In a schizophrenic, dehumanising society defined by reality shows, London-based artist Jonny Burt makes amazing artwork exposing the dramatic contradictions of our modern times. Working primarily in monochromatic pastels and bright acrylics, Jonny provides a strong satirical insight into a culture where the craving for celebrity makes the line between fame and shame increasingly blurry.
Beside being an artist, Jonny has collaborated with a few menswear designers – including Sons of Heroes – and with the BBC, for which he has designed the poster for the upcoming movie Rose, Mary & Time.
Jonny Burt has kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions.
When did you first become interested in art? And when did you realise you wanted to be an artist?
I’ve always been obsessed with monsters. I was addicted to the Alien films – I still am – from as tender as 4 years old. I have no idea how I got away with watching those movies (I assure you my parents are sane, responsible people), but I became hooked on Giger’s original designs and sketched them out incessantly in what is now a battered old sketchpad. For me, there was something intoxicating about these monsters that were as beautiful and oddly seductive as they were utterly terrifying. That thing is iconic. It’s so deeply nightmarish and visceral that it almost transcends itself as a fictional creature, and taps into the very real truth of our darkest fears and uncertainties as human beings. Perhaps that haunting aesthetic has weaved itself into the fabric of my own work.
I’ve never categorically set out, or consciously known that I “want” to be an artist. Even now I’m still unsure. I’m too cynical and pessimistic to indulge in the certainty of anything. Even the label of “artist” alone makes me uneasy. It’s more a practice and an outlet for expression that I can’t live without, and if that leads to some kind of a career - great. Much of the need to create is actually driven by fear and doubt that I’m talentless, or a fraud in some way. But just in the past year it does seem to have taken off rather suddenly, so I feel responsible, and motivated to pursue it more seriously now.
Your art is a passionate reaction to what you call “the dehumanising effects of 21st century life” and its insatiable appetite for fame and success; can you explain?
There is no longer any distinction between fame and infamy. People will go to the most soulless extremes as long as it buys them their own tasteless reality show. “Celebrities” are famous for their pathetic performances in their own sex tapes which miraculously and yet so frequently get “leaked” into the public eye, “destroying” the lives of those “caught” in the act. But who cares if you’ve lost every last shred of dignity and self-respect? Who cares that you’ve automatically condemned your unborn child to a life plagued by judgment and abuse? At least now you’re famous and publicly fucking the biggest rapper in the world on the front cover of a glossy fashion magazine.
But the consuming public are just as stunted – we are a gullible, devalued and far too easily amused society that allow these false idols to thrive and rob the headlines. There is no humanity, no substance left to anything; there are no role models left, the children of the next generations have nothing real or pure to aspire to and are born into a depraved society riddled with bullshit and hypocrisy. The future’s bright.
You are also a menswear designer; how did you get into fashion?
I did a foundation course at Wimbledon where I learnt the basics of 3D garment construction. I then did a couple of menswear design internships, one of which was at Bolongaro Trevor. Although I’ve always loved the idea of being a menswear designer, it seems my work is headed more down the illustration route. But strictly I’m not even an illustrator; I’m a fine artist – I think the designers I’m working with regard my work as having an illustrative air about it that can be translated into a fashion medium.
How would you describe the relationship – if any – between your visual art and design?
That’s an interesting question, and a really tough one to answer. The only relationship I can really attempt to articulate is that my subconscious is constantly consuming images, particularly those fed from the fashion world – magazines, Tumblr, Instagram, anywhere and everywhere. I suppose it arms me with an awareness of current trends in terms of stylish graphic imagery. That can often be useful when I’m trying to accessorise a piece, or add unusual elements once the main subject is established. It’s a very fine line though and I’ll never be too literal – otherwise you’re in danger of becoming too commercial, too “fashion” and, in my opinion, that’s death for a contemporary artist.
I wondered, what artists/fashion designers inspire you the most at the moment?
The anthropomorphic works of contemporary artist Joram Roukes are really doing it for me at the moment. His literal car-crash of western phenomena is so powerful – as humorous as much as it is tragic. The work of Michal Janowski, who just exhibited at Signal Gallery, is also stunning, and he seems to have taken that anthropomorphism to a new and really confronting level.
With fashion, I’m a big fan of menswear labels En Noir and Skingraft at the moment. Both are going for that cutting-edge, colourless minimalism with highly futuristic silhouettes and heavy injections of leather everywhere.
I read you have recently worked with Sons of Heroes; how was the experience?
Really rewarding. I’ve been a huge fan of the label for a while now and it’s got an impressive VIP following, particularly in the US so to be asked to design something for them was an honour. I’m happy with the finished product, but it was probably the biggest challenge so far from an artist perspective, because I had to contain and place boundaries around my ideas in order for the art to work commercially, and sometimes that felt incredibly restricting. Ultimately it has to look good on a garment that people will wear. No one is likely to buy a t-shirt with an image of a kid getting their brains blown out by Mickey Mouse.
You have also designed the poster for the upcoming movie Rose, Mary & Time; how did the collaboration with the BBC come about?
I’m an actor as well and the producer of a TV show I worked on a while ago recommended me as an artist to this director at the BBC who needed someone with a particular style to design the poster for his film.
As a last question, what does the future hold in store for you?
Various collaborations and commissions, some of which are already underway. I’m in touch with a handful of other fashion designers who are interested in using my work for SS14 and I’m also working with a nightclub in Knightsbridge at the moment which has Hurst up on the walls, so that’s quite exciting. But most importantly to just keep creating as frequently as I can, building a strong body of work that’s always an improvement from the last, reinventing myself as an artist and experimenting with new things. I have a few galleries interested but that’s nothing I’m going to rush into – I’m happy to bide my time and wait for my perfect match