Washington Post review of "Pause, Play: Selected Works by Jonathan Monaghan"

An amusing voyage, no travel necessary

By Mark Jenkins

April 14, 2020 

Some journeys, such as religious pilgrimages, are sacred. Others, including trips to a shopping mall or a chain coffee shop, are trivial — perhaps even profane. Local artist Jonathan Monaghan melds both types of excursions in his computer-generated videos. But at this moment in history, perhaps the most important thing about Monaghan’s eclectic odysseys is that they’re meant to be undertaken from the comfort of home.

These amusing, inventive and immaculately rendered videos are usually shown in gallery and museum installations, but three of them are now online in the virtual exhibition “Pause, Play: Selected Works by Jonathan Monaghan.” The exhibition was organized by the University of Maryland Art Gallery, whose physical space is currently, of course, locked down. “Pause, Play” is a safe way for both the venue and the artist, a Maryland graduate, to strut their stuff.

Among the computer-generated strutters are the unicorn of “Disco Beast”; a robot knight in “Out of the Abyss”; and the title character of “The Turtle King.” These crypto-zoological or neo-mythological creatures navigate worlds that combine the interiors of luxury hotels and boutiques with the exteriors of space ships and baroque and rococo buildings. The intricate filigree evokes an exalted past, but the hard, clean surfaces denote a cyber-Utopia.

The videos, whose looping scenarios proceed without cuts, flow deliberately from one curious location to the next. The simulated tracking shots continually shift scale and viewpoint. The scenarios juxtapose the surreal and the mundane, while the fantastical inhabitants fuse organic, mechanical and electronic elements.

The sense of place — strongly palpable and yet eerily alien — is akin to that of the most immersive video games. In fact, those interactive diversions were Monaghan’s original inspiration. Self-trained as an animator, the artist began by appropriating and repurposing settings and characters from mainstream computer games. His other longtime interests include consumerism, architecture (both historical and futuristic) and an increasingly technological society in which machines are always observing. 

Thus the Turtle King has a swiveling camera attached to his head, while the mechanical cow in “Out of the Abyss” is outfitted with minicams. Monaghan’s interest in surveillance seems especially prescient at a time when authorities are using cellphone data to determine just how many Americans have truly pressed “pause” to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.

Monaghan’s compositions often feature corporate logos, whose conspicuous presence mocks American branding culture. This changed slightly with “Out of the Abyss,” which is the most recent and, at 19 minutes, the longest of the three videos in the show. (It was made while Monaghan was a studio fellow at Rockville’s VisArts, which exhibited the piece last summer.) The mini-movie uses familiar logo designs, but changes their text to fit the motif, which is nothing less than the Book of Revelation.

So Bed Bath & Beyond’s emblem is redesigned to read “Alpha & Omega,” and the familiar curved arrow of Amazon’s logo now underscores the word “Patmos.” (That’s the island where, tradition says, Revelation was written.) Also, that galloping robot is one of four horsemen of a mash-up apocalypse, whose chivalrous gear includes selfie sticks, tablet computers and Beats headphones.

The biblical theme is treated with characteristic playfulness. Monaghan’s videos move at a solemn pace, but are full of gently comic moments. In “Disco Beast,” a plastic coffee-cup lid becomes a celestial orb. and the aforementioned unicorn is propelled by jet engines. Sometimes a smile is elicited by an unexpectedly naturalistic moment in this tech-heavy universe, as when the unicorn paws the floor like an everyday horse — before gingerly striding onto an escalator.

If there’s a religious outlook to “Pause, Play,” it’s more Eastern than Western. The videos depict perpetual transformations but always return exactly to their opening image, suggesting a cosmos that is ever-changing yet eternal. In Monaghan’s work, recurrence is as inevitable as it is mysterious.