One of Germany’s most beloved artists, Jim Avignon sat down with Azucar Magazine to talk about his upcoming exhibition at the Urban Spree gallery, the difference between painting and making music, what success means to him, and plenty more.
When asked what song he would turn to after a long and hard, and particularly stressful day, Jim answered, “Jonathan Richman. Everything by him.” With a lengthy career spanning over 25 years, one which bears no signs of slowing down any time soon, it’s easy to assume that bad days are few and far in between for Jim Avignon.
Born Christian Reisz, Jim started out painting in techno clubs at the age of 21. A few years later, he would add musician to his title and perform under the moniker Neoangin. As an artist/musician Jim has travelled the globe exhibiting and playing in cities such as Berlin, Bern, Santiago, Montreal, and New York.
Despite this international level of success, however, Jim remains as down-to-earth and as friendly as I’m sure he was when first starting out. He’s the kind of guy you would want as your best friend. Happy to chat, though not exhausting. Self-assured and confident, but never arrogant. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. Good taste in music.
On a Friday afternoon, just as he was done painting the 15m x 8m Artist Wall at Urban Spree, we kicked back with a couple of beers to see what he’s been up to.
Hi Jim. I guess we should start with this big mural you’ve just finished painting, for the exhibition Permanent Jetlag. Could you tell us more about it?
The tradition in Urban Spree is that everybody who is doing an exhibition is requested to also [paint] the wall. We’ve planned a music festival in the exhibition; [there will be] many artists and bands, friends of mine I’ve worked together with, and I did the design for the poster as well. We decided to take the image from the poster, which brings together night, day, music, art—so the black and white side is the electronic music side. And [on] the day side, the guy with the big brush in his hand, painting the world, the images on his face, everything.
The exhibition is opening next Friday, June 30. Could you tell us a bit about the title of the exhibition, why you decided to call it Permanent Jetlag?
It’s related to the fact that these days you can get a non-stop feed of information and input, via the internet. I experienced younger years where you would have to wait one month for your magazine to read what’s going on in the world, and now you just have everything right at the moment you look at it. Which is, on the one hand, a good thing because all of the world has the ability to be at the same level of information if they want to. But then it kind of gives the stress of a permanent [feeling] of being updated on everything, and personally, I have a feeling it’s tiring me as well.
Like, I was very, very late with Instagram, [I got it] only a couple of weeks ago. I thought one media platform was really enough for me, so I was on Facebook. But it became obvious in the last couple of years, more and more—it’s become a platform for older people to show off their holiday photos and stuff like that.
I was on a tour with the Goethe-Institut in South America, in April and May, and almost everybody I spoke to said to me, “I’m not on Facebook, let’s connect via Instagram”, so I started that. And I was amazed [at] how many artists you get to know [through Instagram]; I didn’t find them on Facebook. There’s so much new input that it’s fascinating, but also super tiring. And that is maybe the feeling about “Permanent Jetlag”; that you’re at all parts of the world at the same time via the internet… And also in a way it sounded good. [laughs]
As well as Berlin, are you still living and working in Brooklyn?
Not anymore. Not since five years ago. I had some problems with immigration and I’ve been kindly asked to leave the country for the rest of my life. [laughs] But I think this expires after ten years or something…
But right now, with Trump being president, no big ambition to go over there. Almost—let’s say, half of my friends from Brooklyn moved to Berlin the same time, or in the last couple of years. And in a way, Berlin has changed so much that right now it feels like a better Brooklyn.
If you miss New Yorker culture, there [are] many places here to go. Whenever I see a movie that features New York—which happens like every second day, ‘cause almost all movies were shot in New York—you feel a bit sad because it’s such a beautiful scenery. I was living there for seven years and I think I picked almost the best—well, maybe everybody thinks that—but I went there in 2005… I moved to Williamsburg, which at that time was like a sleepy neighbourhood, with one bar and one restaurant and nothing else. I moved there because my then-girlfriend was living there, so I moved in with her. And I experienced the whole changing of the good and the bad parts. It was a really great time.
When I left Berlin in 2005, I was kind of fed up with Berlin. I lived here from ‘87 ‘til 2005. In the 2000s I was kind of sad for the changes; I really liked the ‘90s, which was really vibrant and everybody could do everything. And after the seven years break, when I returned, I had this feeling it’s becoming more like that again because of all the young people who moved here from everywhere, they keep the spirit alive and they bring the energy again. So right now, this place [Urban Spree] is way more like [how] it felt in the ‘90s, than places I’ve been to in the 2000s. I really enjoy being here again. It’s a good place.
So you got out [of America] at the right time, it seems.
In a way, yeah. Maybe I’m just telling you that to give me a good feeling [laughs], but I really like the Berlin like it is now. So much to discover. There’s a good mood. If you want to try out things, there [are] many opportunities.
Following on from that, how do you then view the art scene in Berlin now, as opposed to what it was like in the ‘90s, late ‘80s?
In the ‘90s, it was just like a big playground where everybody could do what they wanted. There was just no money involved in Berlin in the ‘90s. People wouldn’t even think of becoming famous and finding galleries that could bring them [to] the top level. Which changed in the 2000s. A career seemed to be possible, in Berlin, and many artists moved here to make [a] big-scale career.
I think people understand, like they go to Berlin to make themselves a name, but there’s still no money in Berlin. Maybe during gallery week and at some events, international audiences are coming, bringing money, but still this is more a place to experience stuff and make yourself a name. Which is not a bad thing. Compared to other German towns—I think [there’s] way more money in Cologne and Hamburg and Munich—so I think probably artists live here, but they have their galleries in other cities where they try to make a career.
I was a big fan of the gallery situation in New York; most of the interesting places are condensed. Like if you go to Chelsea, within ten streets you can see a hundred really top-scale galleries. Also some places in Soho. And I find it kind of hard [here in Berlin]—if you want to see three, four galleries in one evening, there’s a lot of travel involved. I liked it better the way it was in New York.
On the theme of money and art, ever since you started out as an artist, producing art that is affordable and cheap is a very important thing for you. Why is that so?
I think when I started I was way more into music than art. And at that time… punk, new wave music. I understood that young people who had something to say to their generation, or to do something, they just did it. And they didn’t go to music school for ten years. They had a guitar and they played somewhere and they found their audience. And I was always thinking I wanted to do something similar, in art.
The one thing I never really felt comfortable with is that there was always a kind of elitist thing going together with galleries. As an artist you want to limit your output, and you want to be more exclusive, and you want your prices to rise. But [as a] consequence, if you sell really expensive [artworks], only a small amount of people will be able to buy your stuff, and the reason why they buy it is not because they think it’s great art, but because they think it’s good investing in this art. Not everybody, I’m sure; there are very rich people who really like art they buy. But in general, it becomes an investment.
I always [considered how to get] people to buy my art just because they like it, they like the message, they like the composition, they like the idea. And I understood, as I don’t have a lot of money myself, I should make them for prices these people can afford. There was not a written concept “I wanted to do this, this, and this.” It just happened.
In the beginning, I was suspicious of galleries, being a 20-year-old punk myself, I had a feeling I don’t belong in these places, so I found new wave cafes and bars, asked them if I could do exhibitions there. And these bars, they looked like empty galleries anyway. At that time, bars and cafes looked way different than they do now. Like white, empty places with nothing on the walls. And these places were happy to have me for exhibitions and I sold my paintings for 100, 200 Marks. And I made a living, perfectly, for a couple of years from that. So from the beginning, in a way, I realized on a low level, my concept worked out. And in a way, it still does.
I have friends who have made a different kind of career and they now sell their stuff for ten- or twenty-thousand, but they have to accept that the people who buy this art expect them to hang out with them, and you’re just in a scene that maybe you don’t like very much.
I have to say, I really like the people who buy my stuff. I’m really super happy with my audience. I think they like it for the right reasons. There was a time when I thought I should “fight the system”—I had this T-shirt saying “Destroy art galleries”. In New York I learned that there’s a way to enjoy super established gallery places that make beautiful shows. I won’t be able to buy it—all these galleries look like small museums—but I can just enjoy it, to go there and see the shows. In a way, I made peace with that, but I still want to stay with my philosophy.
What about this concept of being the “fastest painter in the world”?
First of all, it can give you a certain pleasure to paint fast. Maybe it’s like other people doing a workout, going for a jog—doing a big painting, it’s like doing the lines [with] your body, and getting a big piece done in a couple of hours, it just feels good. You’re exhausted, but it really feels good.
But then also, at the time I started that, being fast or timing yourself, was just so ridiculous to connect to the theme of art. Because everybody is expecting an artist to work really long, and to meditate in front of [the] work, and just, like, it sounded really absurd to say “I’m really fast when I paint”. Maybe like Keith Haring when he was in the subways, he was fast, too. But I made that as kind of a joke to tell everybody I’m really different, and also I’m not so serious and there’s a funny aspect to me too.
With all this street art coming up, and the graffiti… if you work illegal, in the night, you have to be fast. And fast also means that your hands have to know what they’re doing. There’s not so much trying out. The first stroke has to be the right one. And I can still be fast, if there’s a need. But on the other hand, I can spend weeks or months thinking about a theme, or having a title and thinking of the right painting for that. That’s just the physical side.
There’s also a philosophical side, or a theoretical side, of what you’re doing and why you’re doing [it], and there’s no need to speed up for that.
I did notice that in some of the videos that are on YouTube, of you painting, that you don’t refer to an initial sketch. Do you just paint whatever comes to mind, or have you thought about it beforehand?
Usually for almost everything I do, there is a sketch. Can be a stamp-sized sketch. But a basic idea of what I want to show. It can be a message, can be something that asks a question, or makes people wonder what’s behind [it].
But when I do live paintings in clubs, which I did a lot of in the ‘90s, and I still do sometimes, it’s just the opposite. I try to have my mind blank and just see what comes out of the subconscious. In a way, I can enjoy both.
Whenever I start, my brain just won’t stop asking, “What are you doing? What is the connection? What’s the message?” So it’s really this little guy over there [points to own head] won’t let me go on and do whatever. Sometimes I admire others who start with a white canvas and just go on, and you ask them—“I have no idea”, and then three days later, sudden something happens. This was never really my situation.
With the speed in which you paint, I couldn’t help but connect it to the themes that seem to be most prominent in your works, that is: the internet and technology. In other words, how quickly you’re producing artworks mirrors how quickly we consume information. Was that a conscience decision to emphasise the theme of the internet by replicating that speed in the production of your works?
One of my first exhibitions in Berlin, in 1991 was Highspeedworld, and it was a time in the ‘90s when I did installations in techno clubs, so it was in a big techno club, which is now Kater Holzig. Once I did an installation there which was called “Information Overdose”, which was 100 light boxes which are flashing with little slogans painted on it. So I think this was even before I knew about the internet.
I liked the fact that you could [sit before] the TV, watch every program for ten seconds, and you make up a story behind it yourself. Seeing a picture out of a situation, it can trigger a story in your head. It doesn’t have to use anything you have seen, but all this information triggers something. I like sitting in the subway listening to people talk, and making up a story what’s [going on] between them or what they’re talking about. This is where I get my images from. I always try to be up to date with what’s happening in my paintings. Since social media and the internet [are] so massive in everybody’s life, of course it’s a big theme.
On the other side of Jim Avignon, the non-painter side, is the musician side. You write songs about similar things—social and political themes, a lot about the internet, too. Your latest album Highway to Hello is about the internet. How do you know which medium to use, to express what you want to express? Are there advantages with painting that music can’t quite capture, and vice versa?
Well the advantage with music is that, when you start making the music, you have the melodies, the chords, some ideas about the rhythm, beats, everything. Just work with your soul, your heart. There is no intellectual side to it, in the first moment. Only when it starts with lyrics, with a concept. But in the beginning, you play around with melodies and chords, and you find something. Maybe it’s just because I’m not really good at doing music, but I really enjoy [it]. You don’t know what you’re looking for, but you will find something.
This never works with art for me, because I always know how to do it. If I see a painting in a museum, I know how I would copy it. But if I should do a cover of a song, it takes me ages to find out which chords they used.
So music is more, for me, easier to include emotion. You could say the language of my soul, or something. And art is more storytelling, intellectual. Also, I really like doing shows, you stand on stage, there’s an audience, you interact with them, you immediately understand if they like it or not.
When you do an exhibition, you hang [it] on the wall, you’re in the corner—not everybody notices it’s yours. Being on stage and making music puts more pressure on you. Also if you play together with somebody, can be a bit intense. I have this book where I make all my sketch[es], but I also write down little words, sentences.
It’s hard to say when a thing becomes music and when a thing becomes a picture. Sometimes it happens in both directions. I think all these things are just floating around in my head and sometimes almost accidentally if something fits a song or a title.
Because you don’t charge a lot for your artworks, it seems like monetary gain is not a measure of success for you. How do you measure success then?
That’s a hard one… In general, I’m just happy that for now 25 years, I’m able to do what I want. I can make a living from that. I make enough money [so] that my family and I—my daughter, my wife, and me—we live okay from that.
Every once in a while something happens that gives me a good feeling—or like a feeling of success. Recently I discovered a hip hop musician I really liked a lot, I was looking up his videos on YouTube and I realized that he had made a video in front of one of my walls in New York, in 2012. They even animated the wall. I just felt super honoured. I had just discovered this guy, and I thought, “Wow, I like his music”, and this gives you the feeling that the right people understand what you do and that they connect [with you].
When I was in Chile I was painting a wall there, at a club—they have a [project] with refugees from Haiti, and so I did a show in the club, and they asked me, “Could you do a painting with some Haitian kids?” And I did that in the afternoon and some guy [took] a photo and put it… probably on Instagram, or Facebook, and only ten minutes later, some guy from Chile replied [with] a photo of himself with one of my T-shirts. So I thought like, “Wow, okay, I’m on the other part of the world and there’s somebody who knows about me.”
When you’re around for such a long time, you experience some ups and downs—there have been times in the mid ‘90s where people [were] really crazy about me. First of all, everybody thought soon I’m going to change my mind and my stuff is going to get really expensive. So people were [going] crazy buying my stuff. Also—it was before the internet, but all the TV stations had cultural programs—and almost every week I had a TV station in my studio. And I think Germany was really overdosed with my images. There was an airline [which] had my image on their plane—British Airways. And I did a series of cartoons for kids, there were clothing companies with my stuff—it was just everywhere.
I learnt that—well, first of all—that you can’t keep that success for long. And also, it doesn’t really make you happy. I kind of lost contact with my friends because I was just traveling all the time, and I had ten times more money than they had, and I had the feeling I had to invite them all the time, but—I realized, for me, it’s more important to have my people, be in my scene, and just be one of a group who feels the same. For me, the aim is to have a level which is not getting too big, not getting too small.
Every once in a while you have to trigger something, or do something that will make people remember you, but then you also have to disappear for a while. Two, three months you do stuff that doesn’t bring you any money, and then suddenly a nice job comes in. It took me 25 years to reach that point, and still it’s not perfect, but I have a feeling I’m not selling out. I do what I believe in, and it can go like that for another 15 years and then I’m good to retire or something, I don’t know.
What have you got coming up in the last six months of this year, and what have you got planned for the years after that?
To be honest, I don’t know so much. I don’t make big plans. Usually I plan one or two months ahead. At the same time I have an exhibition here, I have an exhibition in Stuttgart, which I’ve already prepared. I had done an exhibition in a gallery there in November—the main idea was a dialogue—I was choosing 20 artworks from other artists. Half of them friends of mine, half of them are from the gallery, and I chose one artwork [from each artist] and I made an answer piece. It was kind of like picking up the style, or the theme, and giving it a twist. It was quite a good success. And now a museum that has art from the last hundred years asked me if I wanted to do the same with theirs. We have the opening the week after next week, so in between the festival, I have to go to Stuttgart to have the opening there.
Since a long time [now], I’ve been working on a book that is almost finished, but still not finished. So maybe I’ll take some time to finish that. But also, I’m going away on holiday with my family for almost all of August. We’re going to Brittany, in France. And I have an invitation to go, from the Goethe-Institut, to Lebanon and Jordan, to go there and paint with the kids in the refugee camps. So I might do that. I also have some kind of a plan to make a kind of a shop in Eva’s [Art von Frei] gallery, with stuff I produce, I don’t know… from cups to T-Shirts—a bit like a parody of the pop shop that Keith Haring did. But so far we haven’t really made any real plans about that.
Sometimes you speak with people and they are booked for the next two years. There’s just no way to get them into doing a small thing. And I don’t want that to happen with me. Even if there are a few [projects], there’s always time in between to do something.
Catch Jim’s current and upcoming exhibitions in Berlin and Cologne.
Jim Avignon: Permanent Jetlag at Urban Spree
Revaler Strasse 99, 10245 Berlin
Friday, June 30 – Sunday, July 23 2017
Highway to Hello at Die Kunstagentin
Maastrichter Strasse 26, 50672 Cologne
Saturday, June 17 — Saturday, August 5 2017