Famed artist Jon Burgerman has carved out a distinctive visual language bursting with unmistakable characters imbued with a saccharine sweetness that exudes a freshly painted aura; in his upcoming exhibition, Sim City, at London’s OMNI gallery, promises to be a veritable feast for the senses and comprises of eight large-scale aerosol paintings on canvas, 19 works on paper that explore the paradoxes of modern life and an immersive video installation that is poised to captivate and bewitch the viewer.
As Burgerman prepares for his solo exhibition at OMNI, the Brooklyn-based artist delves into his artistic approach and shares his experience showcasing his work at The White House.
Sim City by Jon Burgerman is on at OMNI from 6-17 th April 2023
Congrats on the solo exhibition with OMNI. Can you tell us how Sim City came about? Is it made specifically for the OMNI space or is the collection something you already had in mind prior?
Jon Burgerman: I’m always painting and working in my studio, not necessarily for a show or project but just to keep myself occupied and busy. Then, when I have an exhibition, I review what I’ve been making and take a selection of works that seem to go well together. In this case after I had about ten or so paintings I made a few more, with the exhibition in mind, and then selected the best eight. I think of it how I imagine a songwriter might work, collecting ideas and demoing songs over a period of time and then reviewing them when it’s time to make the album.
Sim City is such an interesting title. Was this something OMNI approached you with or something you chose yourself? Is it integral to the story behind the artwork?
Jon Burgerman: It’s something I came up with, as it seemed to encompass concepts that have been rolling around in my head for a while. The works generally come first, I don’t create to a brief. A lot of my soft, blobby, malleable characters tend to exist in a colourful nothingness but recently I’ve been wanting to place them somewhere, a liminal space perhaps, between a geographical location and the infinite art void.
So I started to define a chaotic urban environment for them to live in, my Simulated City. Of course, Sim City refers to the seminal city-building computer game, where you create your own world, which I’m suggesting as a parallel to both the creation of art and what we do in our lives every day.
Is there a particular message you’re looking to portray or a reaction you’d like to evoke in the viewer with Sim City?
Jon Burgerman: I’m just sharing ideas through the works and it’s up to the audience to tie the strands together to make a narrative. Viewers will see themselves I believe.
The juxtaposition between the vibrant characters of your work and the themes of mental health behind them is so clever and beautifully executed. Were there any influences, visually or conceptually that helped you arrive at this signature style – other artists, personal experiences or other sources?
Jon Burgerman: I think I get a lot of inspiration from the graffiti I see on my commute to and from my studio in Brooklyn. Not the composed murals and designed images but the loose scrawls and tags, the scribbles, etches, scratches, scars, spills and general slap-dash vandalism. I love the brutality of those marks and how they feel so urgently made.
Against the barrage of printed advertisements and air brushed pixels these scribbles are painfully, beautifully analogue. They cut through and they ache. Artist-wise I’ve been looking at Stuart Davis’ work, his looping, lolling jazzy compositions, built out of skewed shapes and flat colours. I’ve taken inspiration from him for the construction of my sim city. I Jean Dubuffet’s works from time to time, to remind myself to loosen up, have fun, use whatever I can and play with the materials. These are lessons I already know but it’s easy to forget and easy to be reminded when looking at his pieces.
What does your creative process look like? How do you approach a collection or project and are there any rituals or crucial steps you particularly engage with?
Jon Burgerman: Every day I turn up and I paint. That’s what I do and that’s how I stay sane. I scribble down ideas and take lots of photos of interesting (to me) things and then try and process them on to the canvas. I keep going, iterating ideas until I’ve had my fill. Then I might do a 180 turn and try the opposite and see how far that takes me. On low days I’ll just prep the canvases so they’re ready for the next day and I take satisfaction that at least I’m one step closer now to making the next work. One step at a time is ok too.
Your biography mentions displaying work at the White House. That’s such an accomplishment! Can you tell us more about that? What did you showcase and how did it come about?
Jon Burgerman: In 2015 I created a work focused on social justice reform as part of an initiative by non-profit organisation Act / Art. As part of the campaign my piece was exhibited as part of a group show in the White House, which was an incredible experience as I got to go inside the White House (and even ate some cup cakes with the presidential seal on them). Later I got a thank you letter from vice president at the time Joe Biden, which my parents now have in a frame!
Are there any other dream venues or spaces you’d like to exhibit your work in/on?
Jon Burgerman: The moon.
Would you say that Instagram has changed how audiences find and interact with your work?
Jon Burgerman: Yes, I would say Instagram (amongst other social media platforms) have radically changed most of our lives. For an artist they’ve been invaluable in connecting to new audiences and collectors all over the world. I think it became even more pronounced during the lockdowns when we couldn’t go out. But really yes, Instagram has shifted everything, for better and in some cases, worse. As much as I’m happy to share my work on Instagram I hope people can get to see it IRL (in real life). Not all works reproduce well as a photo on a small screen. Social media is not good for any kinds of subtlety or nuance.
Your work is incredibly popular in the Asian art markets. Have you been to any of the exhibitions and fairs where you’ve had work across Asia and how do you find those markets?
Jon Burgerman: I was in Hong Kong last winter just as it was coming out of its lockdown and it the enthusiasm and joy people had for visiting my show was incredible. I’m very grateful my work resonates so well in countries I’ve often never even been to. There’s something accessible in my work that just connects with all sorts of people, which is really lucky for me.
Are there any other Jon Burgerman projects we should look out for in 2023?
Jon Burgerman: I’ll be showing again in Asia later this year! Sim City by Jon Burgerman is at OMNI from 6-17 th April. omnigallery.com
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