the world without being in our world andconsequently following our rules and conventions:

"I was never creative. To be creative is not radical enough - is notfast enough. You have to be instinctive. You have to work through instinct -like animals. They are not creative. Then they would be eaten up immediately.Because you don't have to think. You should just do instinctively what isneeded. Then you are a servant of art."[7]

Jonathan Meese cultivates himself as an idiot, that is, the loner who stands apart fromsociety. His language is so raving that it is sometimes rather a pure idiolect- a language that only he speaks and understands. This is where he is in linewith Alex Delarge, when he listens to Beethoven and becomes nearly overwroughtat the "O bliss, bliss and heaven, oh, it was gorgeousnessand gorgeosity made flesh." But if one listens to his rant, oneunderstands that Meese is playing the great artist, who with all his dramaticgestures demonstrates his own insignificance. And although expressionists suchas van Gogh and Edvard Munch probably weren't as self-sacrificing, they werecertainly headed in that direction. Usually one would say that they painted theworld as seen through their temperament. But their dynamic, surging brushstrokes did not reflect how they permeated the world, but rather how they wereabsorbed by it. Perhaps it is this project - where the painter is dissolved inthe painting, which is dissolved in art, which becomes one with nature - whichthey were also caught up in. But it is Meese whose method seems anything butsystematic, who follows this formula most systematically. It is Jonathan Meesewho abandons himself to look at and talk about Jonathan Meese just as we othersdo. He comes to us in order to teach us that Jonathan Meese is certainly to befound in a completely different place - to teach us that he himself is theimpossible and even more amazing proof that this other place exists.

by Toke Lykkeberg

[1] Micòl Di Veroli, Jonathan Meese: Interview. We are all the Toys in the hands of Art. Drome Magazine, issue 18, 2010.
[2]Gianni Vatimo, Nihilism and emancipation. Ethics, politics, law. Aarhus University Press, 2005 (2003), p. 122.
[3] Charles Baudelaire, Critique d'art suivi de Critique musicale. Éditions Gallimard, 1992, p. 207.
[4] Quote from an email interview with
Jonathan Meese by Toke Lykkeberg, January 2014.
[5] Micòl Di Veroli, op.cit.
[6] Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. MIT Press, 1999, p. 12.
[7] Interview with Jonathan Meese filmed and posted online by the BAAD Gallery, March, 2013 (, accessed 7 January 2014).

Tags: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Willem de Kooning, Sol LeWitt, Jonathan Meese, Edvard Munch