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A trompe-l’oeil mural in the Phillips Collection show. Photo: Bitforms Gallery, New York.

Jonathan Monaghan. Photo: Bitforms Gallery, New York.

Images from “Tactile Palaces,” a video installation. Photo: Bitforms Gallery, New York.

Monaghan’s marble sculpture Apollo Belvedere, recently shown at Art Basel Miami. Photo: Bitforms Gallery, New York.

“After Fabergé” at The Walters Art Museum. Photo: Bitforms Gallery, New York.

The artist created a surreal realm with animation and digitally rendered trompe-l’oeil in a Phillips Collection show. Photo: Bitforms Gallery, New York.

Wildest Dreams

Jonathan Monaghan ponders the power of tech in the digital age

“Move the Way You Want,” Jonathan Monaghan’s recent multi-media exhibition at The Phillips Collection, immersed viewers in a dreamlike realm where fear and fantasy collide. A computer-animated film followed a horse ambling down a deserted beach littered with abandoned scooters and bike shares. Close encounters with a drone and a riderless Peloton unfolded as the mesmerizing, eight-minute sequence looped without beginning or end.

Monaghan was asked to engage with art from The Phillips’ collection for this show. He drew inspiration from two works, including a Théodore Géricault painting of horses cavorting among Greco-Roman ruins. “These ruins are a signifier of a lost or collapsed civilization,” says the Washington-based artist. “In my practice, I engage with history and ancient mythologies and reinterpret them for the digital age.”

Though his prints, sculptures and animation imagine a technology-driven future, Monaghan’s body of work is influenced by art, architecture and emblems of the past. His visually stunning imagery draws viewers in to experience “a cautionary tale,” as he describes it, posing questions about power, technology, consumer culture and the environment. Cloaked in ermine, robotic figures with LED lights for eyes stand in for royals. Gilded columns and frescoes adorn spaceships that undulate like jellyfish. Empty coffee shops and supermarkets with unmistakably familiar logos gleam like long-forgotten shrines.

Monaghan has exhibited globally, from the Sundance Film Festival to solo shows in Paris, St. Petersburg and Istanbul. His work can also be found in private collections.

H&D paid a visit to his bright studio at Catholic University, where he teaches digital art and design. Monaghan started out by explaining that his artistic path began when he was a kid in Rockaway Beach, New York, playing video games in his parents’ basement. He taught himself how to use 3D Studio Max—software he still uses today. “I didn’t have a whole lot of drawing or painting skills but knew I wanted to create moving and still imagery,” he recalls. “Anything you could dream up you could create using this software.” He went on to study computer graphics at the New York Institute of Technology, where he was inspired to craft more “challenging and experimental” pieces.

“I began to exhibit in galleries and have been an artist ever since,” Monaghan says. In 2011, he completed a master’s program in studio art at University of Maryland. “Having that experience was very valuable because I was going from making virtual forms to making physical forms,” he notes. “I got experience with sculpture and metal-casting and continue to make physical work and art objects.”

One of these, a faceless bust with a surface resembling tufted leather, was inspired by Apollo Belvedere, an ancient Roman relic. Monaghan’s sculpture was carved out of Carrara marble by a robotic milling arm in Italy and hand-finished by local artisans. A collaboration with Visionnaire, an Italian furniture brand, it was unveiled at Salone del Mobile in 2022 and at press time was shown at Art Basel Miami.

Initially, Monaghan brainstorms a new work on an old school sketch pad. “I start by making doodles, thumbnails and storyboards,” explains the artist, who also considers the environment where a work will appear. “Though it originates on a computer, it’s designed with the physicality of an installation in mind.”

“After Fabergé,” a 2017 exhibit at The Walters in Baltimore, displayed the museum’s jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs alongside Monaghan’s digital prints; his takes on the precious objets d’art are embedded with tiny computer screens, satellite dishes and a Starbucks.

In these and other works, he often references the lavish ornamentation of the Baroque period. “The era defined by Baroque aesthetics—an era of strong central power and authority—didn’t do so well,” he asserts. “I recreate that opulence and draw connections between it and the decadence of the digital age.”

Beaches also recur in his dreamscapes. “I grew up between the natural expanse of the Atlantic and the concrete jungle of Manhattan,” says Monaghan. “The relationship between manmade and natural, between organic and synthetic—all of my work deals with the tensions between these different things.”

Monaghan’s surreal worlds are devoid of people, yet the human presence is always there. From Amazon to AirPods, he riffs on brands and technologies that are ubiquitous in daily life. “I think of my work as a dream,” he reflects. “In dreams, your fears and desires manifest as familiar imagery. In my animation, things we’re familiar with come together in a cryptic dance that’s hard to understand at first, but I think has an impact."

For more information, visit jonathanmonaghan.com.

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