Walk on the right street in New York, and one will likely be greeted (or jumped, possibly) by the city’s idiosyncratic strain of street art and graffiti; works that run the gamut of emotions, from pure exuberant expressions of happiness and euphoria, to grim, deeper surrealist social commentary, from quick tags to elaborate Wildstyles — a populist art form that constantly responds to the life around you, whilst literally being around you. A city alive, constantly in flux.
One thing that remains constant though (with an unstoppably persistent output) is the work of one JERKFACE. An NYC native, the Queens-born 34-year-old, has been consistently putting out his own strange brand of surrealist, cubist, low-brow culture, nostalgia-inducing, happy cartoon subversions since his teens. Homer Simpson, Finn and Jake, Super Mario, Tom and Jerry, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, amongst more examples — when one sees them appearing in the same frame (in signature “geometric-goop style”), you know you’re in the presence of a JERKFACE piece. Much like the Saturday morning cartoons, the pieces are JERKFACE’s paeans to the joy and happiness the shows have given him, and now he’s making sure people feel the same way too.
Pointed, opinionated and intent on marching to his own beat, Art Republik sits down with JERKFACE to see what keeps the man behind the work driven and ticking.
Homer Bobbin (detailed view)
First things first, how did the name come about and when did you decide to become JERKFACE?
Around 2001 the artist Neck Face was getting up a lot around the Gramercy area of Manhattan. I gave my ex-girlfriend the nickname and in exchange she started calling me JERKFACE.
Do you consider what you’re making art, design, mash-ups, pop provocations, or…
I think my work can fall under quite a few names depending on who you ask and I’d rather leave it up others to define it. Because of the attention to composition, flow, and colour placement of each piece, I believe it cannot be so simply defined as design, mash-ups or pop provocations. There is much more at work.
What makes a good wall piece?
The biggest part of deciding who or what to paint for a wall has to do with the size and shape of the wall and whatever particular character I’m currently excited about.
How do you approach a work and decide on which characters to mash-up?
It’s become very popular lately. Being someone who got in before the rush, I have to continue to surprise people with the combinations. There always has to be a connection for me with the characters. That’s the basis. If I don’t have this connection, I won’t enjoy the creative process. Once I’ve decided on a subject, I rely a lot on intuition and revision to carry me through.
Duck Soup (detailed view)
Why cartoon characters?
Cartoon characters play into everyone’s childhood. They are an aspect of innocence and joy that jog the memory of a simpler time. Adulthood for most of us, can be very heavy at times. Remembering my own youth through these compositions invokes joy and nostalgia, and it has the same effect on the people who appreciate my work.
Do you feel your wall paintings are optimistic, or at least the ideology behind your work? Do you feel it’s important to be optimistic?
It’s pure and potent optimism. There is no negativity in my work. The way I see it, there’s enough negativity in life. I’d rather provide happiness and healing, then more negativity.
You have mentioned your frenetic work rate, a trait you seem to have been naturally imbued with since young (“a hyper ass kid”) to now, dedicating, by your count, spending “90% of your day doing something art related”. Given your manic output, do you find something therapeutic about your creative process?
Yes it can be very therapeutic. Being human, there are all kinds of factors that play into how therapeutic it can be. It can depend on my current mood, how much sleep I got, deadlines, so many things. Regardless, I still work.
How do you see yourself now, compared to when you first started out?
Not much different. I enjoy what I do just as much now as I ever have. I always want my work to express how much fun I’m having. I truly love to paint. I’ve made a point not to let any of the benefits of success distract me from this love.
Any influencers, inside and even outside of the art sphere?
There are many artists I look up to, present and past. To look up to another artist, I have to take into account, their body of work, reputation and integrity.
Seeing your walls, from (Keith) Haring-esque freestyle, spontaneous, pop-cubist, surreal, subverted and sometimes weird dreamscapes, is there — like Haring himself who’s activism and deep concerns about issues like life/death, sexuality, and war was prevalent in his work — a guiding principle to your process?
No. I have very strong opinions about most social and political aspects of life. However, as my main intention is to create a gateway to youth, I try to stay away from anything that will too directly depict any personal opinions I have about current issues. I always want my work to be open to interpretation.
Bears don’t care (detailed view)
You’ve regularly spoken about your eschewing of the scene and starting one of your own instead and marching to your own beat. Do you feel like an outsider?
I’m an outsider by choice. In the art world, everyone is competing to fill a few slots. Just below the surface, jealousy and insecurity run rampant. Besides, you can’t stand a part, if you’re standing in it.
You are a born-and-bred NYC native (with a self-professed tenuous relationship to its bureaucratic administration) — do you think growing up in NYC influenced the way you approached your practice in general? What do you feel about the energy of the place then and now?
I think growing up in NYC influenced my approach to life in general. Growing up in NYC is very different than moving here. Your brain is wired from youth to be more skeptical, more aggressive, and cleverer, out of necessity. It was a darker city, it wasn’t hard to find a New Yorker on a New York street, but hipsters bring good food.
How do you feel about your work in a street, more open environment to varied and diverse audiences, as opposed to the confines of a gallery?
Being in the street, it’s unpredictable. Who will come along, what will happen. It’s an adventure. Interacting with the neighbourhood is my favourite part of any creative process.
What are your thoughts on live painting, in front of a live audience? Are there any parallels to a rap freestyle, with regards to spontaneity, and a kind of test of a street artist’s true mettle?
Live painting gets me off. I don’t know why. Creating and observing are two of humanity’s most mysterious and greatest traits. The combination is very satisfying.
You’re currently preparing for your October solo show “Saturday Morning” with Over The Influence gallery in Hong Kong (at time of print). What’s in the works for you, that we can expect in the near future? And, is that a reference to the universal broadcast hours when the most kick-ass cartoons come out on TV?
“Saturday Morning” is in reference to that time slot. I didn’t focus particularly on the cartoons you would see on a Saturday morning, but more the ideal of a time allotted for such an experience. As for future works… what’s better than the known? The unknown… See you in the future.
This article was first published in Art Republik