Jesse Willesee teamed-up with the legendary Cobrashop, and IZE is lucky enough to have an exclusive photo set of what was a truly a genius collaboration. The enigmatic artist and self-dubbed creator of tabloid art pushes the boundaries with his art installations. However, Willesee isn’t just another innovative artist. With fresh ideas, a unique outlook and a lot of audacity, Willesee is one to watch out for.
When did your journey in the art world begin?
About five years ago. But realistically I wasn’t really on the map until 22 Girls Smoking Weed. That’s when shit started getting crazy, and I’m loving it!
How did your early life growing up in Australia influence you as an artist?
I went to more than 12 different schools. I grew up in Sydney, New York, Perth, then Avalon Beach, Sydney in that order. My formative years were ever changing. It affected me immensely – every school I went to I would develop a new persona, and I’ve carried that with me through my life and my art. I think Australia gave me sense of humour, and America gave me a sense of sensationalism. And I was on Ritalin the whole time.
When was the point that you realised that this was more than just a hobby, and instead a part of your lifestyle?
It was never a hobby. I never tried to be an artist, one day I just decided I was an artist. Even if I was going to be a bad artist, I was dedicated to the idea. It sounds pretentious to say but that’s the truth. The phrase “Don’t Try” is written on Charles Bukowski’s grave.
At the live shoot at The Cobrashop, punters were encouraged to bring their cameras to take pictures of the models. This is also something you do in your annual Seven Hundred Photos events, which allows the audience to photograph interactive art and fashion installations. What was the inspiration behind this concept?
It was just a really cool idea I had, and I hadn’t seen anything like it. Everyone had cameras, and people go to galleries and look at paintings and photographs of other people, why not just go look at actual people? Everyone was talking about “interactivity” in the art world, but it was just a word. It was live finger painting, or popping balloons on a burlesque dancer. None of it was cool, none of it was a bunch of wild youth in hotel rooms being photographed by 300 people! I’d say I invented good interactive art in Australia.
In the live shoot at the Cobrashop you worked with the famous photographer The Cobrasnake (Mark Hunter). What was this experience like for you?
Mark is such an inspiring guy. He has had such a huge impact on the aesthetic and direction of modern photography. And he is just the chillest dude you’ve ever met. He let me take over his store in Hollywood on a Saturday night for a live shoot. Then we went hiking!
What kind of aesthetic were you channelling in the shoot?
This was right before I fell in love with all black-and-white-everything. So everything was really colourful. The aesthetic was based on the clothes from the Cobrashop and UK designer Jade Clark. The models are posing with 40-ounce beers, Big Gulps and Arizona Ice Tea – just things I see as quintessentially American.
You’ve dubbed the term ‘tabloid art’ to describe your exhibitions and installations. Can you explain what the expression means?
Just apply below to art:
A newspaper of small format giving the news in condensed form, usually with illustrated, often-sensational material.
1. In summary form; condensed.
2. Lurid or sensational.
Your installations ‘Passout’ (where the audience was able to engage with passed out models live) and ‘22 Girls Smoking Weed’ (self-explanatory) have caused a lot of controversy. What kind of reactions and emotions were you trying to invoke from these shows respectively?
I don’t really like explaining what my shows are about, it can be very detrimental to the natural process of how people consume and interact with your art. But 22 Girls is different because I believe strongly in the legalisation of marijuana, and I’m very interested in providing weed imagery that’s an alternative to the “loser stoner” imagery stereotypically used in mainstream media. I want to address the failure of the War On Drugs, and at the same time glamourize my weed imagery. Because smoking weed doesn’t make you a loser, and the kids need to know the truth!
What was the reason for the police shutting down ’22 Girls Smoking Weed’?
It was just too real for them I guess. And the thousand kids spilling out into the street caused a bit of drama.
One of the notable aspects of your personal website is your ‘Hate Wall’ section where people can leave public forum style messages. You’ve left yourself exposed to abusive messages for the whole of the Internet to see. What’s the reason for including this on your website and what kind of commentary about the nature of Internet hatred are you making with this form?
In school they wrote about me on the bathroom walls. Now they write about me on the internet. But the hate was spread out all over the place. Haters are not very focused or motivated. So I gave these layabouts a place to register their hate in a formal way. The irony is that even the haters hate the Hate Wall! A lot of them won’t participate because they feel like they are being made fun of. The irony there is they are the joke.
What values do you hold important as an artist?
To go H.A.M. all the time.
Where do you want to see yourself in three years time?
Working at Burger King spitting on ya onion rings. Or on your TV.