Interview with Jonathan Guthmann
It’s an odd thing to be introduced to a painter and etcher with a background in theology via enormous and detailed dicks carefully rendered over images in one of Australia’s most widely read newspapers. But, that is exactly how we met Jonathan Guthmann. It was clear from the level of detail on the monstrous phalluses he created while “drawing dicks on the Herald Sun” that Jonathan had an enormous amount of technical skill. But, it wasn’t until we got to know him better and view his serious works that we realised he was a artist who created traditional etchings bursting with symbolic imagery and paintings depicting a mix of mythological and theological imagery.
When sketching or exhibiting past works such as his “Acockalypse” series, Jonathan’s humour is clear and infectious. But when viewing his etchings, painstakingly created via traditional methods, it’s difficult not to be moved by narratives of mortality, love, decay and magic that emanate palpably. Jonathan Guthmann is an artist, well aware of the inherent incongruity in combing the old cultures with the new, but still determined to explore the darker elements of western religion and mysticism and draw them into the present. And we are ever so grateful for his insight. Jonathan is currently showing at Beinart Gallery as part of Memento Mori, Memento Amare. The exhibition closes November 12″
“Usually I keep my “serious” work quite separate from the humorous stuff, although my recent series on the book of Revelation is replete with giant phalluses, and they’re mostly instruments of wrath. It’s a funny thing to take something so serious as the cataclysmic end of the world and saturate it with grotesque genitalia, it was really quite satisfying.” —Jonathan Guthmann
Corinne Beinart: As well as being an accomplished artist, you also have a background in theology. Which interest came first?
Jonathan Guthmann: That’s a difficult one to answer because while I’m not “religious” in the commonly understood sense, I grew up in an environment where there was a lot of religion around me. Some of my earliest memories are of very conservative preachers standing behind their podiums talking about the soon to come apocalypse, and in my later teenage years I started taking my first serious look at the world religions. Although I had long been fascinated by mythology, religious belief etc., it wasn’t until my later 20’s that I started formally studying theology when I moved to Melbourne. As for the art side of things, I’ve been drawing since a very early age, I would have been about 6 when I started. Both these things then have been significant factors in my life from very early on, and for some time now they’ve really fed into and informed one another. So it’s hard for me to say which one came first, however I’d probably say art because while I was surrounded by elements of religion, spirituality and myth I didn’t really take an active and conscious interest in it until I was much older.
CB: For those unfamiliar, can you describe the process of creating an etching?
JG: Etching is a printmaking technique that’s been around for centuries. You begin with a flat sheet of metal (I personally use copper), which is covered in a fine layer of bitumen. You then use a sharp instrument to selectively scrape away the bitumen revealing the copper. Once you have created an entire image by scraping away the bitumen, you place the entire sheet in a bath of liquid that is highly corrosive to metal but will not affect the bitumen, this liquid then bites into the areas where you’ve exposed metal, leaving a network of incised lines. This process can be repeated multiple times with new lines being added between each etch, meaning there are various depths of line work in different areas. Then the bitumen is removed and the newly created lines in the metal plate are filled with a very stiff ink and the plate is firmly pressed against a piece of wet paper with the aid of a press, then the image is firmly imprinted onto the paper.
CB: Your work often explores themes around death and mythical/religious symbols. Does this come from your academic background or is it more of a personal interest/exploration?
JG: It comes from both really, although I was doing fairly dark work that explored death in the symbolic sense well before I started my formal study and creating a lot of work heavily influenced by esoteric traditions like Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and other mystic traditions. However I certainly can’t say that my studies haven’t provided inspiration for a lot of my work in recent years, one of my largest projects to date was the creation of series of illustrations for the book of Revelation, which I did while I was translating the book from the original Greek as part of my degree.
CB: As well as exploring some fairly dark themes in your etchings, you’ve also been known for your more humorous artistic endeavours, most notably, Drawing Dicks on the Herald Sun. How do you see these two aspects of your creative self? And do you believe it is important to find humour in the darkness?
JG: To live a life without a sense of humour would make for a pretty dull experience, and probably one that’s pretty depressing given the way a lot of the world is these days. Drawing genitals, in particular penises has been a bit of a hobby of mine since I was a kid. I would sabotage my parents’ notepads or shopping lists with them, or do things like take a business card from a box, draw a boner on it and then slip it back in somewhere in the pile. I still do it now actually… I remember one time when I was about eleven I had drawn dicks, people having sex and a bunch of turds in my sketch book and my mother wanted to show a close church friend my drawing skills, so here she is showing off my sketch book and then suddenly, and to their surprise reached the “naughty page”. I don’t think her friend was all that impressed…
Usually I would keep my “serious” work quite separate from the humorous stuff, although my recent series on the book of Revelation is replete with giant phalluses, and they’re mostly instruments of wrath. It’s a funny thing to take something so serious as the cataclysmic end of the world and saturate it with grotesque genitalia, it was really quite satisfying.
CB: Where to from here? Do you have any new projects or ideas you’d like to share?
JG: Where to from here… There are a few things floating round my head: revisiting the apocalyptic themes is on the cards at some point, I’ve also been wanting to doing a series of eerie tree-based landscapes for a while, and I’m considering playing with some dark interpretations of traditional fairy tales like those of the Grimm bros… We’ll see.
Jonathan is currently exhibiting a series of new etchings at Beinart Gallery as part of the show Memento Mori, Memento Amare. This exhibit also features new sculptures by Isabel Peppard and paintings by Beau White. The exhibition closes November 12.