For more information on Jonathan Allen and his latest Interruptions, please see his website and Instagram @jonathanallenstudio.
By MICHAEL ANDERSON, April 2019
Michael Anderson: You are obviously a democrat who as an artist is appalled by Donald Trump. Tell me about your experience with the last presidential election.
Jonathan Allen: I am appalled by Donald Trump, but am equally appalled by the GOP. Their protectiveness of a racist, misogynist, power-hungry man-child is extraordinary. Even a recovering republican I know is stunned by the party's nefariousness. Republicans have zero interest in participatory democracy, and would prefer to simply block people of color, women, and the poor from voting. They do this by design. It's nauseating.
Like everyone else who paid attention to the sports coverage that the New York Times let slide as journalism in 2016, I assumed Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag. An artist was throwing an election night party in Brooklyn. We all thought we'd be home by 11. And then Florida and Pennsylvania and Ohio weren't getting called and everyone just started getting hammered. It was awful.
I love your subway ad intervention pieces. How did you get started with this project and when? Were you influenced by previous subway art and if so which artists inspired you the most?
I began the project in summer 2017. I was demoralized by the election, and grew really conflicted about continuing to make paintings after the inauguration, and following that path through the art industry. It felt terribly hermetic and insular. Even if you make political or socially-minded work it's basically neutered by the trappings and limitations of the gallery system.
I started paying more attention to NYC public spaces and advertisements, and reading up on the history of graffiti. At a certain point it clicked that I should use the layering techniques I had developed in in my collages and paintings and work with what I spent all my time thinking about - ie politics, justice, and misinformation. It felt important too that the project exist on multiple levels - through the intentionality and framing that social media permits, and also randomly through the wildness of it being encountered and seen by an entirely incidental audience in subway stations. I think interrupting the commuter experience, the trance we all fall into on our daily journeys, is an integral part of the project, hence the title.
I moved to NYC in 1993, so have no experience with the extraordinary work made by 70s and 80s street artists. But I did visit Manhattan in 1983 as a kid, and rode a subway car covered in graffiti. It left a vivid impression on me, being surrounded by drawing, energy, lawlessness like that. I have tremendous respect for artists Futura2000, Tracy 168, Super Kool 223, Hondo 1, Kool 131, who invented new forms and treated subway cars as canvases. It's incredible to see documentation of their work. Keith Haring is also an obvious inspiration, and was so fantastically committed to treating subway platforms like his studio. All these artists, and others, are refreshing, vital to me.
What materials and techniques have you employed to execute these pieces?
When I began the project I bought an oversize printer, and invested in oversize adhesive label paper. Everything is designed at scale, inkjet printed, and hand cut. I install all of them myself, in situ.
How do you put these projects up? Have you had any run-ins with the cops, subway riders or the MTA?
It is an involved process. First, I scout the location, select the ad, and photograph it. I then download the photo at home, design the Interruption, and print it. Then I return to the station and install it. Finally, I photograph it and leave. I have had multiple run-ins; so far, MTA employees I've encountered have been considerate and blunt.
The Kavanaugh hearings were devastating to me, and I did several pieces reflecting on the misogyny and horror of them. One night I was installing a Kavanaugh-themed Interruption at East Broadway station when I felt this presence behind me. I turned around and this tall elderly gentleman was beaming at me. He growled, "I applaud you, "Thank you for doing this, that Kavanaugh motherfucker is a well-connected piece of shit". He paused and set his bags down before continuing. "They're gonna push him through though". We had this half-hour conversation about politics, the GOP, and sexism. It was one of my more memorable run-ins. And he was right - all these angry, scared white men pushed Kavanaugh through to the supreme court.
Do you know if there is a bounty out on you? How long do the pieces typically stay up? Are your pieces actively destroyed or removed?
I think the NYPD has more important things to do than chase down artists. As far as I know there is no bounty on my head!
Sometimes the pieces stay up for a few hours, sometimes they stay up for weeks. Subway ad campaigns are scheduled, and are cyclically removed and updated, generally every 6-10 weeks, but there is even variance to that. Often commuters will deface the pieces pretty quickly or scribble their own commentary, which I love.
How long do you intend to continue the project? How many pieces have you made to date? Do you have any type of goal that you’d like to attain? Do you have an end-game scenario?
I'll continue the project through election day, November 2024. I would love to compile Interruptions into a book. I've completed almost 160 unique ones, but have repeated many of them, so it's probably a total of 200 or more installed. Ideally I'll install 500. A few curators have asked for prints to include in group shows, which I resist. Preserving the ephemerality of the installations is important to me. When shown as a group I prefer they be presented as a projected slideshow, sized to the original ad dimensions. WM