Marc de Jong: Spamocracy - Art Collector

Issue 44, April - June 2008

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Not long ago Marc de Jong was one of innercity Melbourne’s most notable illegal street artists. Today he works with oils on canvas out of his flat above a motor mechanic’s garage in the seaside suburb of Edithvale. Ingrid Periz asked him why the big change?

Pointlessism, spamocracy, PRDCTVSM. Melbourne painter Marc de Jong likes to pepper conversation about his work with some sparkly neologisms. For the uninitiated, “pointlessism” describes the pixilated dot style of de Jong’s paintings; “spamocracy” is what he calls the tidal wash of information in the media-sphere; and “PRDCTVSM,” or, more completely, productivism, translates to the operating logic of twenty-first century capitalism and its consumers. It’s also the name of his website where this logic gets skewered. De Jong’s lingo suggests a street smart counter-culturalism that looks forward and back historically, for in addition to these words of recent coinage he likes to throw in ones of another generation’s vintage, words like peace, respect.

De Jong came of age as one of Melbourne’s most notable stencil artists at a time when the city’s street art scene was the world’s liveliest. Working with the tag of “marcsta” and using stickers and stencils, he pumped out anticorporate logos in a project he calls “readvertising” and peppered public space with them. De Jong treated brand logos as images, tweaking them just enough for them to look unchanged until they were read. In his hands Sportsgirl became Spoiltgirl, VISA turned into VICE, and bankcard went bankrupt. Other marcsta gestures included black-and-white stickers of a single ant, and stencilled icons of human figures, both installed as visual punctuation points in the urban landscape. This treatment of brand names as pre-existing images and the desire to infuse a momentary sense of wonder in the most familiar and banal of image-worlds were important to his subsequent painting.

At its most idealistic, street art results in work that is made to be seen and not sold. As de Jong puts it, “It is mostly an illegal and proudly anonymous activity of political or social or magic expression that evolves in relation with the public.” Proud anonymity does not last long when the public, in its various forms, responds to what he calls street art’s “subversive popularity.” In 2003 the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery organised Productivism, a show of street artists Jay Rankine (aka “Merda”), Fred Fowler and de Jong. A year later he was included in the same institution’s Eureka Revisited, a commemoration and re-examination of the Eureka rebellion. And, in 2006 his work was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia as part of its first collection of street art. (The 300 stencil designs in the collection will be shown in Canberra later this year.) De Jong is not unaware of the paradox. While his work remains to some extent directed against the fact that “everything you see is a product or turned into one,” he acknowledges, “I make paintings and they’re products, bought and sold.”

De Jong still makes street art but not with the same gusto of his earlier city-dwelling days. “My waking hours are devoted to oil on canvas,” he concedes and two years ago he relocated to the suburbs to concentrate on painting which he calls “the best mode of transport for my expression.” Unlike the instantaneous quality of street art, painting on canvas is slow, and seaside Edithvale, halfway between central Melbourne and Frankston, gives him the necessary quiet. He jokes about his relocation, “There’s nothing going on in Edithvale, which is good and bad. It’s excellent for the work because there’s nothing else to do.”

PNTNGS 2, de Jong’s forthcoming exhibition at Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art in Sydney, shows his ongoing work in what he calls “media dreaming,” his salvage of pre-existing imagery through the traditional medium of paint on canvas. It’s fair to say that all de Jong’s images feel familiar. We know them either in their particularity – their source in Star Wars or Mad Max – or their ubiquity. Generic images like Carbomb (2007), Astronaut (2005) and Blackhawk (2006) could all be filed under their respective image categories: terrorism, space exploration, war. De Jong is also unafraid of using bad sources from science fiction or fantasy. His prancing Unicorn paintings of 2006 and fantastic landscapes trawl the image banks of late male adolescence; by contrast the seemingly banal Homestead (2005) and Library (2006) threaten to dissolve in a quieter but more disturbing unfamiliarity.

De Jong makes doubly sure these images do not appear to originate with him for every painting is marked by a dotted or screened surface, suggesting either the dot-screen of photo-mechanical reproduction or a finely gridded arrangement of pixels. He explains his salvage operation this way: “Within the tidal wash and flow of processed media, what I call ‘Spamocracy’, sometimes a pattern or story is worth salvaging as a material object … Some image can be reformatted rather than be lost in the landfill of the web. This particular activity is perhaps peculiar to this era and to me it feels most akin to dreaming.” He continues: “Particular images just resonate with me and I feel they’ll work well as a painting. Star Wars can transcend its original context.” Searching his computer image bank, de Jong “re-processes” his chosen image: “I photoshop it and then I paint it, I reposition it in a very traditional form as an oil painting. A background with dots is laid down, rubbed and painted over, turned upside down, with turps poured on it – anything to make it work as a painting.”

Two works indebted to the Star Wars saga illustrate de Jong’s approach. Deathstar (2007) is a big, blown-up version of the fictional Empire’s most powerful weapon, a planet-destroying space station that incarnates evil. De Jong “paints” it using black flock, a felt-like substance more commonly found in florid wallpaper, but one that reappears in his newest paintings too. Shifting registers, from the visual to the tactile, de Jong makes an iconic image compellingly strange. Similarly in Amidala (2007), the young and beautiful senator played by Natalie Portman is rendered a kabuki goddess, distanced by de Jong’s pointilist technique. While de Jong calls himself a Star Wars fan his ambition is greater than the loving fetishism associated with most film-derived art. Desert Tribe (2005), from Mad Max 3, is intended as a metaphor for contemporary Australia. “Like Nolan using the Ned Kelly story,” is how he explains it. “The desert tribe gives a feel of what it’s like being in Australia now.”

Twenty years ago this mode of working from other sources was called “appropriation” and in Australia it fuelled some of the most interesting contemporary art. De Jong is aware of this history and says his work has “grown of that soil but branched off in another direction.” In large part this is because of his reverence for the old-fashioned values of craft. He explains: “Images and ideas are all great, but when it comes to painting it’s all craft. This was one of the lessons I learned in the eighties minefield of ideas.” In the decade of appropriation, he claims, “the actual craft wasn’t there.” De Jong credits Melbourne painter Philip Hunter, his teacher at Prahran College and later the Victorian College of the Arts with giving him the basics of stretcher skills and pigments. “Since then,” he says, “I’ve learned from my mistakes.”

German painter Gerhard Richter looms large in de Jong’s reevaluation of painterly craft; his sense of tradition however extends much further. Recently he has been looking closely at Titian and he confides he has a slew of unexhibited “seventeenth century-style” paintings. For de Jong, painting’s long history –“it is a very ancient tradition” – doesn’t prevent it from engaging with the contemporary. He is in fact “trying to immerse it in the digital culture we live in right now” and by applying the medium of oil paint to the current digital realm he hopes to “push the age-old tradition into a frontier of new subject matter and reveal a material poignancy that computers and print media can never hope to achieve.”

On the PRDCTVSM website, de Jong transformed a Macintosh apple logo into a radioactive death’s head, a move on a par with the radical anti-consumerism of his re-advertising work but quite different from the inspiration of his paintings. More typical here is his “anti” project, the stickered ants – some of which erupt from barcode stripes – that quietly disturb their locations on lampposts and security pads and become an occasion to look a little differently at what is already overly familiar. Where de Jong’s paintings stake their oppositional claim is against the short-term values of what he calls “the global media flux of the instant,” and his almost anachronistic process of “hand-making a digital image of an analog event” reclaims a material presence for what would otherwise be ignored or passed over in easy familiarity. His paintings, fleshed out images drawn from the ether world of the media-sphere, simply want a longer present.

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