Artist Interview: Marilyn Manson and his dark Miami debut

The gothic rock star reveals the inspirations and compulsions behind his new work on show in the Design District


American musician, writer, photographer and watercolourist Marilyn Manson is known for his theatrical appearance and provocative stage persona as the lead singer of his eponymous band. Born Brian Hugh Warner in Ohio in 1969, Manson’s career took off in 1996 with the release of his third album, Antichrist Superstar, which formed part of a pseudo-autobiographical music trilogy. His haunting and intimate watercolour portraits of friends, celebrities and crime victims expose the raw underbelly of American life—an ongoing interest of the artist—as well as his investigations in Nietzschean philosophy. Manson’s paintings have previously been exhibited in Los Angeles in 2002 and 2006, in Paris and Berlin in 2004, and in Cologne in 2007. His show, “Trismegistus”, opened last night and is presented by Cologne-based Galerie Brigitte Schenk with 101 Exhibit in Miami’s Design District (see listings, p18).

The Art Newspaper: I understand that you sleep by day. When do you paint?

Marilyn Manson: It’s easiest for me to paint late at night when I’m at my most creative, around 3am. I’ve been making a new album and the band works from 8pm until about 4am, so I often come home and paint in silence. It’s a real escape for me because it’s the thing I can do when no one’s around.

TAN: I’ve read that you started drawing as a child, using it as an escape.

MM: I liked drawing as a kid and I wanted to become a cartoonist for something like Mad magazine.

TAN: Are there any special objects that you keep around for inspiration in your painting studio?

MM: I have things taped and written on the walls, it’s almost like a big notebook. It’s a bit haunted-house-mixed-with-Las Vegas, there’s no sense of time and there are no clocks. I have a lot of art and anatomy books, magazines, about 250 children’s books and lots of Polaroids. I kneel down on the floor when I work, so I can control and balance the paint, and the ceiling fan above me has a video camera attached so I can document my painting.

TAN: Would you describe your works as psychological portraits of your subjects?

MM: I don’t paint photorealistic works; I think that’s what cameras are for. I’m painting a girl that I met recently who was concerned about how she looked, and I explained that I was trying to capture her personality.

TAN: Are your paintings more personal than your very public stage persona?

MM: I have a terrible time losing my paintings to other people. I don’t consider painting a hobby at all. At one point I was willing to completely trade one for the other while I was going through a dark period in my life, but somehow the combination of singing and painting seemed to work together.

TAN: Can you tell me about your painting Trismegistus, the centrepiece of the show?

MM: I found a portable embalming table from the 19th century, and some foolish part of me thought it would make a goth girl really excited. But I left it sitting against the wall in my studio, and one night I started painting around midnight with only the moonlight coming through the shades. I finished the work by about 1pm the next day. It’s a very fragile piece and I’d like to see it end up in a museum.

TAN: Is it true that the first paintings that you sold in 1999 were five-minute concept pieces that were bought by drug dealers?

MM: They were traded for drugs. I wonder where those are now.

TAN: How would you describe your watercolours? Is it accurate to characterise some of your major themes as death, celebrity, pop culture and hermeticism?

MM: I always choose interesting people, like the Black Dahlia [Elizabeth Short, who was the victim in a gruesome unsolved Los Angeles murder in 1947] and [murdered child beauty pageant contestant] JonBenét Ramsey, who are fascinating because of their mystery. I also have a lot of fetishes that come from pop culture—things like “Tom & Jerry” cartoons where we see a woman in high heels pointing her red fingernail, but that’s all you ever see.

TAN: Where do you get most of your material? Do you work from newspaper and magazine photographs, live models, memories or from sketches?

MM: I’m a closet photographer. My house is filled with big movie lights so I can take photographs whenever I want.

I don’t really like to show my photographs, but if I might brag, I think they’re pretty good. I like to photograph a person before I paint their portrait and lighting is very important. I don’t necessarily work directly from the photograph, but I want to have something in my head when I begin.

TAN: Can you name some artists who have influenced your work?

MM: I love the surrealists. I have a Dalí video where he refuses to do an interview with Orson Welles for his own documentary that I love. I also like what Man Ray did with film and shadows. And Egon Schiele has been a big influence on me. I enjoy looking at Bacon’s notebooks and his studies because it reminds me of how I work.

TAN: What do you think about Matthew Barney? You’re both interested in creating elaborate personas with detailed histories and philosophical underpinnings.

MM: I have an extreme love/hate for Matthew Barney because I’m jealous that he is able to do so much. Someday I’d like to work with him, or beat him up for being so good at what he does. I have every one of his books and bootleg copies of the “Cremaster” series. We both incorporate the same type of manic detail in our work.

TAN: In previous interviews you’ve said that the name Marilyn Manson refers to “the disturbing dualism of American culture”. Can you explain what you mean by this?

MM: In the 1990s, one channel on the television would be investigating the secret behind Marilyn Monroe’s death, while [talk-show host and investigative journalist] Geraldo Rivera was interviewing Charles Manson on another. To me, Monroe and Manson were equally famous for completely different reasons. Besides the obvious contrasts of beauty and ugliness, and female and male, I think that Monroe had a dark side and Manson has strange moments of coherent philosophy. For me, being Marilyn Manson is my art. My brain doesn’t shut off, so it’s not as easy as saying that Marilyn Manson is just a stage persona; it’s me and I don’t think about it any other way.

TAN: You recently developed your own brand of absinthe called Mansinthe. Did you start drinking absinthe because of the romantic associations it has with writers and artists like Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and Vincent van Gogh?

MM: Yeah, I think so. I like it because it doesn’t make me drunk and it helps me to create.

TAN: You’ve been interested in the creative energy of Weimar Germany for some time now. I realise that there’s a historic specificity to the period, but there are some interesting parallels in terms of cultural excess and the bankruptcy of our financial institutions. Do you think the global recession might lead to increased creativity by artists?

MM: If money becomes an issue, artists will probably resort to the basics. I think it will make people appreciate the things that they’ve created with their own hands that have a personal and spiritual value.

TAN: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

MM: I think I’m 100% a spiritual person. If I didn’t care about the world, I wouldn’t put something into it.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Marilyn Manson’s dark Miami debut'