Jonny Star: Free Your Soul (Through Art) – An Interview
Can one ever stop being an artist? One quick look at Jonny Star’s (b. 1964, Düsseldorf, Germany) career is enough to say no. Active for over 20 years in New York and Berlin, the artist’s work has dealt with a wide range of mediums, proposing new perspectives on gender topics while still being incredibly personal and maintaining an admirable level of integrity and resilience. After all, being an artist is not always easy – yet somehow it remains intertwined with life itself, the winding road in which once simply keeps walking on.
How do these themes, art and life, connect? After a 2 year hiatus, Jonny’s presenting some work at the upcoming group show “How Beautiful You Are!” at KINDL, and KALTBLUT visited her studio in Kreuzberg to find out more about her career, creative processes and even got the chance to get some artistic advice! Check it out below:
KALTBLUT: How are you? Jonny Star: I’m fine, working on new stuff.
KALTBLUT: Can you tell us a bit more about the pieces you are exhibiting at “How Beautiful You Are!”? Jonny Star: The works are digital collages printed on fabric and embroidered with Swarovski beads. I’m very, very happy to show them at KINDL Berlin. They’re not that new, they’re from last year, but I had no opportunity to show them until now. Maik Schierloh [curator of the show] put together a great line up of artists, there’s a lot of caring and love in it. The assistant curator, Daniela von Damaros, is so lovely too. It will be a very special show. The vibe will be very interesting. Dealing with beauty and the art world.
KALTBLUT:What is the series called? Jonny Star: It’s called “Hey, baby, I’m a full-time painter”. Like a fake painting. It also deals with the attitude of some male artists, especially painters… It was funny, going to openings and seeing painters wearing a suit – but then they needed a little bit of paint here and there to show they are painters…
KALTBLUT:How do you choose your fabrics? Do you have a specific pattern or colour that you’re looking for? Jonny Star: It’s definitely related to the 60s and 70s. I like the colours. We can just go back. This is my childhood, where I grew up. And I still love it. It’s also awesome to find them. The process of finding the fabric is totally in the artwork, is part of the artwork, how the patterns go with the image or the colours or whatever. Sometimes you can look through the image a little bit, so the pattern is working with the image. And the Swarovski beads are more like pigments.
KALTBLUT:In terms of your tapestries, I find it very interesting how they have some aspects of like traditional femininity: floral fabrics, embroidery, sewing… The visual is very feminine, but the themes are kind of against this traditional femininity. How do they connect to you? Jonny Star: I started to work with fabric in 2010. I had worked with clay and bronze before, which is like a very male-related material. Not really, of course, but in a male world. I started in 1995, doing metal mould, going to the foundry – I was so lucky that I could work there at Noack Berlin, a very good and important place, me and another woman, the only women there – and it was great. I love to work with men too because there’s not so much politeness around. It’s like: Hold this. Do this. Where is this? You know, I totally like it.
The fabric was always, always important for me because in the 80s I did my own clothing. It was very nice that it came back into my art practice, images printed on fabric.
And then someone gave me these gay porn magazines because I had already worked with body, sexuality, sex-related images from the Internet. I find it very, very interesting to work with these images of naked men and putting them on fabric [the series “Free Your Soul”], adding Swarovski beads. Telling a story with them. It’s interesting how different people see it, but I find it very tender. You know, it’s more like it embracing, cherishing the male body.
The gay porn images come from a different decade, from the 70s and 80s. Plus, it wasn’t meant to be for me – there’s a man posing for men and for a magazine which is for men. There’s not a straight guy telling me what is hot for me.
I choose very hot guys. Hot for me, or even funny, but not making fun of them. And just, of course, telling stories, making the tapestries very big to really give them a presence.
You also have to remember these were magazines from a time where it was not allowed to be gay. And a lot of these men are dead now because of AIDS. These men are not even pornographic, I would say. But it was such a thing to show them, you know, it’s so difficult! As soon as there’s a dick, as soon as there’s a penis, it’s very difficult. Museums directors are like, wow, we need to put a sign on – I had this several times – and it has to be in the backroom, and it has to have a curtain.
Men and women and all kinds of people were not used to view such tapestries – it’s just in the room, you know, and how you feel it. Do you feel strange about it? Is it offensive for you? Suddenly everyone was kind of relating to it also, like in the sexual orientation context.
For me, they’re just very beautiful. I totally love them. I just had a curator here who mentioned the tenderness…
KALTBLUT:Yes, they look delicate. Jonny Star: But I also had people saying it’s brutal. It’s very free: as soon as it’s in the world… They are called “Free Your Soul”.
KALTBLUT:Do you think the art world in Berlin – or in general – is a bit hypocritical, maybe? Jonny Star: I would say yes. It’s the rules – we have to follow the rules or make new ones. We want to live from what we do. It’s not the artists who are making the rules, it’s more the market. You can also break the rules, of course, but for me, that almost feels like a strategy. Oh, I’m the badass guy here.
KALTBLUT: Do you think the art scene in Berlin or New York now is better or worse than when you started? Jonny Star: I can’t tell you. When I started, nobody knew me. I was in a very small bubble. I did my bronzes, I spent all my money on my work. I never went to art school, to university. I studied psychology. So I was not in the academic network – I had no network. Then I was too old… There’re these parameters, you know, you have to be there and there at this age. And then you have to be there and there at this age. And if you’re not, if you miss it, you’re fucked.
Now it’s very common, very modern to discover older female artists. They have been around all the time, but now they have been discovered. All this time. But it’s like fashionable now and it makes money to discover them…
I know the art world better now. And also the scene. In Berlin and in New York. But I can’t tell if it’s better or worse.
KALTBLUT:I read in an interview that you defined your whole body of work as a “spiderweb”. You’ve worked with bronze, tapestries, collages. Is the change of medium a natural evolution of your art process or did you have a different intention for each one? Jonny Star: No, no intention. Art is always this one goal: you have to be open. To whatever is coming. You know, I have so many ideas. Books full of them, and I’ve never done them because something else was suddenly more important and you have to be open for that.
In the retrospective [“See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me” at Bar Babette, Berlin] I realised I had built a type of spider web. For example, I used a photo from 1993 in a work from 2010. Almost 20 years between them. I can see how it’s all connected.
I changed my name to my artist name, Jonny Star. This was in 2011 and I had it in my mind already for 3 or 4 years and I was fighting against it. I didn’t want it. I thought it was too stupid. But it was there! I had to do it. So this is what art is: sometimes you think this is so stupid, but you have to do it.
KALTBLUT: It’s one of the things that I like the most about your body of work. There is no division between life and art. I think that’s quite rare. Jonny Star: Well, I would say it’s not rare. But for me it got stronger with changing my name, it became a long-term performance. I am also Jonny, you know, I’m using a lot of pictures of myself. Also because it’s so easy to do it with yourself! First, you have the material, it’s all very easy. And of course, my face, my body is in the work.
You can see in the works at KINDL [the series “Hey, baby, I’m a full-time painter”] I used photos I took of myself dancing with underwear. I just did it, you know, in the morning was like, yeah! I’m also living where I work – that’s very powerful. For me, it’s all together. I think for all artists, actually, it’s all connected. Even if you don’t say it, even if you’re doing something in a specific work because you need it as a healing process. It’s like: don’t say it! Because then it’s like art therapy, you know. But hey! It is! Hello? I mean, it has to speak to other people too.
Sometimes I do stuff that nobody knows. Nobody has ever seen any of it, because it’s really just for me. I destroy it or I hide it. We all need this creative expression. Every person needs it. Sometimes it’s rubbish because I don’t know the technique or whatever. But I need to do it.
I will not show it to people because it’s not my professional work…
KALTBLUT: It’s not official? Jonny Star: [laughs] That’s a funny line. I mean, when Bruce Nauman is just sitting in his studio and thinking, well, I’m not doing anything… I’m doing art because I’m sitting in my studio. These are personal questions, you know, the performance, the pictures coming out of it. It’s suddenly art when you think oh, this will speak to other people, too.
KALTBLUT:Tell me about the “Female Ejaculation” show that you curated at Kosmetiksalon Babette in 2017. Why do you think people responded the way they did? It caused a big reaction. Jonny Star: It was crazy. It was super crazy.
It was all because of the words [female ejaculation]. People have their own thoughts about it. People were coming from all directions towards these words with what they wanted to see, what they wanted to learn, what they wanted to experience. I wasn’t expecting it because I always see the shows I’m creating as an extension of my own artistic work. And I was embroidering the words “female ejaculation” because I was researching it, like the science, the moral point of it. And I was more like, oh, where is it at now? The last time the subject had come out for me was maybe in the 90s.
I was embroidering the words and I was like, oh, let’s call the group show like this. And it made a big boom. I chose it because I wanted people to say those words. Then they are out there. It gives them energy.
The show was so big, there were thousands in line, waiting to get in, taking up the stairs to see the videos. It was incredible. I said, Maik, this will be very, very big. Take all the furniture out, more drinks… I came in and suddenly all these collectors were greeting me. I was like, whoops, hey, what’s wrong? But they were not saying “female ejaculation”… The question was more are you going to Bar Babette? They had found a way not to say it.
The works of the participating artists were related to it, but very openly. And I called the exhibition Volume 1. I want to do a Volume 2, actually. But, you know, I normally never get paid for this… [laughs] If it’s a good place and the circumstances are good… Okay is okay, I would do it. I would love to do it. I’m thinking about it.
KALTBLUT: I would love to see it. How is your approach to curating? Do you think of the show as a whole? Do you put it together slowly or is it like an instinct or a logical process? Jonny Star: Well, I haven’t curated a show in over two years. “Female Ejaculation” was the last one, which was in September 2017. I think now I would do it totally different because I went through a major crisis and I’m out of it now. And as we all know, we all have crises to learn from and to change. Back then, I did it with my instinct a lot. I worked with a lot of artists, also from New York.
There is trust and friendships created through this, not just me and the artists, but between the artists themselves. I always ask for the artists to be present, if it’s a one night show or the opening. So they meet each other, that’s the power in it. Love and joy.
Mostly it’s about the work: visually, how the work will be in the room and what will it create? And the energy, because the works will change the space. The shows I curated were called “Superuschi Shows”.
And our guests, of course. I always make sure there are drinks and food, and that we’re really in the experience. It’s experiencing the work.
KALTBLUT:It’s always art and life together. Jonny Star: Yes.
KALTBLUT:Do you have a favourite series of your works? A special child? I know it’s a hard one. Jonny Star: It’s very hard. Hmmm. Right now? I have a very, very small bronze, which is like my favourite, it’s so small. I’m always in love with my work. While I’m doing it, I’m totally in love. I would say the “Free Your Soul” tapestries – I really, really love them. I’m very sad I never had the opportunity to show them all together. Really. I showed one here, one there.
But really, to show them in a good space all together… For my oeuvre or what I’m doing, it’s the one series which is really important.
KALTBLUT: I think one can feel that when you see them. They’re very impressive. Jonny Star: Yes! I really think they should be in a good collection, but they’re still here. We’ll see.
KALTBLUT:They’re waiting. Jonny Star: Yeah, they’re waiting. And, you know, you can’t apply for a show, you can’t just contact a gallery. I should make it like an ad ‘please, I want to show that’. Ah, well. I treat them well in the meantime.
KALTBLUT:What do you think about the future of the art scene? Jonny Star: Pfff. Well, I don’t know how it will go. I wish that we artists would start to talk more openly about how we feel and our emotions – there are so many things we don’t say. When I posted “gallery wanted” on Instagram, so many people texted me privately like, oh, my God! Don’t do that! It’s like career suicide. Which is so funny, you know?
And I wish we could talk, really. It’s just an ordinary business field, we are so divided in not really talking openly about, oh, I’m not selling, I have all my works in my studio and I’m carrying them around, and it costs a lot. What about you?
I really hope this would be empowering. I really hope this could happen more. I don’t know. And for me personally, I keep going, you know, I’m an artist. This is a state of being. You can’t just choose it. You can’t just say, oh, no, I will be this and this. You can decide not to do it for you or trying not to spend so much money or because then you need space, too. Or maybe you have to destroy it immediately if you don’t want to carry it all around because you don’t have a gallery or you can’t sell or whatever.
KALTBLUT:What advice would you give young artists starting now? Jonny Star: One thing that came into my mind: if you can, go to university, even if you don’t like it. It will be so much more difficult if you are a self-taught artist, if you want to live from your work.
In my case, I was busy with life or whatever. I’m starting to be a coach for artists, an emotional coach, and I can say if your self-worth is low… You will need a lot of self-loving. The artworld is very abusive. It will hurt you a lot and you have to keep your self-worth. If you don’t work on this… It’s the tool to survive and don’t get hurt.
KALTBLUT:That’s a good point. Jonny Star: I mean, this is a general thing for all of us… But I can see, I really had to work on it. And of course, when you’re getting older, it’s getting better. I think maybe this is even the key to making it in art.
Yes, this is my advice.
You can check Jonny Star’s work at the group show “How Beautiful You Are!” at Kosmetiksalon Babette as a guest of KINDL (Am Sudhaus 3, 12053 Berlin) from 23/02/2020 to 08/03/2020. Alternatively, you can also schedule a studio visit through her website or Instagram.