Q&A with Resident Artist Jose Mertz
The idea of world building as an artist is a daunting task.
It’s not just working within a limited color palette anymore, but instead about presenting a cohesive set of characters pulled from an immersive world that pushes a cosmic narrative forward without limiting the development of an artist.
As challenging as it may seem, it’s the intersection of risk and world building that the best work of Jose Mertz exists.
It started when Mertz was a kid, growing up in Kendall neighborhood of Miami just south of the now-storied arts district of Wynwood. Mertz says witnessing the rise of Wynwood as an international arts mecca helped him realize the crossroads between culture and business.
Mertz and his sister were enthralled with the work of Jim Henson movies, losing themselves in the immersive sets and characters that Henson built.
“We kinda made this alternate world,” says Mertz, taking a break from his work during the Red Bull House of Art residency in Detroit’s Eastern Market. “As time went on, I started reading about history and mythological creatures. I find excitement in things that don’t really exist.”
In his body of work today, Mertz creates a mythology that is tied to his own personal evolution as an artist. From doodles in the margin of his notebooks as a young kid to academic pursuits, Mertz style pulls from both the classroom and street art culture. You’ll also see heavy doses of influence from Japanese and Eastern art filtered through his unique perspective.
“I was really into the philosophical side of that, too, so my style just evolved,” says Mertz. “I’ve always been into the mystic side of things since I was a little boy, you know?”
We talked with Mertz about the balance of influence between the academic and the street art world and what he’s working on for the upcoming Red Bull House of Art exhibition.
There’s such a bevy of influence that anchors your artwork. At the same time, you are creating this world of characters and perspectives that are distinctly your own. In your mind, do you feel like you’ve combined both the traditional training aspect with the vibe and style of street art and large-scale murals?
I mean, I can’t not be influenced by it. I mean, it’s years of beating in certain kinds of core things. There’s a million ways to dice it up. Art has no limits. There’s no boundaries. There’s no perfect way, but the way I was trained, it was important to know how to draw before painting. Painting comes secondary because then that becomes form, you know? Those core ideas I apply to my work — but you can see the graffiti in my color palette. That’s all comic books and graphic design. It all meshes together, but right now with the work I’m doing, I’m isolating these deities or characters against flat backgrounds. That definitely comes from graphic design. You’ll see this fresh piece — cut out, clean lines and then the background is what makes it pop. That’s just the dynamics of visual communicating, you know?
It’s a dance. Some of the academic stuff comes in; some of the street influence because I’m always in the street. I make beats, too, so that whole way of being — spontaneous, raw. What hip hop tries to embody — or what it did, or maybe it still is, I don’t know. That’s a whole other conversation.
Let’s talk about your body of work for this residency.
Right now, I’m just kind of echoing what I’ve pretty much been working on before but at a larger scale. I’ve never painted a praying mantis, but I’ve wanted to do it for a year now. I want to do another one with a group of people migrating. Where to? I don’t know. It feels like something is happening with this group of people, but I like leaving it ambiguous like that. You don’t really know, but it feels like there’s a type of kinetic energy going on — something that leads to different elements like fire, water, whatever. Also, I paint Tigers just because I love them. Being here in Detroit, it’s fucking tiger world!
They are all over the place.
It could be, you know, coincidental. But for me, symbolically, there’s a reason. I don’t think it was an accident that I happen to be in this place at this time, trying to breakthrough in my work and there happen to be Tigers everywhere. I wanna indulge in that so I have some creative fuel.
With so much mythology populating your work, what do you hope the audience takes away from this exhibition in Detroit?
I’m a fan of mystery. I mean, we have everything accessible to us. My work isn’t the kind where you can say, “hey, I figured it out!” and move onto the next one. I feel like it’s something that leaves you open ended. As long as they feel something — even if they’re pissed — it’s good that something two-dimensional made you respond in a physiological way. I hope it inspires people to think something bigger than themselves, you know? That’s always what I think is in great art or what is perceived as great art — something that makes you question yourself.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper