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April 12, 2004

{     Interview : Jon Burgerman     }    

Raw and scribbly, Jon Burgerman's work is as delightful as it is easily recognized. From limbless little girls to stoic robots and kids with skull heads and puny arms, the characters that populate his sketchbooks, paintings and websites have a crackling energy that never fails to put a twinkle in your tooth. day14 Gallery in London is pimping a bit of Jon's work and you can find other pieces scattered throughout galleries across the US as well as reproduced in magazines and on album covers worldwide. He's currently roosting in Nottingham, UK. We got Jon off his deck chair and away from his fancy cheese for a little back and forth.

Adam: Your work is popping up everywhere these days. I know you kick a certain street-level guerilla-artwork approach to spreading the word, but I'm seeing your stuff in a dozen different magazines, galleries and all over the web. How have you managed to sticker yourself into so many nooks and crannies? (Your carefully cultivated status as a "freelance loafer and occasional doodler" may be at risk with all the hours you've been putting in.)

Jon:The only thing 'Guerilla' about me are my somewhat simian features (sticky out ears, floor scraping knuckles). I honestly try not to over apply myself due to a fear of spreading myself too thinly. Perhaps I work really quickly, or maybe it's just that my work doesn't take very long to do. Maybe I'm not really a slacker but a well-oiled illustration corporation. I don't know how I manage to get work in different places, I'm lucky, it's all by chance. I like doing different things. I get bored too easily.

Your character designs tend to make people smile, even the ones that get a bit grisly. I've heard them described as "cute", but I don't think that captures what you do- I'm pretty sure you've tapped into the part of our brain that allows us as children to point to some squiggles we've drawn in crayon on mother's kitchen wall and call that squiggle "Daddy" and that squiggle "sister" and that one "monster". How much does your own childhood influence what you create these days?
Childhood isn't something I keenly draw inspiration from. It's wider than that (tapping into childhood), some people get it and others don't. I've no idea if any children even actually like my work. My own childhood was filled with vast amounts of boredom and out-of-the-window staring, much like my early adulthood. I'm entertaining myself with my work, recessing into a little underworld of wonky eyed gonks and limp limbed creatures.

What else influences your work? You've stated in an interview with Wooster Collective that you first found inspiration to draw from television, magazines, comics, computer games etc. all the usual stuff everyone mentions. Are you still inspired by these mediums? If so, what sources inspired you then and what inspires you now?
Yes and no. Inspiration can come from anything, anywhere. I don't expect to find inspiration in magazines or on TV etc, but sometimes you're lucky and you do. I like going to galleries, seeing things, bands, performances I wouldn't normally go to and taking away bits from them. I like animals and nature documentaries. It's best to return to the source; once something has been produced it's a second-generation idea. The interest is in what lead up to it. I like lots of other artist's works, they raise the bar and make me want to go out and be as good as them.

At what age did you commit your first act of vandalism/street art/graffiti? What is it about this form of media that is so attractive?
I wouldn't ever call it vandalism. Vandalism is smashing up a bus stop, my stickering is subtle and not intended to invade anyone's space. I've always had a strange affinity to stickers. I used to collect them when young, then realized years later I could make my own and that is when I began. I first properly began stickering when I was at university. I was about 19 and had lots of (well some) enthusiasm and energy (I'm a lot lazier now). Honestly, I had little idea that anyone paid attention to the stickers and that anybody else was seriously doing similar things. It was humbling to meet people who'd peeled them off from around the city so they could keep them. Also it was a little frustrating as it meant I had to go and re-sticker the city again... It's attractive because it's a pleasurable act and is hopefully enjoyed by those who go out and manage to find them.

You've gone from plastering the back alleys with your work to carefully mounting it on a gallery wall. What's it like to see your work in a gallery, getting critical attention? How comfortable are you with this?
I am generally always in a state of mild discomfort. I studied Fine Art at Uni so in a very small way they prime you for hanging works and having exhibitions. Not that it makes it much easier. Its worse when you know your work's a stinker. Recently I have had work in shows I've not even been to, so in that instance it's fine and very easy. When putting a sticker on a bus-stop you're still offering yourself up to critical attention. Any public display is at the mercy of public opinion. I think if you're aware of that before a show then it's ok.

Last May, you had a piece in the GardenFresh ArtBoat 4x6 show in Chicago. I know this because a close friend who also contributed (Aaron Zimmerman) urged me to check it out. I also spotted your work in the Instant Life show in L.A. (alongside my favorite tag-team artists, kozyndan.) Your work has always left an impression on me, and I've noticed that you continue to crop up in other shows throughout the States. How has this been working out for you? Have things changed as you've widened your scope, and have you noticed anything different about the US perspective and approach to your work?
It's working out great. I do the work, stick it in an envelope and hear about the show a few weeks later on the internet. I barely have to leave my room, which is good. Things haven't changed too much just yet, except I get invited to do more shows, which I enjoy. There is a big difference between the US and UK ideas of an exhibition. Things are a lot more relaxed in the US and there is a softer approach to the Art side of things. US shows are quite happy to be about selling prints and tee shirts. The exhibition circuit over here is a lot heavier and tougher to break into. It's certainly less to do with display and much more about discourse.

You've offered your work in a variety of mediums, from stickers to prints, downloadable screensavers and web animation to badges and collectible coasters. How important is it to you that the Average Joe or Jill be able to get their hands on your stuff?
There's nothing sadder than work collecting dust in a drawer somewhere [of which I have lots]. I make lots of things; I'd like to share them with anyone who's interested. I'm not sure it's important but it's nice and warm and fuzzy. Rejoice, free stickers for all It's a novelty people actually want the things, I should be grateful, thankful and for ever in their debt.

The words "mixed media" get thrown around a lot when discussing what you do. You will occasionally work on discarded advertisements, odd bits of postal mail, scraps of cardboard and other bits of paper detritus. Is this something that just happens, or are you sending a conscious message about consumerism and the nature of art?
Nothing ever �just happens'. It was a decision I made a while ago that predominately it made the most sense for a large proportion of my work. These are scraps, discarded idle doodles and odd ideas. I'm recycling works, thoughts and materials all at the same time (how's that for multi-tasking efficiency). They are the slow acumination of the occupation of tired hands and a tiny brain.

To take that a step further, your Coaster Club is a stroke of genius- a kind of reversal of Piero Manzoni's canned shit. It's self-deprecating (as opposed to self-defecating), humble and just damn funny to think of anyone setting their beverage down on one of your drawings, beer rings bleeding into your hand-drawn lines.
You've attacked consumer culture in other ways too- I was reading about your Dullring piece, a reaction to the commercialization you've seen sprouting up in your hometown, and was a bit touched. We're so used to the shopping-centerization of everything here in the US that no one even blinks when another one goes up, but you held nothing back when blasting Bullring.
How essential is the idea of art as protest to you? Can art be as effective in making a statement in the gallery as it can in the streets?

I'm glad you like the coasters; I really liked the idea that it's defaceable just through its prescribed application. If I could make toilet roll I'd probably do that too. I made a piece last summer with the artist group I sometimes work with (called Reactor, fear www.reactorweb.com ) which was along related lines. There was a smash-it-up stall in which plaster figures could be destroyed by pelting them with stones. I spent a long time before the show, cleaning and then drawing on every single one for people to then throw away and break. Somewhere along the line I wondered whether most people would choose to keep their stones instead of using them on the stall. Destruction is too seductive and most of the rocks duly disappeared down the back of the stall within the opening night.
Birmingham is proud of the new Bullring I think. I felt a little bad showing that work the day after the giant shopping centre had opened. Birmingham is an underachiever considering its England's' second biggest city. However, the Bullring is dull dull dull, just another faceless mall of bland stores and coffee houses. The piece was a minuscule protest, though it probably would have been better served through action rather than art.
I used to make work with www.mydadsstripclub.com and participated on the Stop Shopping Tour last year. They're hitting the USA again soon, so beware!

I noticed on your pixelsurgeon profile that you have some really decent taste in music. What are you listening to these days? Do you listen to music while you draw, and if so what works best for you?
I try and listen to music as much as possible [insert plea for someone to buy me an ipod] I generally do listen to stuff when doodling. I'm lazy though and now that half my cd's are in one place of the flat and the rest in my office I only listen to what's close to hand. My poor old record player (that was once owned by my Dad) hardly ever gets a look in. The mostest recent thing I've been listening to (as far as my memory can recall) includes Kid Koala, the Grey LP, Aphex Twin, Master, Neil Young �On the Beach' and Lampchop's new LP. I try and coordinate music to what I'm working on, soft nice things for colour nice pictures and weird music of strange drawings. How nerdy is that? I think I've revealed too much.

I know you've done covers for Charles Webster albums, and some artwork for Winding Road Records, have you worked with any other musicians on cover/interior album art?
I always start the day listening to Charles' music followed by anyone else's music I've done illustrations for � I feel this is my duty, and have guilt complexes listening to anything else first.
I've recently done an LP cover for an Italian punk band called �Me For Rent', at least I think it's an LP cover, sometimes the details are lost in translation. I've also done a few small things for an artist who goes by the name of Screech,

Jonburgerman.com is a riot! The Schmoov soundtrack and the Flash animation make things way too much fun. The mini-movie about Colin the robot was incredible. Do you have plans for more animation? Have you considered traditional cel animation?
Cel? Are you crazy? I struggle to find the time to tween things in Flash! I'd love to do more stuff and am currently working on two animation projects; one is very odd and is called Dandle, the other is for an advertising agency, yet is still a little strange. Lot's of people love the Schmoov track, I shall continue to pester them to finish it off and release it on an EP.

I was also really happy to see what you've cooked up with biro-web.com, and I'm torn between which of your web endeavors I enjoy more. They definitely offer two completely different approaches to your work, and I'm wondering how you feel about these differences. It's obvious that you love your sketchbook and the personal organic process of drawing the lines. However, you've done a lot of vector-based work as well as tons of web-design. Do you ever get a little Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to what medium you select? Are you torn between the brilliant abilities of the computer vs. the raw expressiveness of pen on paper? Ultimately, what do you love more and why?
Ugh. melt down� my pen and paper never crash or withhold my work from me and for that I'm eternally grateful. I love computers but I bloody hate them too. I think I would lead a happier life without them, I think we all would. Back to basics, deck chairs and warm beer, notepads and afternoon snoozes, a life by a lake with a view of trees out the window�
Biro-web is a visceral sketchbook site, jonburgerman.com is the sad display of my Flash MX hoop jumps. They are a contradiction of each other, I can't choose between them though, I want them both. Which is to say I enjoy working in both styles but ultimately will always return to the hand drawn. Anyone can draw some shapes in Flash and give them eyes, there's a lot of average stuff out there in internet land. It all should return to drawing.

I was hoping you might be able to offer a little global perspective on some issues here in the States. I know you've expressed some disdain for the war in Iraq, and we're facing an election this November that could very well result in four more years of lies, warmongering, and ignorant choices in foreign policy and international relations. Personally, I think the whole world should get to vote in the US Presidential election, because the decision is affecting more than just America now, it's affecting the entire planet. What are your thoughts?
I vehemently echo the thought that we should all be allowed a say in who's going to be President. I've been moaning about that for ages, but then my American pals are always keen to point out they didn't vote Bush in, in the first place. There's a dark inevitability about it all. Everyone seems to be backing Kerry, we can only watch and hope for the best. Though, not wishing to end on a downer, you look at the state of affairs on a global scale and it isn't good.
I'm off to find a deck chair and some fancy cheese before it's too late�

    » Jon Burgerman dot com
    » Biro-Web
    » See more Burgerman work at Day14
    » Even more work at Wear It With Pride


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