Mario’s rainbow road snakes between the buildings of an empty metropolis, save for a few golden stags clustered near the front of the frame. A golden baby deer takes its first steps into the world, rising from the cushions of a lifeless gray couch, and a row of police riot gear lines the pristine shelves of a perfectly symmetrical room in artist Jonathan Monaghan’s newest exhibit “Mothership.”
These are just three of the myriad creepy and absurd images concocted by Monaghan in his computer-animated films “Mothership” and “Escape Pod.” Along with several other series from Monaghan’s collection, the works are currently on display at the Spagnuolo Art Gallery in the Edmund A. Walsh Building. The gallery is not only a home for the exhibit but also accentuates the tone as the works breathe chaos and depth into the small exhibit space.
Both films, roughly 15 to 20 minutes in length, run as an unbroken loop, as if simulating some kind of bizarre cycle of life. Without a marker defining the beginning or end, it is hard at first to situate oneself in the continuous narrative of the strange world devoid of humans, inhabited only by its few mythical creatures.
Art major Christian Anté (COL ’16), who visited and studied the pieces in the exhibit, aptly summarized the sentiment of the film “Mothership.”
“Monaghan’s animations become a series of ecstatic cahoots, jumping from nostalgic gaming monuments to comical fantasy. The artist creates a realm of nonsensical, computerized fantasy, grounding this world in familiar imagery: human sexual anatomy, Mario Kart’s impossible rainbow road, airplanes and cow hide,” Anté said.
In all his works, Monaghan has a knack for throwing together a mixture of disjointed influences and imagery into a weirdly unified object that is at once familiar and alienating. At the same time the blurred human faces, company logos, organic, hairy body parts and modern objects can be recognized in each subsequent shot and are broken apart, recombined and used for purposes that remain a mystery to viewers in the absence of any human life to explain them.
The bizarre amalgamation of elements and Monaghan’s animistic approach to his scenes is intentionally thought-provoking.
“I am very interested in the disconnect between the natural and the synthetic. In my worlds, architecture and artificial objects frequently take on organic properties, such as a couch giving birth or a spaceship dangling with human body parts. The more we engulf ourselves and our societies within technologies, the blurrier the boundary between the natural and the synthetic becomes,” Monaghan said to The Hoya.
The Frankenstein-like creations evoke a similar range of ambiguous emotions. Spattered with pop culture references, critiques about modern capitalism and an awkward sequence where the camera travels out of the rear end of a golden stag, Monaghan’s computer animations often inspire moments of unbelieving hilarity. These moments then warp into an eerie awareness of the deer or stag’s lonely but determined journey in a world where human technology dominates the environment, although no humans remain.
“If you look at mythology, Japanese or Western, the deer represents something otherworldly and unattainable. He’s able to traverse these different worlds. Being golden represents power and the material desire that goes along with it,” Monaghan said.
Materialism is a concept employed by Monaghan in many of his art forms. Aside from the two computer-animated films available for viewing in the art gallery, also hang there two large works of art from Monaghan’s series “After Fabergé.” Titling one of his pieces “Imperial Genitals,” Monaghan seems to be intentionally inviting controversy, as he links organic and sexual symbolism with the cold, glossy, manicured objects of luxury consumerism.
Both pieces from the series are shaped as ornamented ovals, mimicking the original Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, who crafted elaborate, bejeweled eggs for tsars, empresses and other imperial elites from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. While Monaghan’s eggs contain traces of more traditional decor, like the silver crown and embellishments at the top and bottom of “Imperial Genitals,” he has put his own twist on this status symbol by incorporating elements of the 21st century that have changed what it means to live in luxury.
Where one would expect gold and rubies and other precious gems to adorn the egg, there is instead layer upon layer of plush leather and other high-quality materials, the odds and ends of plastic plugs and cords, the sheen of well-polished metal legs and a host of other half-identifiable but most definitely expensive designs. This seemingly random mix of textures is crafted purposefully, each piece adding its own monetary value to the overall lavish nature of the egg.
Monaghan’s primary artistic influence is simply the world around him.
“My work starts with looking. I look at historical works of art and architecture from Western history but also look at advertisements, consumer products and corporate architecture. As I collect these references, I begin conflating these disparate elements.” Monaghan said. “I then begin to sketch these objects, environments and creatures that will populate this virtual world. I model these with the 3D software, define their appearance and texture, then animate and ‘film’ it.”
While elements of Monaghan’s work are immediately recognizable, his arrangement of common symbols and objects is a testament to his ability to present aspects of daily life as if they were foreign.
Allie Williams (SFS ’19) found “Mothership” to be an innovative work.
“His unique combination of the familiar and the absurd is jarring at first but reflects his incredible creativity and unique perspective,” Williams said.
Such a hodgepodge of symbolism and influences can be expected from an artist whose home website page features a unicorn wearing a rainbow birthday hat while standing in an empty coffee shop. While one may never make perfect sense of Monaghan’s purposefully unsettling combination of characters, materials and settings, the uncanny realization that he has in fact produced an overarching narrative may be his most startling and impressive skill.
Monaghan’s work will be on display from now until Oct. 16 at the Spagnuolo Art Gallery.