ART, BLACK DOGS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING DAMMIT!
In many ways, it was a miracle that Joey DAMMIT! even answered the telephone that day in late May 2008. Deep in the depths of depression, he wasn’t much in the mood for conversation. Yet, on that occasion, he did manage to pull himself from the couch to make the 10-foot walk to the phone.
“I can still see myself standing there,” DAMMIT! says from his downtown Toronto home.” It was an old friend and she wanted me to take part in a show that was happening at the Cameron.” DAMMIT! says he wasn’t much interested. The show was on cars. He wasn’t much of a gear-head. “I don’t know anything about cars,” he dispassionately told his friend. “I’m not interested.” It’s hard to know what it was about this interaction that made DAMMIT!’s friend snap. But, lucky for him she did.
“She said to me ÔOh fuck off Joey. Think about it. How did Jayne Mansfield die?’,” she said. Suddenly, unexpectedly something was sparked. Putting down the phone, he walked to his bedroom where he knew there was a book that featured a photograph of that graphic Hollywood death. Opening the book up and staring at its grizzly details he was suddenly interested in cars.
It had been 18-months since he last painted. Three days later the painting that would re-launch his career was complete. Even more importantly, the darkness that had engulfed him for nearly 18 years had lifted. In the two years that have since passed, he’s never gone more than three days without painting. He’s done both commercial and gallery work and has worked tirelessly to promote mental health issues. He jokes that, as an artist, he was almost required to struggle emotionally. However, if you spend more than a few moments talking to him it becomes clear just how much his depression has affected him and how relieved he is to be past it.
For DAMMIT! depression wasn’t sexy, something to give him emo cred. No, it was a crippling disorder that prevented him from truly succeeding. Talent allowed him to fake it, but those closest to him knew better. “I used to need to get wasted to deal with my openings,” DAMMIT! says. “It was the only way that I could deal with the depression and – as I always say, its partner that is always there – anxiety.” The question, then, is does the depression influence DAMMIT!’s work? And, if so, how much? DAMMIT! isn’t sure. Although he has dubbed his style “Manic Montage” he is not 100 per cent convinced it’s all about the illness.
“I don’t think my depression has in anyway shaped my creativity, or subject matter,” he says. “At least that’s what I believe, but subconsciously and unconsciously I sometimes look at a finished work — and it could be pictures, or words in a massive jungle of collage — and I’ll be damned if the depression, and my battle with it, hasn’t reared its ugly head.” DAMMIT! doesn’t fully understand why the depression lifted. Medication could have played a role, but even his doctors aren’t sure, DAMMIT! says. However, he does have an idea of how he survived it. During the many years of his depression – DAMMIT! says that he only experienced two brief periods when the darkness lifted in the previous 18 years prior to 2008 – he never lost one friend. It would be months between seeing them in some cases, but they maintained a level of loyalty and dedication that he is eternally grateful for.
“There were times when I just wanted to fucking off myself,” he says without self-consciousness. “But the reason I didn’t was my family and friends – I didn’t want to leave them alone.” Of course there was also the art.
“I’m not really a religious person, but I like to talk about this thing, the universe,” he says. “The universe kept saying that there is a reason you are here and it was for the art.” It’s now been almost exactly two years since the phone call. DAMMIT!’s life has changed dramatically, he says. He’s active. He enjoys time with his friends again. And, he’s been incredibly productive. Yet, he still worries about a return to his old ways.
After 18 years of that shit you don’t take anything for granted. Even today there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wake up and go ÔOh fuck, oh fuck do I feel good today?’ “But then you realize that you are and you move on with the day.”
These days that likely means a walk down the hallway to ride the elevator to his basement studio. A testament to the effect DAMMIT! has on those around him, it’s a space that was given to him. It’s also a space that fits the aesthetics of an artist that embraces the absurd and morbid in society without ever losing his sense of humour. After walking past a abandoned swimming pool that wouldn’t look out of place in a really bad horror b-movie — 1970s era exercise equipment lined up along the deck along with several TVs in various states of working order – you find yourself in a colourful and cluttered space that instantly makes sense.
Magazines are everywhere on the floor. Paint cans clustered up against the wall and the painted faces of pop culture icons from the Beatles to Kurt Cobain stare down at you from the walls above. This is DAMMIT!’s space. It’s a place where he says that he finds inspirations and where he can lose hours of his life engrossed in his work, while loud music blares from a stereo.
He keeps an air mattress in the space for nights that go longer than anticipated. Sometimes, he says, he just sits down there to think. It’s from this space that his wonderfully bizarre collages emerge. Like many artists, DAMMIT! can’t really explain where his ideas come from.
“There is no such thing as an accident in art,” DAMMIT! says. “Even when something doesn’t work out you layer something else on, or put something else in and it all becomes a part of the final thing.” The chaos of DAMMIT!’s work is what makes it unique. As a Pop artist he gets compared to Andy Warhol, but such comparisons are surface at best. DAMMIT! doesn’t have an easy answer to why he does the type of work that he does. When forced to guess he jokes that he must resort to cliché. “As much as I hate saying things like this, I don’t think I ever had a choice.” He says. “The genre, Pop Art, was in a way presented to me in much the same way I imagine John the Baptist’s head was presented — on a proverbial creative silver plate. I started with the exact same intention that I have today when it comes to creating my art – to please one person, myself.”
DAMMIT! says he is likely most influenced by movies. At the height of his depression, the movie theatre was one place that he felt right, and that love of film has stayed with him now that he is healthy. Perhaps above all else, DAMMIT!’s work is human. It’s accessible a bit irreverent and decidedly unpretentious. You can stare at a DAMMIT! piece all day and still not find the inside joke. That’s by design DAMMIT! says.
“I consider myself both an artist and an entertainer, “he says. “That’s always been important to me.” What’s also important to DAMMIT! is making the most of his remaining time. For 18 years darkness engulfed him. Now that it’s lifted he says that he wants to make the most of the opportunity, creating and inspiring. “Joey’s happy,” he says. “DAMMIT! loves his life right now,” he says.