Jonathan Monaghan, 2021 Sondheim Finalist

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After a year-plus of isolation from which we are only now emerging tentatively to weekend BBQs and cookouts, artist Jonathan Monaghan’s 18-and-a-half-minute looping 3-D animation work, “Den of Wolves,” hits differently. The piece, which Monaghan began working on in early 2020 before lockdown, gives us separate vignettes of three hyper-animated and otherworldly wolves which roam an empty Walmart and then end up at a version of the United States Capitol building that contains both an Apple store and a doppelganger of a Whole Foods, seeking out bedazzled symbols of monarchy: an orb, scepter, and royal mantle.

The distinctly American landscapes depicted in the video are familiar yet utterly foreign, functioning as cleaned-up versions of reality that still manage to signal their origin. To anyone who lived through 2020, the emptiness of these spaces isn’t what’s as striking as it would have been if we had never heard of the “new normal”; it’s the total blandness that is the built environment of the American cities in the aughts seen as a primary subject, the wolves functioning as our stand-in explorers slowly stalking their prizes.


"Sentries IX" at The Walters
Wall decal work, "Sentries IX," and "Den of Wolves" video installation

Monaghan’s Sondheim finalist exhibition space at the Walters Art Museum contains only two works, “Den of Wolves,” and a wall decal work, “Sentries IX,” which is from a series of works made using the same software as the animation. The “Sentries” series plays with texture and color, combining Baroque art and architecture with soft-looking pastel fabrics, a melding of the gaudiest moments in art history with contemporary technology.

Monaghan, who received his BFA from the New York Institute of Technology in 2008 and his MFA from the University of Maryland in 2011, lives in Washington, DC, and is represented by bitforms, a New York gallery dedicated to showing the work of contemporary artists exploring new technologies (this video work and others are part of his solo show, closing June 12 at bitforms). Monaghan’s work has been screened and included in group shows all over the world, including the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, among many others. Notably, his work has been recognized with residencies at the Millay Colony in New York state and Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy, and he was the 2015 recipient of the Trawick Prize.

Monaghan’s themes of power, technology, and rampant consumerism speak to the unique challenges of today’s attention economy. Nobel Laureate economist Herbert A. Simon first used the term “attention economy” in 1971, but it has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity thanks in part to Jenny Odell’s 2019 NYT-bestselling self-help book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In her book, Odell, an artist, educator, and millennial, discusses a wide range of subjects from the intentional off-the-grid communities of the 1960s and ’70s, to alternative social media platforms, to resistance and advocacy groups like the student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, as a means of demonstrating what can happen when we engage intentionally with the world around us.

Odell writes that “attention economy distractions keep us from doing the things we want to do . . . they keep us from living the lives we want to live.” Social media surveillance and the way marketing algorithms now function seamlessly to show us items we want to buy are the problem, she posits. Perhaps “airplane mode” and birdwatching are the answers, she suggests.


Still from "Den of Wolves"

A millennial contemporary of Odell’s, Monaghan also remembers a time pre-internet, having come of age with the very technologies he employs to make his work. The wolves in “Den of Wolves” feel like stand-ins for Americans, full of desire for the traditional trappings of empire while simultaneously feeling empty and repulsed by the barren world that surrounds us. Who hasn’t wasted a half-hour scrolling through Instagram only to remember nothing of what they saw or experienced? Who hasn’t stomped through a big-box store in search of a couple of essential items and left semi-stunned with a pile of mostly useless crap?

It feels telling that Monaghan’s alien-wolves leave this constructed world behind, returning to their spaceship at the conclusion of the piece. According to Dany Chan, co-curator of the Sondheim Artscape Prize exhibition and Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Walters, the artist has said he intends this to be an optimistic ending, but I’m left wondering where are they off to next and is there room in the back?

You can watch Jonathan Monaghan’s recorded artist talk from May 25, 2021, about his show at the Walters here.



More Sondheim info: The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and the Walters Art Museum proudly present the 17th annual Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists exhibition. The prize awards a $25,000 fellowship to a visual artist or group of visual artist collaborators living and working in the greater Baltimore region and is presented in conjunction with the annual Artscape juried art exhibition of the finalists’ work. A panel of three jurors—Naz Cuguoğlu, Michelle Grabner, and Meleko Mokgosi—has selected five finalists for this exhibition and for final review for the prize. The remaining finalists each receive a $2,500 M&T Bank Finalist Award. The winner will be announced on Saturday, July 10.

Named in honor of Janet and Walter Sondheim, the Sondheim Artscape Prize raises the regional visibility of Baltimore as a vibrant urban center that rewards creativity and continues the Sondheim family’s legacy and commitment to Baltimore City.

Links: Promotion and the Arts: Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists
The Walters Sondheim Prize Exhibition dates and programming

Photos courtesy of The Walters Art Museum and by Cara Ober

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