JONATHAN MEYER, view 1, Suffer No Fools, Frameless Gallery, London, June 2017
JONATHAN MEYER, view 2, Suffer No Fools, Frameless Gallery, London, June 2017
JONATHAN MEYER, view 3, Suffer No Fools, Frameless Gallery, London, June 2017
JONATHAN MEYER, view 4, Suffer No Fools, Frameless Gallery, London, June 2017
JONATHAN MEYER, view 5, Suffer No Fools, Frameless Gallery, London, June 2017
JONATHAN MEYER, view 6, Suffer No Fools, Frameless Gallery, London, June 2017
JONATHAN MEYER, view 7 - portrait, Suffer No Fools, Frameless Gallery, London, June 2017

FRAMELESS GALLERY - interview with Jonathan Meyer   


FG: We’d like to start by asking you about the source material used for this series – is it all from one encyclopedia?

JM: Yes, it all comes from the 1976 Junior edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was then aimed mainly at an American audience - although it was published in about 10 different locations: Geneva, Manila, Johannesburg, Seoul, etc.

FG: So it also had a kind of global footprint in terms of the spread of American educational values across the world.

JM: Oh, it’s definitely a colonial enterprise. But back to just the idea of an encyclopedia... I think it is such an endearingly daft project - the idea of this printed compendium of all knowledge that is somehow definitive, although built into this definitiveness is the need to bring out corrected and updated new editions every few years. I love the wackiness of the project. It is beyond ambitious.

FG: It is a hopeless project.

JM: And hopeful.

FG: It’s hopeless and hopeful already in the beginning with Aristotle’s attempt to organise and categorise everything, which he does with a lot of humour, and I noticed that in a lot of your pieces there is precisely this ‘taxonomic’ humour. The other thing that Aristotle did which is in clear contrast with the Enlightenment’s encyclopedic or pansophic endeavours is get hung up on the quirky things, the accidental and the peculiar - I’m looking at the snake and the telephone in Communication Copperhead (we’ll come back the question of technology and the animal in a minute). But in terms of the inclusion of the peculiar, some of the entries you have selected -finger painting, for instance - hardly represent high Art, or Culture with a capital C. What are these?? Bed- pans? Casseroles?

JM: Those come from the entry for “Colonial Life”.

FG: Colonial life represented through a quirky set of domestic vessels and utensils! So in a sense there is the encyclopedia’s take on listing everything, and then through these works you have made a kind of shadow encyclopedia – is your shadow version more Aristotelian in its tone? Or more akin to Diderot’s Encylopédie? A rational, methodical listing of all knowledge so that truth can be built from it? Or is there something almost more in the vein of Charles and Ray Eames, this strange mixing of anthropology and technology and animals into an esoteric soup?

JM: Well my version is definitely a kind of soup. It does not align itself well with the classical, rational idea of presenting knowledge that has gone through some kind of taxonomic processor -though I guess it has gone through a kind of taxonomy that is very personal.

FG: What is that taxonomy?

JM: It is me. [laughing] I think that in a lot of the pieces the remnants of the words, or even the images, stand as these nonsensical reductions: bits of the text that was meant to elucidate and make sense made into just a series of syllables that are not even Dada, they’re just white noise.

FG: A babble?

JM: Yes it’s a Babelian babble, which goes back to the whole idea of the craziness of the project of presenting the sum total of facts. When time passes, our understanding of the facts changes - and I’m not talking about false or alternative facts, but outmoded truths. A truth that has been shown no longer to be a truth is tantamount to nonsense. This edition came out when asbestos was still thought to be a good thing - there are these images of asbestos being used by welders, or of somebody holding up a piece of it in their hands, tearing it to show the fibres.

FG: Ohh! Untruths apart, it seems that these collages are a critique of the pompous pretension to stability that the encyclopedia always sets up. In the pairings that you’ve made not only are these pretensions exposed, but there is also, as you are pointing out with the asbestos entry, an exposure of how these things change over time.

JM: Yes.

FG: I’d like to ask you about the filter that you applied to this encyclopedia. Is this an encyclopedia that you would have looked at when you were at high school in Missouri?

JM: Well, I would have been ten when it came out.

FG: So prime encyclopedia age for a boy growing up in Midwestern American suburbia.

JM: There were at least two or three years when I was kind of ‘parented’ by these kinds of sets of books. They were the refuge that I went to.

FG: But they also served as your construction of the outside world, and of truth in the outside world?

JM: Yeah, and I think the idea of the target audience of this particular set is very pertinent; the editors have chosen the entries as subjects that will contribute towards the education and edification of the youth. And yet just flipping through the volumes it’s like a horror show: atom bombs and guns are everywhere! They are definitely playing on and cultivating the fascination of especially boys with items of warfare, along with airplanes, scary beasts, competitive sports. And the predominance of the land being pared down to the sum of its natural resources is striking. In the entries for countries, about 75% of the text is about what we can exploit from the physical piece of land that is this country - their cultural dimensions, not so much. Unless the culture is deemed somehow ‘primitive’, then it’s fair game...

FG: In which the locals, the inhabitants – it is one of the few times we see women in the images – are ornamental beasts of burden, carrying bananas on their head, or working in the tea fields, or men climbing rickety structures in the river to fish.

JM: Though it’s from 1976, it builds on and comes straight out of the 50s. It’s so nostalgic.

FG: The footprint of the 1950s is very strong: white, male America and a lot of echoes of the post-war de-militarization project - of taking technologies developed during the war and bringing them into the civilian realm. But what here is contemporary? What could you use to date it as ‘76 and not say ‘66?

JM: There is a lot of emphasis of petrochemical products. The OPEC crisis was in full swing, so lots of pictures of oil refineries as beautiful things!

FG: Looking through them, there are all kinds of pairings or conversations you set up: one is to do with the construction of nature and wildness in the wild animal. There is also nature as resource and the exploitation of that resource as a heroic endeavor that is not even seen as exploitative...

JM: Not at all...

FG: ...the other pairing is that of technology with animals, which you’ve done several times. You do it with the telephone and the snake; with the coal miner and the cobra; with the airplane and the eagle; with the bat and the bathtub. What is going on there?

JM: Well you asked about the filter. In a lot of them it is a visual relationship, a formal echo, these things speak to each other somehow visually. Some of the pairings are to do with the subject material, but a lot are just to do with the way the images look.

FG: But with a lot of them where the pairing is to do with a formal resonance, the humorous moment is when you recognize what these two silhouettes are - their function, what they do - and this disrupts the pairing: Such as the telephone receiver and the snake, the idea that you would hold a snake up to your ear! Sometimes there is a frisson, an uncanny-ness at work. What it kind of starts to set up is a tracery of alternate taxonomy, alternate logic. So here’s one: Canadian Mounted Police Camp Fire Girls - and we see arm-to-arm engagement in two very different scenes - two men wrestling with a gun and Camp Fire Girls, who are...

JM: ...making biscuits in a solar oven!

FG: Right! Playing kitchen in the forest - and the third arm image is an arm swaddled up, being bitten by a Rottweiler police dog in training. They all suggest an alternative encyclopedic project whereby you might list all the things you can do with arms with two people. Or all the ways arms meet. Rather than list the institution of the Camp Fire Girls, or the technology of the gun, or the breed of the Rottweiler...

JM: One thing I love in encyclopedias is the textual precursor to the hyperlink, the cross-reference, where instead of just pressing a button, you have to physically search through the book to find a related entry. I want there to be these conversations between pieces, within the pieces yes, but also between them, within the series. So I have applied some vaguely Oulipian sets of little rules. For instance, all of the photographs are credited and there is one photographer who keeps cropping up, Ewing Gallagher, so whenever I found one of his photographs I kept his first name “Ewing” in the image somehow.

FG: ...I guess JR was big in the seventies.

JM: You better believe it! And so also when I saw the word “sewing”, because of Ewing, I would just take the S off. I’ve kind of subverted the attribution, a silly conversation going on in parallel... Or in Nebula Nebula and Penguin Pacific Islands Papacy, the repeated nonsense word “bula” in one becomes the traditional Fijian greeting “Bula!” in the other - these two panels cross- reference each other, but I guess maybe only one or two people in the world might ever figure that out. [laughing]

FG: So how is the audience transformed between the audience of the Britannica and the audience of your set?

JM: It’s the same audience.

FG: In a sense everything you’ve done was potentially already there, this mad tracery of cross-referencing you’ve set up...

JM: Yeah, the point is you find the connections you want to in things. That’s important. Referencing back to me, the adolescent boy in a room with a book - my imagination is running wild: I’m not even clocking their cross-references; I’m not going to “see entry for Vatican”; I’m doing something else.

FG: You’ve implied earlier both that the encyclopedic project is continuous to Western culture and is very much part of the kind of idea of progress, but also that you have a contemporary interest in it in relation to truth and the generation that would have grown up looking at this, and whose framing of truth is now in crisis. The cross-referencing and linking that is going on now in a way that both augments that crisis and also simultaneously, attempts, (one thinks of the work of fact-checkers) to try to retrieve truth from the factories of alternate truth that the hyperlinking in social media has become.

JM: A big part of Trump’s constituency is these disaffected middle class middle-aged white men that grew up as kids reading editions like this one. Although I guess I was one of those!

FG: Well let’s say you had an unusual way of reading your encyclopedia! I’d like to talk about your technique. There are 96 in the series, did you work on them one at a time, or did they all come forward as a set?

JM: Well it kind of happened in fits and starts. I produced, I think, somewhere between 10 to 15 of them back in 2015 and they just sat around for a bit while I got on with other things. Then Ciprian said: you should carry on with these. So I started going through the rest of the set - so there were always at least 10-20 on the go at once, which is not the way I usually work; I usually have 2- 3 things on the go. I guess towards the end of the preparation there were maybe 50-60 in progress at the same time.

FG: That’s a lot. Did this further mean that they influenced each other? They built cross-references between themselves as they were becoming together?

JM: Yeah. I definitely wanted them to do that. There are several different techniques I’m using here. Some are very simply about masking out - though all of them have a bit of the ply board showing through. But some I have inked over the text. Some I have excavated found poems from the text. Some are very minimal. Some are, for me any way, expressive or at least pretty gestural.

FG: Some of them are quite Surreal. Some referencing Rauschenberg; some, Tom Phillips. So there is another tracery of cross-referencing which is to do with the art registers that you are nodding to as you are producing them, consciously or not.

JM: Yes.

FG: There is the masking out that you are using that has been an important part of your practice for awhile now, but there are also these ambiguous figures or shapes, often the exposed wood, that are sometimes like stains or at least act almost in the way of a Rorschach test in that we read figures in them that perhaps you never intended.

JM: We’re on to overfitting.

FG: Yes well, the recognition of patterns that simply may not be there - but I think that in these strange linkages that you are setting up there is an almost parody of overfitting. We might start to detect coherent new taxonomic regimes of patterns of logic where actually there are none, just isomorphic coincidence that we shouldn’t be taking too seriously. In the past you have mentioned that Diderot at the end of the Encyclopédie warns precisely against this. But there is another overfitting that Rorschach was tapping into, well certainly it was part of the performance of his inkblots. For instance in England Erosion there is a potential isomorphism between the bulks of grass on the dunes and the stones of Stonehenge, but then there is this strange figure of the wood in the background and below, a vague shape that looks like a canoe?

JM: ...or a reed basket.

FG: So yes perhaps those grasses are reeds. So you are working with these different registers of overfitting, the isomorphic pairing we have already discussed, which is often through the silhouette. But then you are also working with a different kind in the way that we might read these strange forms in the background, the unpainted wood, with also obviously the grain in the wood, or the thinly painted, cloudlike smudges. Sometimes these shapes that you leave are quite sinister.

JM: Yes.

FG: But they are sinister at a level that is hard to pin down or nail or articulate. So in Hamster Hobby Guinea Pig there are two boys looking at a microscope in what is a very strange painting. We have two fluffy little rodents and then two squeaky clean little boys. One of the boys is looking down the column of the microscope lenses, but behind him is this shape of exposed wood that resembles a primitive weapon and so you almost look at it and think: perhaps he is not looking in the microscope, perhaps it has been stuck in his eye. So these are the kind of games of association of fitting at play...

JM: Yes and this sinister dimension is within the text as well. On that particular one it says: “the bright-eyed hamster makes a cheerful house pet. He is also a help to scientists to fight diseases.” But you can bet the hamster isn’t sitting there telling the scientists what to do.

FG: No, the hamster is probably not enjoying helping the scientist fight diseases!

JM: Below the guinea pig we have “the Incas kept guinea pigs for meat, which is similar to rabbit. It is still eaten by some natives of Peru.”

FG: So this ambiguity of the animal as pet, as laboratory testing material and as food...

JM: Yes and in Rodeo Reptile Rabbit we have: ”the hare is important as food for many fur-bearing mammals. The domesticated rabbit is the most important however for it is good food and its fur has a number of uses.” And then if we cross-reference that to the star-faced mole in Mole Meteorite: “mole fur is used in clothing and the mole is a valuable wild fur-bearing animal.”

FG: Fur-bearing animal! Under the star-faced mole, who is a spectacular little fellow with amazing finger-nails, you have drawn a line through “a monster of an unreal world”.

JM: I had to cross that out because it is a non-truth; he is not a monster of an unreal world!

FG: Is every piece a vignette onto the idea of the truth, different ways of constructing the truth?

JM: Well it kind of has to be.

FG: What is the true hamster, a laboratory animal, a pet or a food source? JM: The answer is... well it depends on your bubble, doesn’t it?

FG: In a sense what a lot of these paintings are doing is bubble bursting.

JM: Yeah, the will-to-taxonomy is a funny thing; it is very human to want to organize things to better understand them, but within this is the assumption that once you have done so you really do understand them better, and then you say: oh, I know what that is! It’s a fur-bearing mammal! So you kind of fix them. Whereas a mole can be many things.

FG: So are you unfixing things then? This one is called Eel Education, with a moray eel whose form is very much echoed by the oxygen tube of the scuba diver with whom the eel is in some either erotic or violent engagement... and below some squeaky-clean American girls. I want to come back to what you were saying about the human need to use pattern recognition, to use it to establish some kind of order from the apparent chaos. But that those patterns, once they are named or distinguished in some way, can be understood as on the contrary not opening up the chaos of the subject, but closing it down, fixing it. We don’t question what the relationship is between moray eels and education because they have been segregated taxonomically.

JM: No, and yet their entries are in the same volume, very close to each other. I think if you teach yourself to look for certain things, those are the things you will find.

FG: The hypothesis front-loads the experiment.

JM: Yes.

FG: Although you have used collage in your practice for years and you have also often used masking out, a lot of your previous work has dealt with packaging and detritus, either packaging from the natural world or more commonly packaging from the man-made world. How do you see this new work relating to your past practice?

JM: Packaging is kind of a way of presenting things, but also a way of protecting things. The encyclopedia is the way knowledge has been presented to these young people. But it is also in the way it is set up, almost protecting the information or facts from too much enquiry. The authority of the encyclopedia, the gilt edges and red leather binding stops interrogation, says: this is definitive, even though there is going to be another edition. [laughs] Whereas you look onscreen at Wikipedia and it is constantly, depending on who’s found out what that day, being updated. This whole body of work has been a kind of re-packaging, a playing-around-with an existing packaging, but one that encourages further enquiry instead of saying “back off: I am the official version; I am the truth”. But at heart it is also a homage to the ‘hopeful’ hopelessness of the whole endeavour of the encyclopedia I mentioned at the beginning.

FG: Last question: who are the fools? And who’s suffering?

JM: Well we are, aren’t we?