In midst of spectacular splashes of color and grotesque, mystical visual activity, painter and sculptor Jonas Burgert brings to life his inventive creatures. His works represent the questionable brutality of human nature and dramatically investigate a new world order. Jonas does not only paint, however. He also enjoys turning his hand to physically ambitious projects and recently fulfilled one of his dreams by renovating an old GDR factory in a courtyard atelier in Weißensee.
Upon our arrival, a cement mixer is busy in motion for the next job at hand and Jonas immediately apologizes for the poor timing. We confront the construction noise with curiosity while getting into healthy discussion about mankind’s archaic fundamental principles, the similarities between painting and lyrics, and the popular lunchtime topic conversations of fellow artists. During our visit Jonas is seemingly entertained by our video documentation that is acoustically tainted by the noise of his construction site – a form of torture for the listener perhaps, somewhat akin to the sight of his shimmering, apocalyptic visions.
You certainly have acquired a true jewel amongst the diverse landscape of ateliers. How did you get your hands on this great property?
I have been in this neighborhood for the past ten years. At first I had my atelier at the other side of the street inside an old industry hall. Everything became vacant around here at one point. When I first became interested in this property I was told it was supposedly contaminated. Four years ago I decided to take a closer look and talked to the environment agency to seek advice. Among other things, when the steadiness of the floor structure of the building could not be confirmed, I took it as an opportunity to renovate went for it. We took out three large trash bins filled with garbage from the courtyard.
How could you envision your ideas so clearly for this project despite such massive chaos?
Firstly I was interested in the amazing proportions and the mix of old and new buildings. The hall from the 70s serves especially well as the perfect setting for an atelier. There are very high ceilings and no columns.
Did you enjoy your role as builder?
It was quite annoying at times. But it has been amazing to develop this property myself. Most artists have the problem of always being alone with their work yet require their own space. Here in the atelier everybody has their own studio and comes and goes as they please while also having the opportunity to have lunch together. This was always my dream to create a community-like scenario within the atelier.
What do you talk about during lunch break?
We often talk about art. However, we rarely talk about our own content. Whether someone paints a monster or I paint poison, it is up to up to the artist in the end to make these decisions. We often talk about formal things: color contrast, composition, or if a painting gets to an exciting stage. Ninety percent of discussion about our own art is more objective, but of course if the content is absolutely awful we will mention it!
Art often has an intangible element and represents something perhaps mythical for some people.
I think people are interested in knowing what artists feel and how they think when creating. I often think the artist assumes that the audience will contemplate and understand their pieces one hundred percent of the time. I am always very interested in the process of making.
Why do you think humans like to surround themselves with art?
As artists we would never have a chance to show our work if people weren’t longing for something else. Illusion is an essential part of life. We see faces in the clouds for example. As humans we don’t really have a specific tendency for this sixth sense, but regardless we do see something in everything. We want more than we are.
What is so terrible about reality?
Most of the time we consider reality and normality the same. Even though I paint realistically, there is no actual realism or naturalism in my work. I don’t want my audience to recognize a specific person. Paintings lose strength when there is a strong sense of realism. We search for symbols in a painting, not for Erna Müller or Peter Meyer. As soon as there is a recognizable person located within the painting the fantasy perishes. Reality exists regardless, my illustrations express what ‘could be’. This is why art that is created from ready-made materials becomes something symbolic because of it’s context.
Therefore any rational parameters must be ignored…
As humans we are meant to make steps into new dimensions. We can take a beer coaster, put some dots on it and say it is a starry sky. All of this is only possible because we accept the basis of illusion. We thus adjust our values to this given framework. It is completely crazy. Illusion is not only fiction. Illusion belongs to our lives. We like to classify everything and talk about our mind. It is very clear that we are directed by our illusional desires, forever and always.
You follow the contemporary coverage of mass protests through photographic documentation. What sort of reality do you see here?
When such radical situations transpire, mankind’s archaic fundamental principles are revealed in these pictures. I am interested in the collective mind. When there is an extreme situation essential questions always arise and all adornment is swept aside. Enduring and innate ways of thinking are exposed and this is why I am equally interested in the past as well as in the future.
Does this have something to do with decay and reconstruction?
I might pose the question, what is a linear movement? Over and over we as humans try to create and build cultures, only for them to collapse. Change comes in the aftermath. The more one is confronted with this cycle, the less it becomes important where a blob of paint is placed on a canvas. When I paint I want to establish a certain foundation.
The crime of ornamentation? However you did just mention that illusion is indeed essential. Is that not a contradiction?
Everything fundamental is dangerous to mankind. The existential thematic, the ancient question of meaning, makes us scared and insecure. You have to be very strong in order to deal with it. This is why we have invented thousands of gods and religions just so we can deal with this fear. Another option is to decorate life and get distracted by entertainment. This way one slides past the essential questions and issues without needing to deal with them. Life then seems easy. However, the true underpinnings of life remain. These realities surface when lying in bed at night or when a dear person passes away.
Many people regret not having devoted their lives more these things and instead spend their whole lives acquiring as much as possible.
It’s crazy, right? People focus on their bank accounts for their entire lives. Germans save so much money that they could actually buy Europe! Money gets put into a corner like a trophy and people feel good doing it. This could also be considered a form of religion, this hoarding of money. The problem and danger lies in the moral value and status that money has been granted. It is a bit like the American model, whoever has money and success is a good person – which is complete nonsense. We think a bit differently in Europe, maybe it’s because of Luther.
And how do you think?
Thinking is very interesting to me. On one hand thinking is a result of logical procedure and a strain of thoughts which we have agreed upon in order to understand each other. Painting is a very emotional thing, but is also essentially driven by thoughts. My consciousness is always present with every action, with every selection of color and form. I try to translate my thoughts into feelings without getting stuck in a logical system of intellectual games. This process could be compared to writing lyrics. A song transforms rational information into content with feeling. In the end it becomes much stronger than the text itself. It has a sound which carries the content of a song to another level.
Could this approach be applied to your paintings?
People cannot remember the details of my paintings with all the figures and details. But they remember the whole of the painting, the subtext. I considered this very strange as a child. You can remember a melody of a song for years but certainly forget the content of a biology class after one day. The question is about connection. Whenever the teacher used a symbol to represent the content I could always remember it, even if it didn’t interest me.
How is successful communication created?
With my paintings I have to go very deep to be honest. The soul has to be put on the table in order to generate authenticity or intensity. However, there is a limit in regard to privacy. There is a point where the investigations can become so intimate that people cannot comprehend it and then it becomes boring. I have to ensure that my pieces are representative of people or reasoning. I want to create an element that is very personal – otherwise it is fake. The personal has to be representative of the plight of mankind. I think my paintings impact people because I try to establish that bridge between the personal and universal. I try to correlate a psychological condition with the phenomena of man.
Where do you begin with a painting?
Firstly, I always think about the main theme. It is all about placement when it comes to the chosen topic. I think about the overall optical position. The true middle, for instance, is unimportant and can make a composition quite boring. You can certainly kill a painting by having a perfect composition. I try to execute my paintings within a territory outside of, or close to perfection so that they somewhat remain unsettled and in motion.
You seem to use your colors like powder that emanates from the canvas.
In my paintings I think the viewer has the feeling that a color could reappear anywhere within the painting at any moment. The colors should flicker. There is also plenty of content, however, in the end I think color and tonal value make a painting. I also sometimes create fixed points that anchor classic complementary colors. When you create a painting with so many different colors there are no rules.
Do you think artistic output responds to the never ending cycle of gallery exhibition programs?
The discourse about painting used to be much larger. A painting used to be torn apart, praised, or criticized, but always with the idea and value of art behind it. Nowadays it feels like the value of an artwork is aligned with the success of a piece, often solely through economic success. There are collectors that buy with their ears and not their eyes.
How does this impact the artist?
Receiving such mixed messages about what is good or bad art is confusing for contemporary artists. Personally I think that artistic richness is found in an intangible realm that is connected to insecurity. It does not lie within the industry rules or an exhibition catalogue. Art is there to be consumed by society. As an artist you have to be very strong in order to expose your insecurities and vulnerabilities and welcome open discourse.
Your atelier is quite an interesting place to gain an insight into how an artist works.
This is why there is such great interest in people wanting to visit ateliers. People want to sense the atmosphere. An open atelier is a good advertisement for the artist. Ideally however, the work must be good enough to stand on it’s own without the spectacle of the atelier. Of course the atelier has an aura of production. Just like in a piano shop: there is the half finished piano, wood chippings, black paint, and so on, but in the end the piano has to play.
Photography: Hendrik Thul
Interview & Text: Juliet Kothe