Interview: A Discourse with DAMMIT!

Dubbed Toronto’s own ‘enfant terrible’, Joey DAMMIT!’s work is described as a “headlong collision between David Lynch and Andy Warhol”. Expect to see a mirage of dream, nightmare and optical explosions, manically sourced from a plethora of pop culture and transformed into nuanced, subversive montages. A dynamo of darkness, Joey manages to epitomise what he describes as a “love-hate relationship with mass media” (quotes stolen shamelessly from his website bio).

So, if you weren’t at Gate 403, Toronto, in July ‘94 witnessing the debut show of this sensational Portuguese-born, Canadian artist, well you’re in luck – because we’ve had the chance to spend a sunny August day at Pauper’s Pub, downtown Toronto, chatting to Joey and eating some really delicious fried chicken.

Tell us about your name, “Joey DAMMIT!”
In college we were taught how to make silk screens for Christmas cards. We had to write ‘concept and design by: (insert name)’ on the finished product and I wrote concept and design by: Joey, DAMMIT! I’ve given Now Magazine and Toronto Life hell for not spelling it correctly.

We’ll keep that in mind! You describe your style as the ‘Manic Montage’. What is this and how did you come up with it?
After many years in a rock band (I always told myself that if at 27 you’re not signed, try something else) I went back to college to study advertising and graphic design. I studied at Humber College for three years as a ‘mature student’ (something I’ve never really been). I just wanted to be like Darrin Stephens from Bewitched. After I graduated I got really sick, I was diagnosed with depression and bipolar. And so the concept behind the Manic Montage is this:

I went through months of a ‘manic episode’. Mania, being the opposite of depression, makes you so creative; you don’t sleep and you talk even faster than I do. I took a bottle of diet Pepsi, the name Joey DAMMIT! and created the Manic Montage with help from two things: An Ikea poster (featuring jazz bands and Louis Armstrong) and a British writer Nick Bantock, author of The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy. Bantock’s magical books and art helped popularise the collage as an artistic style. It inspired me to photocopy stuff and then hand-paint it. I was manic at that point and I wanted to use a lot of collage and basically go nuts.

The myriad of cultural references in your work is hypnotic. Is this an analogy for how we are enchanted and brainwashed by, as you call it, ‘the cult of celebrity’?
Let’s let the viewers decide the deeper meaning, because honestly I had no idea where I was going. Going through magazines you see beautiful pictures. You also see words and sentences that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your subject matter but subconsciously it’s just so right for it, and I can’t explain to you why. A lot of people call me an intuitive artist. Picasso said the greatest tool an artist can have is intuition. So the word ‘manic’ simply came from cranking music up incredibly loud, not thinking, letting your intuition lead you, and going through magazines finding stuff that you’re not ready to find yet. It’s more a manic movement, the more time you take to think about it the less good it’s going to be.

So the process is more manic than the montage?
It’s the process yeah. If you want to read anything into it, you’re more than welcome. I love reading or hearing what people think ‘cause I usually don’t know what it’s about. But you’re right in saying I have a love-hate relationship with celebrity. I love movies, but why is Kim Kardashian famous? Why do people keep talking about her? The world is full of interesting and talented people and you’re wondering if she’s blonde or brunette? My favourite style on her is lobotomized.

Er, moving swiftly back to you. On your website you write that you were initially an altar boy with aspirations to priesthood, what brought on this rebellious change in you?
Priesthood actually. I was raised Roman Catholic, I was an altar boy, and I was absolutely going to be a priest. Then came something called puberty and I starting asking questions like “I CAN’T DO WHAT?”. I began questioning stuff after a while and am now an Atheist. In fact, it’s interesting; Atheists statistically know the most about the Bible. The more you educate yourself about something, the more you start to question it or notice hypocrisy. My piece All Good Catholic Boys Wake up Screaming is one of the most biographical pieces I have ever done. It’s based on childhood nightmares – a velvety purple robe, wanting to scream but being unable to, and being unable to take my eyes off Jesus, as he raises his head to reveal black eyes. He said something then, I can’t remember what, but I always woke up screaming. As for the rebellious change, well, there’s only one type of artist and that’s a rebellious artist. Having now been deemed Toronto’s ‘enfant terrible’, I can’t tell the world that I’m at home watching TV and drinking milk and Oreos. I prefer: “He doesn’t remember anything after too many martinis” – I’ve built the perfect character of Joey DAMMIT!

So you’ve suffered badly in the past from depression, and you’re not afraid to speak out about it in order to help others. Has the depression affected your artistic style? Would your art have been any different if you hadn’t suffered from it?
People say, it must have made you a better artist. No. It’s hard enough to get out of bed most of the time, even to watch TV. The first thing depression does is take all the joy out of anything you find joyful. It made being an artist worse. To be perfectly blunt, you want to die and you have to shake people’s hand for four hours at various events and I would just go home, get drunk, paint and then the next morning go downstairs and say, “Wow! You did that Joey? Great!”

I have one regret. I was robbed of 18 years. It made me the person I am, but why did I need 18 years to become who I am, why couldn’t I have done that in 18 weeks? This has come from doctors, best friends, best enemies: I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t had depression. It didn’t form the kind of art I do, but it moulded me as a person.

What brought you out of depression?
The same thing that brought me in: a mystery. I would open my sketchbook and get a major anxiety rush and I couldn’t do it. But everything changed when a fellow artist called me up in March 2008, because that’s when Toronto has its Annual Indy Race. I didn’t care about cars; I had nothing to do with cars. My friend said to me, “Joey come on, it’s right up your alley, how did Jane Mansfield die?” The inspiration that gave me was like when you see cartoons and a light-bulb comes on, except it was more like lightning struck me. From then on, I don’t think I’ve gone more than a week without working on art. I don’t know how I came upon it, art came upon me.

So you have the Toronto Indy Race to thank?
Oh yeah, now I actually have to go…

Tell us about your inspirations.
Billboards, magazines, the supermarket as you’re waiting for that lady to take all her change out her purse. I love music and film too, but basically my number one inspiration is the opening credits to David Fincher’s movie Se7en. It’s Nine Inch Nails, listen to it over and over again and you’ll find it’s the audio version of my art.

And there you have it. His favourite Lynch film is Elephant Man (it made him cry), his favourite band is Jesus and Mary Chain, and he loves the art of Hieronymus Bosch. Stepping inside the mind of Joey DAMMIT! is like seeing every Hollywood starlet, punk subculture, anti-establishment lyric, anarchist, pop artist, Lynchian surrealist, cult movie, diva, and Crayola crayon explode in a fireball of noise and colour and land on a canvas to effortlessly embody something real. Check out more of his work here.

Words by Libby Brown.






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