November 8, 2011

A taxi pulls up to the gates of an industrial courtyard on a hushed, chestnut tree–lined street in East Berlin. Jonathan Meese, a tall man with a slight belly, emerges from the vehicle wearing black corduroy bell-bottoms, canvas shoes, and an Adidas sports jacket. Standing next to him is his mother, an older woman carrying a shopping bag bursting with toys: wooden swords, plastic revolvers, sailor’s hats, and plush ice cream cones. Giggling as only a German can, Meese, an artist with an unwieldy beard and a thick head of long brown hair, introduces himself with a tight hug. We’re here to explore his workspace, a vaulted edifice that once housed the city’s central reservoir, but it’s evident from his bouncy demeanor that playtime has officially begun.

In the middle of Meese’s multi-level studio sits a table overrun with labeled bins, each organized by the peculiar supplies they contain, such as Barbie dolls and playing cards. With the exception of the table’s tight perimeter, the main room is overcrowded with massive stretched canvases, some propped up against walls, others stacked on the floor. Meese’s mother, who has assisted her son since he first started making art, and who occupies an apartment in his building, tells him to change into some dirty clothes so not to soil the freshly laundered ones he’s wearing. “He’s continuously ruining new clothes,” she says.

Meese’s career took off when he dropped out of Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts to work with the celebrated Berlin-based gallery Contemporary Fine Arts. In 1998, the now 41-year-old artist made his first international splash at the inaugural Berlin Biennale with “Ahoi de Angst,” a claustrophobic installation put together with posters (Claudia Schiffer and Steve McQueen share space with everyone from Bill Clinton to Anthony Kiedis), skull-patterned fabrics, televisions, miniature disco balls, and a mix of German and English words painted onto every available surface. The overall appearance is that of a teenager’s bedroom, albeit one occupied by an imagined Che-loving revolutionary rather than a Twi-hard. As with most of his pieces, Meese has created a visual dialogue through extremes.

While German marching music crescendos triumphantly through the room, Meese gets to work. He squirts a tube of oil paint onto a self-portrait he recently made that depicts a looming black figure with outstretched arms surrounded by colorful brushstrokes, scribbles, and a few phrases. Grabbing a stuffed animal that he then uses to smear the paint, he says smiling, “Collectors like fully painted canvases.” At her son’s good-humored pleading, Meese’s mother picks up a brush and begins to paint a bird perched atop a branch. “Don’t ruin this,” she says gravely, although he inevitably wipes over her work with his stuffed animal. Indulging the role of cosseted child, he says to her in an exaggerated falsetto, “I’m sorry, Mommy.”

For all of his put-on boyishness, Meese has the capacity for biting sarcasm (he titled a portrait of a nightmarish demon “Süsses Dorf der Verdammtin,” which translates into either “sweet” or “gentle” village of Verdammtin) and provocative satire (he often poses for photographs with two horizontal fingers resting just above his upper lip, a visual nod to Hitler’s iconic mustache). In the same way that filmmaker Lars von Trier subverts tragedy through his anti-maudlin irreverence, Meese responds to the past with a contemporary and playful wink. Ironically, by indulging his inner child, he’s created something about which he’s very serious: a Dictatorship of Art. Although it’s unclear what exactly he means by the term, Meese alternately refers to his craft as a toy, candy, and Scarlett Johansson’s mouth.

He insists that humanity’s salvation doesn’t rest on democracy, but rather in its handing over of power to art, which, he has said in the past, “is stronger than anything else. It’s stronger than us. It’s stronger than religion. It’s stronger than politics. It can create a new reality and rule the world. All politicians will resign and say, ‘Thank you, art.’”

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