Jon Merz studied at HFBK with Professor Matt Mullican and received his Master’s degree in July 2017. He’s currently preparing for an exhibition of his work in Geneva in September. Jon was interviewed in Berlin in August by Art Springboard's Wolfram Schnelle.
Wolfram Schnelle: What are your earliest experiences with art?
Jon Merz: I have very early memories of art. My parents would take me to a lot of exhibitions – I remember enjoying Giacometti. Art is something that was always there in my life, and it is something I’ve always had a really strong relation to, but the step of being an artist myself and dedicating my live to it took a long time.
I did a lot of things before. I studied furniture design– that was a compromise. It was doing something creative but also having a job where I could finance myself. I resisted art for a long time but I was always pushed back to it.
I don’t know why I resisted. It’s already in my family. My grandfather already painted but it was more of a hobby for him. He was always fascinated by it but he never dedicated his life to it. It was similar with my parents. I guess this resistance has been going on for generations.
WS: So, what led to you becoming an artist in the end?
JM: At some point I was given a studio in New York for six months. All of a sudden, I had six months’ time, no clients to respond to, no orders to fill and that’s when I started to become more independent and my work started to be more art. It was this freedom where I could do what I wanted.
After coming back from New York, I knew that this was what I wanted to do and I applied for art school. And I have been making art ever since.
WS: Let’s use the degree show at HFBK as a starting point to talk about your work. Can you describe your work and what motivates you?
JM: The works really come out of the process. I work every day and the main thing is to keep doing that. The more time I spend with it, the more things start to happen and then I start to see things that I’m interested in. That’s how I get the ideas. The starting point is always this discipline of working.
WS: Tell me about the fact that a lot of elements from comics appear in your work, and about the relationship between figurative and abstract elements.
JM: My interest in comics has to do with images in motion. In French you would talk about ‘dessin animé’. There’s a narrative through images, something almost filmic, something that is developing, evolving, and moving. The paintings are static, but in a way they move in your head when you look at them and that’s what I’m interested in. Creating movement.
About the abstract and the figurative: I’m not trying to recreate something I see, but I am interested in visions. A shaman has some kind of vision and I’m interested in this way of thinking. They have some kind of practices where they go into a trance state or go alone into the wilderness – they do lots of different things to have these visions. That’s also something that the primitive painters who made cave paintings had, and it’s something I’m very strongly responding to. I feel like there’s a strong connection to my work and this kind of practice, of trying to see something in an abstract space. It’s not about painting something I see but painting something that’s already there and I just have to look for it in this sort of abstract place.
WS: Tell me about the images you collect on the internet.
JM: I think the idea of the archetype is a good introduction to these images. The images I collect on the internet are really a history of image production. We’ve been producing lots of images over a long period of time and in a way they interact with each other and they act on each other and they create new images. It’s a very dynamic system of image production. It’s something difficult to explain because I would argue that for some people their identity is made up of images, their memory consists of images. It could be a collective identity or a personal identity, everything is so full of images.
I work almost like an archaeologist or an historian. I collect those images, I compare them. I look at them and I also take a great deal of time to try and learn about an image, what it is and where it comes from – I research them. This gives me a lot of information about the world. The way an historian goes through Berlin is different from how a tourist goes through the streets. My intentions with these cards is to get a more in-depth understanding of how things work and what we are dealing with in terms of image production.
WS: Tell me about your influences. Where does your inspiration come from? What informs your work?
JM: A few years ago I was kind of through with a conceptual way of working and I was trying to find inspiration. I started spending a lot of time in museums and old book shops and I started to read and learn about all these things from the past. I traveled around Europe and the whole world to see ancient sites, architecture, and museums. It’s something that I was already interested in as a child. I forced my parents to go to Egypt when I was really young. And through these very ancient cultures you come into contact with the basics of what it is to be human. Because there’s something that all these cultures everywhere on the planet seem to share and it seems to be connected to what we’re really all about.
WS: How did your experience at HFBK change your work? What was it like to study there?
JM: I went to HFBK especially for my teacher Matt Mullican. He’s also interested in a lot of these questions about image production, about language, about how we navigate the world and how the brain works. He’s been working with these themes for a long time so I got a great deal of insight and could benefit a lot from that. It also gave me confidence to do whatever I’m interested in doing and not to doubt myself too much.
WS: Is there a specific moment at HFBK that you remember? One that stuck in your mind?
JM: We would always meet on Wednesdays, somebody would put works on the wall, like a little exhibition, and we would talk about it. People would also talk about what they’re interested in and what they see. It was often the case that I would be there and somebody else would bring up questions that I was also thinking about. It was fascinating and exhilarating to experience this kind of collective thinking where we’d connect in some way and exchange information without even knowing it. Think of the theories of Carl Jung. This was an experience I had in Hamburg and it’s greatly influenced my work. I’d had some intuition about it before, but there I could really experience it, really touch it.
WS: Something that artists are often encouraged to do at art school is to develop their own voice. Can you describe what your voice is?
JM: I can’t tell you what my voice is but I can tell you that I tend to be myself as much as I can. I can’t say that I’m there yet but I’m really trying to be as authentic as possible. This also means leaving things behind, like what people put in my head as a child or what art history put in my head and all these things I learned and was influenced by. At some point I need to leave them behind if I want to continue working. It’s something that is really important and something that I’m consciously working on.
The funny thing is that in doing so, in becoming yourself, you also open yourself up to the world. The more I go there, the more I connect with other people.
WS: You were saying that you left fixed ideas behind and that your work was becoming more personal. Can you describe what you mean by that – maybe with an example.
JM: I’m not saying it’s personal in terms of I tell my little story about my heartbreaks or my everyday life. It’s more that I don’t rely so much on art history, on some kind of discourse or on what’s happening in the world at the moment. All these things, they make their way into my work because I am part of this world, but it’s more a matter of making a place, an empty spot, for all these things to be able to come into being. There are a lot of things about me, about the world, about what it is to be human. They all come together. That’s what I mean with being personal. You just leave space for it to be.
WS: What about the titles you give your work?
JM: Titles are very important. They’re not necessary but they give an idea of how I would look at it. The titles give additional information but they’re not essential to experiencing the work.
WS: Can you tell me about the aspect of layering and time in your work?
JM: I work every day and at some point I don’t really know how to continue with a painting and it needs to dry and I will need to let it be for a little bit. I work simultaneously on many canvases. They all hang on a wall together and when I look at them I get ideas about how to continue. This is how these layers build up. It’s a series of decisions that happen on different days in different weeks. Much like a journal of some sort. I leave these layers visible, which creates some transparency. You get a view of the different stages of the painting. It’s very much like looking at a mountain or rock where you can see the layering of different sediments.
WS: At what point do you know that a work is finished?
JM: I work on a piece for a few months and then there’s a moment where I feel separated from it. It becomes something like a stranger. I ask myself ‘how did I make this?’. This is usually when I stop and I know that I’m done with a piece. It’s when I don’t have anything to add or I don’t have anything more to say.
WS: What keeps you going?
JM: I think it’s curiosity. That’s what keeps me going. I’m just curious to see the next day, to see how a painting is going to turn out, how the work is going to evolve. I’m curious to see what’s beyond the horizon. That’s what keeps me going.
I want to keep my work as something that I want to be surprised by, like I want to be surprised by the world every day. I want to see everything like it’s fresh or new, like I see it for the first time. I would also like to approach my work not as something that I understand or control but more as something to experience.
WS: Now that you’ve finished your Master’s degree at HFBK, what’s next?
JM: At the moment, I’m quite busy preparing for an exhibition in September at Le Labo in Geneva and working on the publication of an edition of my cards with HFBK. This is the Image Collection, a box set with about 300 images in A6 format that will be published in a limited edition. I’m also starting work on a new series of paintings, which will keep me busy for a big part of next year. And I’m planning trips to Norway and Africa.
To see all works by Jon Merz click here
To read more about the artist click here