At a point in history when we are expected to say the right thing at all times, or suffer the consequences, Joan Cornella has carved out a niche saying exclusively the wrong thing. The Catalan artist's work is nihilistic and provocative, satirising our miserable modern lives through candy-coloured single and multi-pane cartoons. They routinely depict suicide, poverty, disability, pollution and amputation, and are usually bloody or scatological, but one thing remains constant: the cheerful grins.
Contrary to what you might expect, given how pitch black his work is, Cornella is anything but a subversive, fringe figure in the art world. He has amassed a combined social following of over 7 million, illustrated for The New York Times and produced an album cover for the band Wilco, with Eric Andre and Matthew McConaughey among those spotted wearing his shirts on the street.
So how does he reconcile his enormous success on social media with his healthy disgust for these platforms? I caught up with Cornella as his latest solo exhibition, "I'M GOOD THANKS", opened at London’s Public Gallery.
VICE: If it were told in tweet form, your style of comedy would probably get one "cancelled". Miraculously, the worst you seem to get is the occasional ban from Instagram. How many times have they suspended your account now?
Joan Cornella: I’ve been banned so many times that I've lost count. Facebook used to be the worst, because every time I got censored I wasn’t allowed to use my account for a whole month, which meant I could end up banned for a third of a year. For some reason this has changed, and it’s been months since the internet inquisition censored me. Obviously this is not as tough as being imprisoned for speaking your mind, but it shows you that the level of democracy and free speech on the internet is quite poor since it's been ruled by corporations. Facebook and Instagram have similar policies and they especially dislike the sexual content of my works, so sometimes I opt to pixelate some parts.
Do you get some kind of written explanation from these social networks for the ban?
I never collect the messages I receive when I get banned, but they’re basically short and without any explanation. The way they decide to censor seems pretty random, and I guess it mostly depends on reports from other users. One time, they banned a comic strip where a therapist tells their patient to kill himself – apparently they thought I needed help, so they sent me a message with some sort of falsely benevolent advice. It’s a bit ridiculous to see how they don’t make any differentiation between fiction and reality, and I’m still surprised at the amount of people that read my work literally and can’t see irony in it.
You must have a strange relationship with those platforms, given that they routinely ban you, and yet have been absolutely instrumental to your success.
Totally. I guess I should be thankful to social media for that reason. And besides that, I still think there’s some good aspects to it, like the interaction of the masses and the democratisation of information on many levels. But as you may detect in my work, I’m pretty skeptical about social media as an instrument of emancipation.
A social network feed is kind of the perfect exhibition space for a lot of your work, right, because just by virtue of the fact that the viewer is choosing to spend time on Instagram or wherever, they're already complicit in what's often being satirised. It's like if there was a gallery where visitors have to declare they're an asshole at the door.
Yes, and I think this is how most people feel when using social media. Plus, everyone knows Facebook is stealing their private information, and despite this they still use it. To be honest, I’d like to get rid of it, but it’s the best way to show my work to a wide audience, so I guess I’m enslaved to social networks.
Visually, there's a similarity to 1950s advertising and airline safety videos in your work. What are some other inspirations?
I suppose I got influenced by old graphics through the work of Crumb, Clowes or Michael Kupperman, who were inspired by that before me. And also Pettibon, Michael Ray Charles and Barbara Kruger. I like the naivety of old advertising, and you can spot many fake smiles on them, which is perfect. Besides that, I’d say sketch comedy and stand up comedy are really inspirational – I recently rewatched the British series Look Around You and it’s great.
The grinning face of your main character has become like your calling card and signifies the sense of desperation, denial and mania in your work. Any chance he was based on a particular person?
My character is not based on anyone specific, it’s more like a mix of faces. You can see those kind of smiles on Aphex Twin graphics, some of Goya’s characters or a random real-world guy who pretends his life is OK but is selling shitty banking products.
And where did the obsession with amputation come from? Limbs are just incredibly awkward aren't they.
This is just the easiest way I’ve found to play with dark humour, visually. I remember when I watched Braindead I laughed a lot; that could be perhaps the first place I took inspiration from.
You obviously delight in finding the worst possible sentiments for your characters to to put forward and thus satirise. One of the most simple but effective so far was "STOP BEING POOR". It reminds me of Johnny Cash's explanation of his "But I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die" line in "Folsom Prison Blues": "I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind." I imagine you're going through a similar mental process when sitting down to create a new scene?
The process of my work is often based on the idea that humanity can be really disgusting, and I use humour to talk about serious things like this, to add layers or to take distance on disaster. When I start thinking on a new work it mostly involves a dark view of humankind, but the process is always playful, so it’s always fun.
From cartoon animals reminding us "we're all gonna die" to hitchhikers cheerily signalling for a ride to "extinction", there's a weird comfort to a lot of your work. I'm not sure I completely understand why "EVERYONE DIES ALONE" or "LIFE IS MISERY" can make us feel better, do you?
I’d like to think it may be the same reaction I get reading Samuel Beckett novels or Robert Crumb comics; the idea that we are constantly surrounded by desperation and failure, and so the best we can do is just laugh.
In your two most Liked cartoons on Instagram, one sees a suicidal influencer shot in the face by her mother at point blank range, the other a man bleeding on the asphalt after a car accident being given a bunny ears photo filter. It appears we all hate ourselves for participating in the unhappy competition that is social media. Do you think the human race will at some point stop indulging the narcissistic desires that technology has allowed us to feed, or is this a Pandora's Box situation?
I have no idea, but I refuse to think we are just a product of and for consumption shaped by technology and algorithms. I suppose the way social media works is just a reflection of how capitalism has evolved, this idea that self expression is so important, that we need to express ourselves to be different and show how special we are. So we choose our identities as if we were buying them in the supermarket, and then we can share them on social media as if we were selling those marked-up goods on.