Jonny Negron speaks about drawing characters of eroticism, mythology, and contemporary fashion.
Jonny Negron has something of a cult following in the art and illustration worlds. The Puerto Rican–born, but mostly New York–living, artist and illustrator is known for his busty babes of all colors grappling with phallic objects in tight clothing. While Negron’s drawings are certainly titillating, they also contain delicate line work and thoughtfully framed compositions. In the drawings, inspiration from ancient near-eastern goddesses and Japanese ukiyo-e painter Katsushika Hokusai pervade, coupled with perverse humor. The work makes sexual visualizations into farcical displays in order to comment on contemporary sexual taboos.
The artist recently published his first art book, Negron, through the small press Picture Box in Brooklyn. Negron is full of pinups against white backgrounds and nearly wordless black and white comics. Not every piece features his signature ladies, but almost all render aggression, even if it’s towards a slice of pizza. In New York City bookstores, if they carry the book it’s displayed next to work by Adrian Tomine and Maira Kalman.
While his work is risqué, Jonny Negron himself is not. His mannerisms are calm and he is unperturbed talking about the taboo. We met over an espresso, aware that saying “penis” out loud near a number of coffee shop patrons might be an issue.
—Haniya Rae for Guernica
Guernica: What does it mean for you to be erotic? As a personal definition and in your work?
Jonny Negron: I don’t know, honestly. Obviously, I like exploring erotic subject matter, but… I guess anything related to sex is erotic. Anything suggestive of sex, or sexual symbols. There are drawings that I do with condiments or whatnot, and they’re obviously sexual. Erotic.
Guernica: The symbols you choose are very hard-hitting—your drawing of a girl and a hotdog, for example. Why is that?
Jonny Negron: For me, [my imagery is] not as shocking. I’ve exposed myself to so much outsider art or alternative art that a lot of that stuff is not that obscene to me. I draw what I draw because I know that it will cause some kind of reaction for the viewer.
Guernica: Female bodies are a big part of your work. What about them inspires you? You don’t include many obvious penises, but you might have a drawing of a snake man fondling a girl (with a snake-as-penis near her nether-region) or again, you might have a girl suggestively eating a hotdog.
Jonny Negron: When there are penises in the drawing, it turns people off. I’ve only done a few that I’ve posted online, and I feel like people don’t respond to them. People like more suggestive stuff.
Guernica: Along with camouflaging penises and coming up with artistic euphemisms, it seems you also like controlling what the boundary is.
Jonny Negron: I see it in other media though. Whenever I see really manly movies, where there are phallic symbols in the stories but people don’t seem to notice because there are guys with guns.
Guernica: Can you give an example?
Jonny Negron: I saw that movie “Looper,” and it’s pretty violent. There’s one love scene, and it just kind of fades away. They don’t show any physical love, but they have no problem showing really violent stuff. To me, that’s pretty strange. I guess I understand it.
Guernica: So what’s uncomfortable to you isn’t uncomfortable to others?
Jonny Negron: With heads exploding and blood flying everywhere, how is it less extreme than pornographic stuff?
Guernica: Do you ever feel trapped by making this erotic work that people know you for?
Jonny Negron: I love doing erotic art. When I first started doing it, when I did the comic for Thickness, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it ever again. But now I just want to do a whole book of just erotic art. Sometimes I’ll have time to do other things.
Guernica: Are you ever uncomfortable doing these drawings?
Jonny Negron: Some people make me feel uncomfortable. Like I did one comic where a roach comes out of a person’s nose, for Vice. But I just thought it was funny. I just thought that if someone had such long nose hairs that a roach could come out. A lot of people responded that it was so disgusting that it made them want to vomit.
To me, it’s not that absurd. I was trying to make it absurd, but it’s not the most extreme thing that I’ve seen. That’ll happen, but like I said, I didn’t think it was that extreme. I think about more extreme things than what I’ve written. I’m inspired by art that is more extreme and more absurd than what I draw. It makes me want to push my own boundaries.
Guernica: When you’re exaggerating a female form, is that your ideal?
Jonny Negron: No, it’s not an ideal. It’s playing with the symbol of the fertility goddess. It’s always using these motherly proportions.
Guernica: So you have these hyper-sexualized women that you’ve drawn, and I’m assuming it’s fun to draw them, but do they always have a meaning behind them?
Jonny Negron: Sometimes there is. Sometimes, it’s just something that I know will please people. And it’s unique. You don’t see a lot of women like that [in art]. I think that’s why people like it. I think when I’ve drawn more average body types, it doesn’t stick out as much.
Guernica: Do you care that you are trying to please people with your drawings?
Jonny Negron: I guess on some level I must, otherwise I wouldn’t show it to anyone. My drawings are also meant to be a criticism of what people are programmed to think is beautiful. What’s seen in magazines or popular media. There’s a limited view.
Guernica: When you look at these women’s faces, maybe this goes back to the goddess thing, but they seem very confident in both their bodies and that a sexual act is about to happen. They seem sort of interested, but also aloof.
Jonny Negron: If you look at fashion editorials, the women always have this bitchy look, like they don’t care what’s going on. I think it has to do with that. I don’t think what I draw is porn. I’m not trying to get people off. I’m aware that there’s probably a minority of people who appreciate my work for those reasons. But, I guess it’s just what I do. I don’t want to be confined to that, but it’s what I do.