Since I started interviewing musicians about their favorite vacations, there’s been quite a bit of pressure on me to somehow incorporate visual artists. Well, after thinking about it for the past several months, I came up what I hope is a fruitful new series. It’s called “Art, Food, Sex and Trauma: Mark Maynard shoots the shit with the most important artists of our day,” and the first episode is with our friend John Maggie (née Johnny Apricot, née Pink Maggie).
[This is his secret workspace in Hamtramck.]
MARK: Over the time I’ve known you, you’ve had had least four names. For the purposes of this interview, what would you like for me to call you?
JOHN: I recently considered changing it again, to Jonny Deeper. We can stick to John for now, though.
MARK: Why is it that you work under an alias? Is it because of the content of your work? Are you embarrassed? Do you fear retribution?
JOHN: I had an experience around 2010, where, after showing one of my animations (made partially with pornography) to a good size audience, I was approached by a parent of one of my mother’s students. (My mother is a schoolteacher.) It scared me. I’m so self-centered that I began to imagine my art somehow destroying my mother’s professional life. And I was consumed with guilt.
JOHN: I’d probably make the same stuff… I just wouldn’t worry so much.
MARK: Have you ever discussed your work with your mother?
JOHN: She laughs.
MARK: Nervously? Like she’s terrified of you?
JOHN: Maybe she laughs because the joy of her life, her first born son, is spending all of his time making foolish art.
MARK: Or maybe she’s laughing the way people in movies do when they realize that they’re trapped in a room with a psychopath… I’m not suggesting that’s the case. I’m just asking if it’s a possibility.
JOHN: Or maybe, shes laughing because she’s trapped in the closet with R. Kelly….
MARK: Seriously, what does she think of your work?
JOHN: Not sure. The last couple of holidays I’ve given everyone in my family a new flipbook, which invariably includes both nudity and poop. I think my parents are proud of me, even though they think I’m a weirdo. I think they also believe I could have used my talents for something more widely appreciated.
MARK: What are these talents that you speak of?
JOHN: Artistic talents. Maybe I could have been a successful portrait artist, or something like that.
MARK: Regarding their acceptance, I imagine it helps that your work is starting to attract some positive critical attention… It’s one thing to have a son who makes flipbooks of wizards pooping. It’s another to have a son whose work is finding its way into galleries, and whose wizard pooping flipbooks are sold at the MOCAD.
JOHN: I think it’s nice to have a little validation sometimes. They ask me questions about what I’m working on, etc. They’re proud. It’s not their particular taste in art, but they recognize that other people like it.
MARK: In addition to the MOCAD, where else are your flipbooks being sold these days?
MARK: Were you brought up Catholic, or is that an aesthetic that you’ve purposefully cultivated?
JOHN: As far as the guilt aesthetic?
MARK: Yeah, the guilt, but I think there’s more to it than just that. I can’t quite articulate it. There’s a Catholicism about you… Maybe it’s just the haircut.
JOHN: You can tell? Yes, I was raised catholic.
MARK: How, if at all, do you think that manifests itself in your art?
MARK: Tell me about your artwork?
JOHN: I can tell you who my heroes are… Currently I’m in love with Heather Benjamin, Allison Schulnik and Andre Butzer. I think of their work often. I had the chance to meet Heather Benjamin at the New York Art Book Fair in 2013. I’m impressed by her disregard of decency. Her work is unapologetically perverted. I asked her, when I met her, how she lives with the idea that a lot of people probably dislike, or may even hate, her art. She responded by saying something like, “I stopped caring.” I wish I could do that. Allison Schulnik and Andre Butzer are both oil painters that use enormous amounts of paint on their canvases. I’ve been able to see a few of their paintings in person and have since become fascinated with the process of sculpting oil paint.
MARK: It’s not a question exactly, but I feel compelled to share… I tend to have a visceral reaction to seeing works where a great deal of paint has been used. I just think about how much money paint costs and it pains me. Is that weird? It’s like, if you’re watching a movie, and something happens that shocks you out of the moment, so you’re no longer inside the film, participating in it. When I see large globs of paint, I’m snatched out of the moment. I just can’t get beyond it. It’s an OCD thing.
JOHN: I use some cheap paint mixed in with the regular stuff. I can’t imagine I use more than $30 of paint per painting. Making art costs a lot of money. It’s interesting for me to the think about your perspective. I feel that, on some level, artists are purposely being wasteful. At least that’s a vague notion that I have when I’m creating art.
MARK: Wasteful in what way? Do you mean just in terms of materials, or do you mean that the whole endeavor is wasteful, self-indulgent, essentially meaningless?
JOHN: Yeah, exactly. Wasteful, self-indulgent and meaningless. I was reading a good comic the other day. In one panel, we see an artist busily solving some creative dilemma. And, in the next, we see a cityscape. The caption beneath reads, “meanwhile, nobody cares.”
JOHN: Sculpting paint has currently captured my imagination. I could probably avoid it if I wanted to, though.
MARK: What would you do if you gave up art?
JOHN: Remain depressed, maybe get really depressed.
MARK: Do you think the artwork keeps the depression at bay?
JOHN: Maybe. It gives me something to focus on, and it gives me energy. But, it also seems to cause a lot of distress as well. The worst feeling in the world is when I am frustrated with a painting, or a project, and convince myself that I’m a failure. Then I see the reality, that, at best, I’m only slightly above average.
MARK: What food is it that you’re best at making? What do you consider your signature dish?
JOHN: I don’t know how to cook very well. I eat a lot of pizza. I abuse pizza when I have the opportunity, like when I don’t have to work the next day. I use it to change my mood and to escape. It works pretty well. I’ll wake up sometimes in the middle of the night after a heavy pizza party and swear never to do it again. But I always go back.
MARK: I’ve never heard of a situation where someone eats so much pizza that he can’t work the following day. How much pizza are we talking about? Are you literally bed-ridden?
JOHN: I can eat a large pizza, no problem. I try not to. It’s best if other people are around, who can monitor my intake. If I eat too much, I’ll definitely feel hungover the next day.
MARK: I’m thinking about all of my favorite artists, and their various demons, and I don’t recall any of them struggling with pizza… A lot of alcoholics and addicts, but I can’t think of a single one who couldn’t be left alone with a large pizza.
MARK: I’m looking forward to the bio-pic… Who would you like to have play you? When you close your eyes, what actor do you imagine in your part, looking intently from across the room at the large pizza, trying his best to summon the strength necessary to resist?
JOHN: I’m thinking Keanu Reeves.
MARK: Why? What is it about him?
JOHN: I see myself in him… Mostly his sex appeal is why I would chose him.
MARK: I knew an artist in Georgia. We weren’t friends, but we were kind of in the same scene. I remember him telling me that his girlfriend would have to tell him when to eat. If not for her, he said, he’d keep working until he just passed out from starvation. I didn’t believe him, but I guess it’s conceivable that some people can get so far into the zone that they could forget to eat, poop themselves, etc. Do you ever find yourself entering a trance-like state? Do you ever finish a painting to find that you’re shat yourself?
JOHN: Artistically, when I’m feeling inspired, and in “the zone,” I can get a little irritable. I don’t like interruptions when I’m like that. But I can only manage it for a couple of hours at a time. It’s really not very glamorous. When I come out of isolation, my wife will call me a dick, and I’ll inevitably feel like a failure.
MARK: When’s the last time you had food poisoning?
JOHN: I’m not sure that I’ve ever had it. I’ve had the stomach flu, which was pretty impressive. I’ll never forget the dream I had right before I woke up vomiting.
MARK: What can you tell us about it?
JOHN: Images of ground beef drifting at the bottom of a pool.
MARK: Do you dream a lot?
JOHN: Constant nightmares. Not really bad ones, but uncomfortable.
MARK: When I originally pitched this interview to you, I said that I wanted to write about “Art, Food, Sex and Death,” and you suggested that I change Death to Trauma. Why?
JOHN: Trauma seems more fun. Death doesn’t seem real.
MARK: What do you you mean when you say that death doesn’t seem real?
JOHN: I prefer to ignore it, and forget about it.
MARK: Do you remember your first experience with death?
JOHN: My great grandfather’s funeral was probably my first experience. I’ve had lots of pets die, grandparents, friends and family. I don’t think about it much.
MARK: When I look at your work, I see a lot of decay… humans opening up, spilling out… flesh rotting away from the bone… Has this always been a theme for you, or did it just start once you began working in health care, surrounded by individuals who were fighting disease, wasting away, etc?
JOHN: I think I’ve always been attracted to disturbing imagery. My work from college was pretty dark and depressing. My wife was just making fun of me this morning about how pretentious I was back then. Before that, I was into drugs, and didn’t make anything interesting.
JOHN: A long time ago, at one of my old jobs, I found a piece of poop in the toilet the size and shape of a softball. Myself and a co-worker had to use a coat hanger to cut it into pieces so we could flush it down the toilet.
MARK: What were you like as a kid?
JOHN: I loved Batman. I was afraid of everything. Still am. Still love Batman too.
MARK: What were you most afraid of as a kid? And does that same fear plague you today?
JOHN: I have had so many. They change with life circumstances. I always have new ones that haunt me.
MARK: I wouldn’t have answered either… I don’t talk about my fears publicly. I don’t want anyone to know what it is that terrifies me.
MARK: You also suggested, when discussing the title for this new interview series, that I change Sex to Marriage. Are you uncomfortable talking about sex, even from behind your alias?
JOHN: Marriage has that sexy edge to it. Sex is played out. It’s more exciting to discuss living in a relationship, working out your issues over time, and building a history with an awesome partner, than talking about butt sex.
MARK: I just said sex, but if you’d like to say something about butt sex, I’m all ears.
JOHN: I was always told, “the anal zone is the best zone.”
MARK: By whom were you told this?
JOHN: My parents. They always said that. Not sure why… But I’ve found it to be true.
MARK: Speaking of relationships, would I be right to assume that, on occasion, your wife feels as though she’s competing with your art for your time and attention? If so, I’m curious as to how you navigate that.
JOHN: We fight about it sometimes. There’s a time commitment involved with both. My schedule allows me to set aside time for both home life and art. My wife is very supportive, and I’d probably be homeless without her. I’d also likely be a worse artist.
MARK: Is anything off limits for you content-wise when it comes to your art?
JOHN: I’m not sure. My wife helps me curate my content. She’s essentially become my editor, saving me from some of my more stupid ideas. She reminds me of what I was supposed to have learned in school; that restraint can be valuable.
MARK: Can you give me an example of her editing?
JOHN: I remember one painting I’d wanted to do, in 3D, using 3D glasses. It involved a woman giving birth. The baby would literally be flying out at the viewer. With things like that, she’ll tell me that I need to chill out. She, by they way, thinks this is a bad example.
MARK: Today, I’m told, would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 250th birthday. If you could travel back in time with a sandwich for him, what kind of sandwich would it be?
JOHN: I would bring him a sandwich from Publican Quality Meats in Chicago.
MARK: Is there one sandwich in particular that you think he’d enjoy?
JOHN: “Return of the Gyro” …braised pork belly, raita, escalivada, pea shoots and calabrian chili vinaigrette on griddled flatbread – $11.
MARK: Let’s talk process… How has your creative process evolved over time?
JOHN: I think of myself as a portrait artist. Over the years, I’ve always started with a photo of someone that I want to embellish, and, from there, make a narrative. I find pictures in magazines that strike my eye and start out to try and tell a story about my version of this person. Most people end up in their underwear. I start with an idea of where I want to go with the painting, but often find myself, in the end, somewhere completely different. I paint over paintings and change original concepts. I’m usually frustrated with the whole middle part of the process, and it isn’t until some undisclosed time, after working and re-working, when I come up with a resolution to the image, that I’m finally happy with it. My hope is that, in the end, the picture will surprise me.
MARK: Given that you like to, as you put it, “tell a story,” I’m curious if you’ve ever experimented with video or animation, beyond what you do in the flipbooks… Do you at all feel limited by the canvas?
JOHN: I’ve made quite a few animated pieces over the years. I would love to be an animator, but I can only put so much energy into it. It’s fun to use other mediums, but I love painting the most.
MARK: Describe your workspace to us?
JOHN: I rent a studio at Klinger Street Studios in Hamtramck from Jonathan Rajewski (one of my favorite Detroit artists). There are about seven artists there, each with their own space. The building has been used for studio space since the late ‘60s, I think. Many artists have worked there over the years. My space is pretty simple. I have my paints, a few paintings that I’m working on, and some pictures of young half naked men pinned on the wall. I also have space at home where I work.
MARK: I’m curious as to why just half naked men. What is it that you find more compelling about men as subjects?
JOHN: I’ve had periods where I focused on women as subjects. The last couple years, though, it’s been men. I read a lot of superhero comic books. I find the idea of really muscular men kind of funny. I like violence, and men seem more violent. The male penis is kind of funny too.
MARK: Why Hamtramck instead of closer to home? Would I be right to assume that it has to do with the community of artists working there? How do you benefit from being a part of that community?
JOHN: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun being out in that environment. It’s visually so much different from Ann Arbor. There also seems to be a fairly large community of artists that take the pursuit of making art very seriously. I’ve met a bunch of people that I look up to, and I’ve learned a lot in the short time I’ve been working out there.
MARK: Can you give me an example of something that you learned?
JOHN: Its hard to say specifics, but, maybe it’s that am learning to be more professional as an artist. I have more to compare myself against, and, as a result, I hold myself to a higher standard.
JOHN: It may be a good sign if people had such a strong reaction to a piece of art, that would mean I am challenging my audience. Though, I would prefer not to cause anyone any discomfort if possible.
MARK: I stole that last question from Interview magazine. It comes from a discussion between director Steve McQueen and Kanye West. Your response will be measured against that of Kanye… Are you often compared to Kanye West?
JOHN: My self esteem doesn’t measure up to Kanye West’s. I could learn a lot from him….
MARK: You should go to him and ask him to be your master, like in a Kung Fu movie.
JOHN: I haven’t been able to get past his assistants.
MARK: Anything else you’d like to discuss?
JOHN: Do you exfoliate?
MARK: Why do you want know? Do you want a bag of my skin cells to sculpt with, or to carry around your neck in a little bag, or to snort? Keith Richards snorted his father. Did you know that? Is there anyone, either living or dead, that you’d snort?
JOHN: It would be easy to snort someones skin flakes, or someones dandruff. I can’t think of anyone I would snort though.
[Video of a new John Maggie flipbook being demonstrated by Vinnie Massimino at the recent In Print show at the University of Michigan’s Work Gallery in Detroit. Video by Melissa Dettloff.]
[The very last image is a photo of the artist taken by his wife, who, for obvious reasons, prefers to remain anonymous. It was inspired by an image of Kanye West which recently appeared in Interview Magazine. It’s my understanding that the effect was accomplished with a red lightbulb, the afterbirth of a swine, and a pound of gold glitter.]