Superman is different than most Super Heroes. His disguise is Clark Kent. He was born Superman. Where Bruce Wayne’s disguise is Batman. Alter egos occur in Pop Culture too. Take Prince, David Bowie, Hanna Montana/Miley Cyrus or Kool Keith. Japanese printmakers would change their names mid-career to create a fresh buzz. Authors too. Isaac Asimov wrote as Paul French, etc. Graffiti writers use AKAs to protect themselves from the law or just because a one word name sounds cool – like Banksy.
Two years ago I met Johnny Tragedy. A normal enough dude for Brooklyn – tattoos, tight black pants, and patches on his vest. I never gave his appearance a second thought. He was who he was. He is who he is. I got to know his work. It made sense and I immediately was attracted to the irony that this punk-metal kid was making delicate porcelain sculptures.
One day I saw the name Jonathan Stanish on a showcard. What a square. Johnny Tragedy had found his “Clark Kent” disguise. I met him at his studio Grand Prix in Chinatown to have a chat.
Mark Sengbusch: Talk about your past. How does “punk” play into your work? (you mentioned something to me one time at your old Pratt studio about 90’s style DIY screen-printing culture and how that factored into your dye-printed porcelain sculptures)
Johnny Tragedy: My past is not that interesting, but the punk rock thing, now that is something to talk about. My current body of work doesn’t really have much to do with “punk” at all. It has more to do with what punk has turned into, or the commodified version of punk a la Hot Topic. I used to be really sincere about the way I dressed or the work I made, not unlike how punk was originally. But now punk is just a signifier, just a meaningless trope that can’t actually be counter-cultural anymore, it has become a brand. Johnny Tragedy has by default become that brand, and Jonathan Stanish has embraced its marketability.
MS: Does Fashion influence your work?
JT: Of course it does. I am a fashion slut—love all of it especially Chinatown trends. Fashion is a great way to project what you want others to think you are. Art is about design and trying to stay ahead of trends. I have a collaborative semi-fashion semi-technology project with Loney Abrams called ThereThere. This project is critical of fashion trends and commercial advertising. We are also doing a 2014 Fall/Winter lookbook using Walmart items we purchase, document, and then take back for a full refund. Some of the things we make only exist on the Internet. Ideas don’t always need to be made tangible, this is why the Internet is so great, it allows all of us to produce and disperse ideas thousands of times a day.
MS: You both (Stanish and Tragedy) are extremes. Does the interplay and irony happen in the studio? In your concepts? Does that dichotomy remain in the finished work or is it simply a tool to help you make the work?
JT: Johnny Tragedy is what non-artists think artists are—someone who lives in a Bushwick loft, has an MFA, tattoos, and is in a band (laughs) Even being in a band seems so old fashioned at this point. Jonathan Stanish is what the art world wants artists to be—marketable, palpable to market trends, and easily digestible. They both are cliches, they both pander to their audiences. (Don’t we all to some degree?) But by having both, I get some freedom in being able to go back and forth. Tragedy can get away with making a lot weirder art, and the pseudonym keeps it separated from what comes up when you Google search “Jonathan Stanish”, so Stanish’s professionalism remains preserved. Stanish, in some ways, allows Tragedy to have this freedom by supporting him financially. I also get to make art as Stanish that Tragedy might consider “selling out.” Stanish’s goal is to make money as a “capital A Artist.” His work is about the history of printmaking and ceramics. Tragedy’s practice takes place more online, often in the form of self-promotion for the sake of self-promotion.
MS: Should the viewer really give a fuck if you have face tattoos or have a bowtie on? The work is the work and we should all really respect your personal fashion choices, right? Or maybe that whole line of questioning is moot. If the existence of the dual identities helps you make the work (even if it is a just a fuck you to unnecessary judgement) then more power to ya!
JT: I think the viewer should be skeptical. Personally I would trust a person with face tattoos more then a dude wearing board shorts and flip-flops. I wear my mistakes, I have my ex girlfriend’s initials on my face. This allows me to be critical of tattoo culture and so called self-expression. Of course we should be respectful of individual fashion choices but I think we all should be more critical of trends.
MS: What are you working on in the studio presently?
JT: Currently I am vinyl wrapping racing helmets with appropriated internet imagery. I am calling this series Biker Friendly. The vanity in car culture is intriguing. Car and bike enthusiast like to express themselves through modes of transportation. It is odd that people spend countless hours matching their motorcycle fender colors to their helmet stripes. I find a lot of connections between car culture and fine art especially the whole idea of decadence and commodity.
MS: What is Hotel Art?
JT: Hotelart.us is a collaborative project between Loney Abrams, Ian Swanson, and myself. We document shows in alternative spaces with a guerilla mentality i.e. hotels, spas, shopping malls. Then we show the documentation at a gallery and release the images online. We at hotelart.us recognize how seeing the documentation of art holds prominence in the art world today. Peep the project at hotelart.us.
MS: What is the best book you’ve read in the last year?
JT: Books? (Laughs) Nah, dog Facebook is all I need.
MS: If I come to the bar where you work, can you hook it up?
JT: Depends on what demographic you are. Are you a guy with a curly moustache and a monocle? If so then you would ask for a Bourbon neat with the finest IPA we have on tap. I literally witnessed a guy sniffing his beer for at least one minute then he swooshed it around in his mouth all while staring at the ground. Sometimes Brooklyn is too much that is why I love it here in Chinatown.
Johnny Tragedy has his MFA from Pratt (2013) and will have a solo show at Marc Strauss in 2014.