Interview with Jon McKenzie

“Jon “Jonboy” McKenzie has been and will always be an artist, first and foremost.  His work catalogues a lifetime of bold and trying circumstance.

“I think it is critical, not only to the viewer, but to myself as a working artist, that my art reflects an honesty and soul that offers a punctuation or closure to an emotion.  Art surrounds us everywhere.  In the media, billboards, radio, magazines; everything we look at is critically manufactured to get our attention.  After awhile we no longer look for what to look at and become stagnant in our passive musings.  I have an opportunity to give people a window into who I am, on the rawest and grittiest level.  Now, to get a viewers attention, you must speak in a soft whisper or an alarming call.  Anything in between because the cannon fodder for our ever consumptive lifestyles.  I want to present something almost primal and mysterious to the viewers- shake ’em up a little.  Art is supposed to make you think -and if you are really lucky, change the way you think- and that quality is so often abandoned.”

Jon is primarily self taught, sans a few remedial community college drawing courses.  He practiced the fundamentals of drawing at a very young age- light and shadow, perspective and most importantly for him, anatomy.  Collectively, his textbooks were comics, baseball cards, encyclopedias, early Disney animated films and National Geographics.  He pulled from his surroundings, occasions and memories, trying hard to recreate what was inherent emotionally at the time.  Fiercely independent and recklessly curious, McKenzie traveled over seas where he lived in worked in Bavaria, the Southern most part of Germany.  He produced art and it was here he began to come into his style, finding inspiration from the many artists past and presents chronicled throughout museums in Western Europe. Literature and history has always played an interesting role in his pieces, and both are referenced throughout his works, often juxtaposed with seemingly irrelevant imagery, but together telling a deeper story.  Many pieces are often tongue and cheek, as Jon finds himself delving into the human psyche too often is depressing and sometimes redundant.  Some pieces are glorified fart jokes on 10 dollar paper, further admitting to the elements of life he finds worth exploring, and grinning at the moments and obstacles that at too often discussed with no resolve.  Many pieces, while polished in design, are seen spilled on scrap with feverish intention, capturing the brief and fleeting sparks that tumble through the brain.  

Pieces often offer jarring and chaotic drafting lines that settle to a delicate and composed central image.  Bright, explosive colors war with the crunchy morose hues of asphalt and road tar.  Lipstick and blood are the mailbox and welcome mat to his imagination.

On McKenzie’s latest body of work:

Man on Fire

“I try to let my brain do the thinking.  Things just seem to click and I’ll think, ‘That needs to be put together’.  I wanted to explore the many facets of the female gender.  For a man, it can be difficult to capture a woman’s viewpoint.  What is important to her, what is sexy to her, what makes a girl laugh.  I have always enjoyed the female figure, and like anybody the face says it all.  While I did find this project challenging, I wish I could say I learned more!  Sexy, gritty, industrious and playful, one thing is for sure, no two girls are alike.”

As interviewed by Ian Robert McKown 7/16/12

[IRM]  So Jon, it’s clear that you have quite a different take on art and how much of one’s life, and life experiences should be involved in the work we present to the public. Can you tell us a bit about how your formative years might have laid the foundation for the energetic, raw work we see these days?

[JM]  Well, I have always been inquisitive about my surroundings and the various relationships I have built and acquired over the years.  Even as a child, I looked at even the calmest and mundane happenings as explosive and important, knowing that they were shaping me into what I would become.  I’ve always wanted to convey my viewpoint: that the simple things that make give you goosebumps or cause you to snarl your lip can be as dynamic as a fistfight or first kiss.

[IRM] From what I’ve come to know over the years, you’ve worked mostly in the southern parts of the States.  Has that culture had much of an impact on your wok, and has it in any held you back coming from a traditionally more conservative part of the nation?

[JM]   Haha, I love Texas.  When you are born and raised here, it certainly carves you into a specific type of man.  I have a deep love for the land and the people here, and though I have lived all over the Southern US and Europe, and traveled through much of the rest, Texas will always be home.  I think that part of the crux of a Southern mindset is an honest assessment of what is presented to you.  Rarely have I found an extremely right wing artist—even in political satirists and cartoonists.  Art, by design, is a liberal platform, and when that is abandoned I think it often leaves artwork cold, flat and predictable.  Like Thomas Kinkade’s collection in its entirety.  I think we all know the type of people who purchase(d) his work and I don’t ever want to be one of those people, because it encourages a belief structure that there is nothing better than a white picket fence where the sun is always shining and no one dares to ever be seen.

[IRM]  Many people might not know that you’re also a tattooist.  Recently, if memory serves, you took a voluntary sabbatical from tattooing.  Any thoughts you’d like to share on that?  Has your artwork had any carryover from tattooing or vice versa?  Any future plans in so far as tattooing and Jon McKenzie?

[JM]  I am very blessed to have found a fairly supportive career in tattooing.  However, when it became simply a means to an end, it began to wear on me.  That, coupled with the rat-race and pressure to succeed was becoming very overwhelming and the long hours with often unpredictable financial outcome.  I decided that if was going to be stressed out about art, I wanted it to be on my own terms.  For me, I find the greatest success in my endeavors when I do what I know is right.  That often means lifestyle changes and career changes.  I wanted to know I gave 150% to fine art, and that I would have no one to blame but myself if I did not succeed in my goals.

[IRM]  This may be a sensitive subject, but a few years back you had to have some pretty major heart surgery.  Did that have any lasting effects on your psyche that may have carried over or even helped guide your work?

[JM]Yeah, that was a pretty messed up time for me.  See, it screwed up my family and friends very differently than it screwed me up.  
  As a boy, I had always had heart problems, and as I aged, things needed to be addressed.  A small surgery to mitigate some potentially fatal problems introduced the MRSA bacteria into my bloodstream, compounding my problem 20 fold and putting me into a coma, and eventually I had to be intubated and put on a feeding tube, trach, the whole nine.  I stayed that way for about 2 and a half months.  Upon awakening, I was in ICU then the cardiac ward for another few months.  
My family and friends were exposed to that side of me; the coma side.  I had little interaction, and there were multiple times people were called in to say their goodbyes, so I can say I’ve French kissed death a time or three, but have no recollection of it.  In fact, most of my memory exists in brief flashes from that time.  I had to learn to walk again, tell time again…it sucked.  That’s the part I remember dealing with.  Being pissed off, wanting to go home, mostly confused and belligerent.  I was that guy that would rip out IVs and even the intubation tubes, pushing through the induced coma to wake up and tear a bunch of what I saw as torture devices out of my body.  I did NOT want to be there.  
So yeah, that whole period had me messed up pretty good for awhile.  It took me about a year to get back to tattooing, and I was bitter and haunted by nightmares through a lot of that time.  That definitely affected my artwork, and a lot of that despondence is reflected in pieces from that time.  However, I didn’t know it at the time, but as I was working through this whole PTSD thing, I was changing as a man.  Learning to be much more deliberate about my actions, and choosing my battles carefully.  It sounds like the standard thing to say, but something like that, playing with death like that, it changes the way you interact with people.  What you let get to you and what you let control you.  I thought, “Man, if I had died then, I would have just been remembered as funny Jon that was fun to party with and sometimes did cool tattoos.”  
That’s a stupid thing to be remembered for.  People don’t have room in their brains to remember someone like that.  I wanted to be something more.

[IRM] I know it’s often hard to pare down our influences in art to just a few, but if you could, who is the most influential artist (or non artist) when it comes to your art?  Have you actually met them?  

[JM]  Artistically, I don’t really have a lot of specific influences; rather it’s the type of person that influenced me.  Of course I appreciate all of the “Masters”- Da Vinci, Rembrant, Caravaggio-all those go-to dudes.  They were a true testament to the type of work that could be produced through practicing and improving religiously.  I’ve always been drawn to the free thinkers and renegades of the past.  I always appreciated people who drew for comic books.  I’ve met a couple of those guys, and that shit is a thankless job.  I wouldn’t want to draw Spiderman 300 times a day in awkward and possibly gay positions, but they did it and do it, and that’s their job. And, no, can’t say I’ve ever met any big influences.  Maybe some tattoo artists I looked up to, but the influence stopped when I found out they were assholes.

For a more complete set of influences, see:

[IRM]  Your work is very energetic and expressive.  I know I’ve tried to nail you down on your actual process a few times and from what I gather you just let the art flow.  What’s going on the moments before you start a piece, and at what point are you certain that you’ve finished a piece?  

[JM]  Art, for me, is very often cathartic, and a tool for self-therapy.  So during the inception of a piece, it often begins as a very vague idea.  Something as simple as a man that’s pissed off, because I feel very pissed off.  I might also have some song lyric that I’ve been studying rolling around in my brain.  If it fits, in any way, then I want that in there too.  Let’s go ahead and get that out.  Maybe I saw a dude at the grocery store with two black eyes and wondered what possibly could have happened to him; nothing good, no doubt…So I give the angry man in my piece two black eyes.  This is all getting layered as it comes, starting with a very chaotic buckshot of imagery in my head and then attempting to make a type grouping of it, resulting in a polished piece, that ultimately is a reflection of everything I was thinking about in that moment.  Insta-honesty, if you will.

[IRM] As an outside viewer, I often get the impression that, regardless of the subject in your paintings, many of them are actually about you.  Are we seeing a bit of an autobiographical expression in your works?  I know from our talks that actual self-portraits are a bit off putting for you but I suspect many of your works are indeed self portraits.  Any thoughts on this?

[JM]  I wouldn’t say that they are all self portraits, but I would admit they many are a reflection of a notion or emotion I might be experiencing at the time.  Sometimes, they are an interpretation of something someone else might be going through, or possibly just what I perceive them to be going through.

[IRM]  I think we both share an affinity for genuine, honest expression, regardless of whether the artist is employing conventional or proper technique.  Do you feel that you’re offering up a genuine and honest body of work?  Do you feel this is common in the art community at large?

[JM]  While I can’t be matter-of-fact about a lot of facets of my work, I can say, in confidence that every piece comes from a very real and very genuine place.  Gruesome things can be dolled up to be made beautiful, and in stark contrast, the seemingly pure can be made defiled.  Art is an open door and interpretation is endless.  It’s a shame when a piece of work can only be interpreted at face value.  Really, it is.  I’m not trying to sound elitist, by any means, but there is a clear difference between telling a story on paper and simply writing the name of the book.  I’ve noticed that a lot of tattoo based imagery in art is reproduced and altered just because it “looks cool”.  It’s the same stuff that ends up on koozies and lighters that we frown upon in great disgust, but readily reproduce on paper.  I think if an artist wants to convey real honesty that garners real response from people that use their real brains, some people need to start challenging themselves and the way they think, instead of trying to impress the people they went to highschool with.  Congrats, ya know…you drew a pistol or whatever.  What the pistol does is way fucking cooler.  A bullet goes a billion miles an hour and tears up some previously perfect and organized biological system, splitting veins and shattering bones.  That’s some crazy stuff.  But people don’t want to think that far.  They just want to rest in the idea that guns are cool and chicks dig pictures of guns.  Maybe, this drawing of a gun with get 50 likes on Instagram.  Especially, because I put a banner that says “America” on it…that’s a guaranteed 20 likes in itself!   

[IRM]  What are your thoughts on your experiences as a tattooer entering the fine art community?  You’ve got a solo show coming up in a week or so.  How have you prepared for it, and how have you found the experience overall?

[JM]  I had done gallery shows prior to tattooing and during my tattoo career, so I always stayed pretty grounded in that respect.  The fine art community is a different animal.  They don’t care about how cool your friends think you look, or how hard you can party.  All the bullshit is weeded through pretty quickly and you better be on top of your game and giving the people some shit they want to study when it’s your time.  I didn’t have a normal season to prepare for the upcoming show, Man on Fire.  I had, like 4 weeks’ notice, I think.  Mostly, it was a brutal self critique of my current body of work.  As you said Ian, artists can be readily labeled as wishy-washy and flakey in their delivery, and I did not want that.  I wanted and still want to be taken seriously, so basically, I’m doing all the shit I think it would take on my end to make that happen.   That means not fooling myself or stroking my own ego.  Constantly switching up my methodology to stay fresh and honest, and producing stuff that I could see hung and framed in my own home.  Also, I gotta have stuff that makes people use their brains where they allow themselves to look at the piece longer than 3 seconds.  Even if it’s from a technique standpoint.  Otherwise, I’m just doing this for a paycheck again, and I might as well be laying tile.

[IRM]  I think we both feel that the Rise of Jon McKenzie is just beginning. Where would you like to be in the next year?  5 years?

[JM]  I have a feeling that the next year will be more of paying dues and staying hungry.  I have no problem fighting and pushing, and am very comfortable in that role.  If things became too easy, I’d probably end up losing my passion and focus.  
In 5 years, I imagine I’ll be married, mostly because I will be in my mid 30s by then, and that seems like a normal thing to do.  Normalcy is important in the physical realm of things, when your brain fires on all pistons in the psychological.  The idea is to make some damn money doing this stuff  I love, so yeah, I’d like to make more than just enough to make ends meet.  I’d like to have some land and some livestock and whittle my friends down to the important ones.  That seems like a normal thing to do too.

I imagine my work will have progressed in technique and delivery, but the underlying concepts will most likely still be the same, and as they always have been.  Show ‘em what you see with your eyes, show ‘em what you got with your hands.

[IRM]  Well Jon, thanks or taking the time to knock this out with me.  I’m a big fan of your work and can’t wait to see more!  Any last thoughts, shout-outs or stuff you’d like us to know?

[JM]  I wanted to say thanks to Ian McKown, a beast on canvas (check out his shit) for the opportunity to speak on a lot of these subjects.  Great questions.  Well rounded interview, lots of peaks and valleys.  Fantastic cadence…

Check out Jed Leiknes shit.  Check out Nicole Marie McCord’s shit.  Go look at some Puerto Rican shit and check out José Antonio González.  Aaron Grace is crazy.  Ronsta Fari is nuts.  Brian Scott Hampton is an animal with a rattle can.  Much love always to my AE crew.  Jaime Tank Smith knows his way around a piece of paper…I’m sure there are people I forgot.

All of the artists I have worked with and for, all my old IN homies (the old proving ground…)  My best friend Jared Primm, and mad-crazy artist in his own right.

My family for tolerating me.  

As Willie said, “To all the girls I’ve loved before…” Some of you are inspirational.  Some of you are evil.  But I guess the same can be said for the weather.  Neither of which, I can control. Chicks that draw are hot and grounded.  Dude’s that draw have emotional problems.

Check it out:

Man on Fire is a one night only pop up solo show, July 27th 8pm-11pm
at Kirk Hopper Fine Art in Deep Ellum, Dallas.  There will be booze and tacos and fancy chicks and champagne.

I love you.


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