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Bridging Art and Humanity Through Satire with Michael Koerner

Joana Alarcão

In this exclusive interview, we delve into the world of Michael Koerner, an interdisciplinary visual artist whose work transcends conventional boundaries to explore the intersection of art and care. Based in mid-western America, Koerner has spent the last two decades addressing the human condition through thought-provoking social commentary. His dynamic approach, which involves developing each piece with unique objectives, techniques, and mediums, reflects a deep commitment to engaging with topical issues and fostering empathy through artistic expression. Join us as Koerner shares insights into his journey, influences, and the profound impact of his work on both the art community and society at large.

3 June 2024

Michael Koerner earned his M.F.A. in Painting from Edinburgh College of Art in 2002 and his B.F.A. in Printmaking from Herron School of Art in 1996. Michael has been involved professionally in the arts for the last 28 years and has a genuine interdisciplinary and culturally responsive approach to creating visual art. His practice is concerned with creating visual responses and social commentary to topical issues. His concepts, methods, mediums, and scale continually evolve and vary greatly to meet the context of the given topic. Satire is the connected thread that runs through the majority of his art. His 2022 sabbatical in Iceland and Vancouver Island recently concluded with a Fall 2023 solo exhibition, Rise & Fall. This show featured a large-scale 18ft(w) x 3ft(h) oil painting triptych on the topic of animal extinction called Slack-jawed Consumption and several drawings on the theme of insularity.

Michael’s artwork has been exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally, including London, Chicago, San Diego, Athens, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Munich, Rome, and Belfast. His artwork has been recognized by Sothebys, Bonhams and Phillips Auctioneers, is archived on as well as, and resides in permanent collections in the US, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and South Korea. Notably, this includes two artworks (Harmony and In Bloom) in United Kingdom’s National Public Art Collection.

In 2022, Michael won the Sarah Decker Ning Award of Distinction from the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute for the sculptural installation, The Journey is the Destination. He was commissioned to create a monumental 48ft(w) x 6ft(h) painting commemorating Indiana University’s Kokomo’s 75th anniversary; this was installed in the newly built Student Events & Activities Center in 2021. This followed a commission of a 26ft(w) x 8ft(h) artwork for the lobby of the international headquarters of Appriss in Louisville, Kentucky. His animated short, The Shape of Heroes & Villains, was selected by the 2016 Athens Digital Arts Festival held in Athens, Greece; it had previously won the juror’s award from the Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center in association with the Smithsonian Institute.

Michael Koerner’s Pluto the Planet drawing was published in 2016’s “Whitefish Review #19, Volume X, Issue 1”. Additionally, Michael has self- published two hardbound books, 2017’s Things We Will or Have Already Lost and 2014’s Seventy.

He is a tenured Associate Professor of New Media in the New Media, Art, and Technology program at Indiana University. Previously he held the posts of Assistant Professor in New Media Communication, and Assistant Lecturer in Fine Arts & Graphic Design. 2024 will be his 15th year there. Additionally, he runs the Design Center at IU, an in-house graphic design and marketing firm comprised of students, that assists local non-profits with print and digital design solutions. Michael serves as Creative Director for Indiana University Kokomo’s “Field: Journal of Arts & Sciences” and previously as Creative Director for Indiana University Southeast’s “Review: Journal of Arts & Letters” and “The Voice” alumni magazine.

From 2001-2007, Michael worked at the Garvald Centre in Edinburgh Scotland, a Rudolph Steiner based art center, supporting adults with learning disabilities in a joinery and pottery. Prior to this, he conducted visually based cultural and marketing research and graphic design-related work for Image Engineering Inc. and Cultural Insights, throughout the US, Germany, and parts of Slovakia.

Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice and what led you to explore the intersection of art and care?

Sure. I’m an interdisciplinary visual artist currently based in mid-western America whose work over the last two decades has focused on addressing the human condition through social commentary of topical issues. I develop work on a case by case basis, with its own set of objectives, techniques, mediums and parameters, much as a graphic designer would do while working from a specific client’s creative brief. A unified artist statement covering the entirety of my practice doesn’t exist per se, because I have found it to be impractical and unappealing to label something that I hope and aim to be in motion. Instead, I often use word play as prompts when conceptualizing work and then eventually end up with a collection of statements I’ve written for each individual piece or series. 

From a very early age – my mom will tell you, three – I recognized that I enjoyed the challenge of creatively making things and figuratively planted the flag declaring that I wanted to be an artist. Thankfully, I have always had the support from my family to be uncompromising in this pursuit. In hindsight, I can now reflect upon my childhood and identify how I was using art, in part, as an outlet and escapism to cope with intermittent conflict and emotional abuse stemming from my dad’s personal struggles. While it was happening though, I only knew that art gave me confidence and a spot where I could place my efforts and dreams; that was enough. 

Fast forward 25 years.

My first professional intersection occurred in Bratislava in May 2000 when the marketing firm I was employed by, Image Engineering/Cultural Insights, was sent to train missionaries in how to better communicate with their troubled adolescent/youth audience using our technique. The firm utilized image-based data and a pattern identifying methodology that was first developed in the UK for treatment of individuals with autism. I had worked with this firm throughout the USA and Germany with Fortune 500 companies over the previous year, but this was my first instance of serving non-profits and using visuals for healing, nurturing, and guidance purposes.

Fast forward 2 years.

Following my MFA in Painting at the Edinburgh College of Art in 2002, I stayed in Scotland for another five years and trained adults with learning and physical disabilities in the arts (primarily ceramics and joinery/woodworking) at the Rudolph Steiner based Garvald Centre Edinburgh. Rudolph Steiner was the founder of a philosophy known as Anthroposophy. In the States, his ideas have taken hold most prevalently through Waldorf Education. In his words, 

“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education.”

At Garvald, differences were seen as assets not hinderances; I had the honor of working alongside and supporting so many brilliantly talented, unassuming and earnest individuals there. The experience was contagious and the resulting mindset led me to the acceptance and practice of specifically making art to engage with the context/community/world around me. In addition to my art practice, I’m currently an Associate Professor in New Media at Indiana University. I strive here also to translate what I learned at Garvald and help students make individualized, honest and passionate connections through the arts. These are the intersections.

detail of painting with several animals.
Detail of Slack-jawed Consumption by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.
Your practice is concerned with creating visual responses and social commentary on societal issues, using satire as the connected thread that runs through the majority of your work. Can you deconstruct this line of thought for us?

It became apparent by late 2003, that making art for art’s sake, though a worthy endeavor in its own right for many, remained no longer enough for me. I mean no disrespect, but it honestly began to feel frivolous for me to do so when there is so much suffering and inequity in the world. Questions arose such as… “Could I use my role as an artist to advocate on behalf of some issue or someone?”; “Do I have to overtly take a side on an issue as an artist?”; “Is simply posing the question(s) surrounding a topical issue in an inventive and visually engaging way, that the audience has never experienced, a worthwhile endeavor?” “Can art express compassion and empathy?”

If I were to ask any of the above questions, answer yes, but then intentionally go back to having my head in the sand, tinkering away making pretty pictures because it felt good in the short-term or paid the bills, then I would/could consider that negligence.

Of the five senses, humans are most reliant on sight. We use sight for identification, navigation, communication, and reassurance purposes.

Humor seldom is seen or taught as an attribute of genuine or high art, however, I have long considered satire and related cultural iconography, in part, as effective tools for initially and quickly catching the attention of a potential audience. Once the door has been opened and the audience has a foothold, then the opportunity to now engage with the work on deeper intellectual levels is accessed. If on the other hand, a potential audience immediately walks right past the work with a sense of indifference or the impression that the artwork was created for another audience and is beyond their comprehension, then it will be. Let me clarify though, satire is not mere bait; I believe there is great potential for complexity, beauty and nuance in satire. 

As an artist who has long focused on topical issues, social commentary and the human condition via satire, this era where memes and emojis are commonplace makes it even more challenging to navigate. The context requires that I place greater methodical care in curating what topics, medium, and scale I choose. I strive to avoid topics and approaches that seem like low hanging fruit and aim for each work or series to operate on multiple intellectual levels. This is thoughtfully orchestrated so that the audience is activated by the work and not just passive recipients as they stroll through the gallery. 

It should be stated here too, that my creative process isn’t linear; it doesn’t start at A and go to Z simply because I made a solid plan. I continually am conscious of stepping away from my work and analyzing the status of a piece, because there is always a possibility that a tanget will be revealed through making that could take an artwork to a stronger resolution than the original concept.

pantimg with a grey background and several other small spots pf paint, it resembles a city landscape
Sequence by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.
Can you tell us about the most challenging issue you have addressed in your work and why you chose this topic?

That would be the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution and its relationship to modern gun control. It probably goes without saying, but gun ownership and control is a very polarizing issue in the states. It is used by pundits on both sides of the political fence to varying degrees as a construct and tool to purport that Republicans and Democrats have more differences than shared experiences and common ground as a species, which is inherently false. The absurdity of it all is mindblowing; it’s gotten to a point where it feels solely reactionary. It’s not hard to imagine a situation where a prominent Democrat is photographed drinking Coca Cola and in that instant, Pepsi becomes the official drink of Republicans. This divide and conquer strategy – composed of lying and fearmongering – is most prominently displayed on the national and international scene by Donald Trump via his aspirations for political power. That aside, the BBC reported that as of Dec 7, 2023, there had been over 630 mass shootings in the US last year. I’m a father of two young boys. Any way you slice it, this figure is staggering.

Sometimes the creative solutions I arrive at are overtly satirical and in others the satire is nuanced and subtle. Just Another Interpretation of the 2nd Amendment (The Right to Arm Bears) is in the former camp. It is a painting of a North American brown bear being photographed, dressed as a colonial Minuteman carrying a musket with a freshly killed pheasant at his side. The painting was created not as a statement declaring whether I am for or against greater gun control legislation, but rather as a visual commentary on the absurdity of taking any side too far. Ironically, I’ve subsequently had both left-wing pacifists and gun carrying members of the NRA (National Rifle Association) alike, approach me to say that they thought the painting was on their side.

image of three pink, red and grey suitcases on a gallery floor
The Journey is the Destination by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.
Can you describe your artistic style and the media you often work with? How do these choices contribute to your message?

No one I’ve met likes to be labeled, but if I were tasked with choosing one word to describe my artistic style it would be: responsive.

No choice of medium or method of working to me is arbitrary or made in a vacuum; a great deal of applicable consideration is given to each work within the ideation stage in relation to the topic I’ve chosen. For example, a single piece may start as a digital drawing, move to a series of oil on panel paintings, be transcribed into an interactive web-based piece, and then to a mural. Over the last 28 years, I’ve spent considerable time developing work in a variety of mediums. In addition to the ones listed above, mediums/deliverables have included: illustrated hardbound artist books, ink pen and graphite drawings, digital animated short films, custom wallpaper designs, and typographical based installations.

To give you an idea of my production rate when I’m focused solely on making work, in my first year of grad school alone I stretched and painted 104 individual canvases.

Often I will have to learn from scratch and become proficient in a specialized method in order to serve the concept. A good example of this is my 2021 modular sculptural and painting piece, The Journey is the Destination. It involves house paint being poured into suitcases, lunch pails and briefcases and then being coated in epoxy resin. This is so that the paint appears wet and serves as a metaphor for the triumph and beauty of our journey during the COVID pandemic, when many of us were physically bound to our residences, and our minds were running rampant as we strove to adapt while many passed away each day. In order to ensure that dust, hair, and our cat wouldn’t accidentally be cast into the artwork, I pitched a tent in my studio and worked there for six months with a heat gun and ventilation mask.

three drawings on a gallery wall
Timber/Forest Fall/The Perpetual State of Flying Around in Circles by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.
You have a project composed of thirteen drawings in total, called Timber! | Forest Fall |The Perpetual State of Flying Around in Circles, which was created in response to living on Vancouver Island and coming face-to-face with deforestation daily. What can you tell us about the technical and visual aspects of this project?

This triptych is part of my 2023 drawing series, Rise & Fall, an interdisciplinary visual exploration and social commentary on the profound effects of isolation, insularity, indifference, and shortsightedness. There are thirteen drawings in total covering a variety of nine different topical issues. These drawings, along with Slack-jawed Consumption are the sum of my recent sabbatical from Indiana University as an Associate Professor, taken on both Vancouver Island and Iceland.

I had been aware of old-growth deforestation blighting the island, but there is no substitute for experiencing something directly. It’s this sentiment that drives my research into how humans seldom genuinely consider the long-term effects and collateral damage of an action/inaction, empathize with those affected, or collectively take steps towards rectifying an issue, unless the issue is happening on their doorstep. Whether I was negotiating narrow roads with logging trucks or passing desolate sections of clear cut forests, I couldn’t unsee what was happening or turn a blind eye because it was occurring in front of me. How can we live off of and give to the land without depleting its resources so that the relationship is mutualistic? With cedar being one of the most harvested conifers there, the irony didn’t escape me upon returning to Indiana, to my home made of cedar and stone, that I am part of this narrative too.

Regarding the technical and visual aspects, I only initially knew going into my sabbatical that I wanted to make drawings with things falling from the sky in relation to insularity, which is defined by Oxford as: “ignorance of or a lack of interest in culture, ideas, or peoples, outside of their own experience”. Cambridge defines insularity as: “the quality of only being interested in your own country or group and not being willing to accept different or foreign ideas”.

To begin the series, I developed a few constructs/parameters: The first construct states if a composition consists of things falling from the sky, then it implies that they’ve risen at some point, to be in the position to fall. The second construct was to create what I refer to as “fall lines” –  vertically drawn lines that imply motion – and assign them to each object in every drawing. The third construct was that I would use only three varying types/values of pencils to draw and shade the work, both for rendering the object with a degree of realism and the fall lines. The fourth construct was that none of the substrates (in this case, Bristol Board) would be cropped at any point (including production, framing and exhibiting stages); I would be composing each drawing then and there, knowing that the figure-ground relationship between graphite and paper was set.

It wasn’t until after around five drawings had been completed, that the work began to coalesce and develop a semblance of continuity. Once the series reached this critical mass, I was able to objectively evaluate the work and clearly see narratives begin to emerge and the holes (narrative-wise) that needed to be filled. After eight drawings were completed, the work reached an inflexion point that allowed me greater flexibility. For example, in the last five of the thirteen drawings, the scale of the subject matter was able to decrease and thus the quantity of associated fall lines were able to decrease. I was able to do this and make the varying subjects within this series more dynamic while retaining the cohesiveness, because the parameters had already been so strictly followed in the first eight. 

a panel ona gallery space where you can see a blue background with whales and a painting with a white background and red dot at the center
A Drop of Whale Blood by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.
How do you see your work healing and bringing comfort to others?

I have a foundation of belief that it’s possible for one to find healing and comfort when someone else brings light into a dark corner that you’ve been in, especially when you thought you were facing it alone. I’ve personally experienced this through music, theatre and visual art. For example, the first time I experienced an Anselm Kiefer work in the flesh at the age of 20, the sheer scale in combination with the brutally textured tangibility of the surface and the subject matter of Auschwitz, consumed the room. As someone with German ancestry and name, this struck me. Our work is stylistically worlds apart, but his use of sensitive and divisive subject matter, massive scale, and ensuring that the artwork engages its audience in different ways depending on their distance from the work, have all been highly influential on my practice.

I see healing as a dialogue between the artist and the audience; there is a degree of catharsis for me in addressing an issue that boils my blood through art and potential for the audience to genuinely connect to this issue in a way they hadn’t before because of the way it was conceptualized and delineated in the art. I’ve thankfully had opportunities over the years where the audience have spoken to me directly or written messages in the gallery’s visitor’s book expressing how an artwork I created spoke to them and knowing this, is very moving to me. It helps motivate me to continue making this type of work and thus continues the conversation.

In my Fall 2023 solo exhibition, Rise & Fall, much of the work is melancholy and dire in nature, due to the seriousness and scale of the topics. When I’m addressing subject matter such as Earth’s sixth-extinction, vanishing forests, the opioid crisis, school shootings, COVID-19 pandemic, or the US prison system, a positive counter-balance is needed, by both the audience and me. To serve in this role for this specific exhibition, I created a typographical-based artwork spanning 27 feet(w) on a single line of the adjacent wall with no spacing, titled: A Horizon Worth Walking Towards. It read: “commongroundempathycompassioncommitmentpluralismcourageobjectivityknowledgeintegritymutualismequityfreedomlovepeace”

a big painting on a gallery wall where you can see several animals a rainbow and a skull
Slack-jawed Consumption by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.
What can you tell us about your project, Slack-jawed Consumption?

In Slack-jawed Consumption, I am exploring how humanity’s actions and inactions, both short-term and long-term, are leading to Earth’s sixth extinction. According to the World Wildlife Fund and many leading scientific experts around the globe, we are experiencing this extinction right now. I relentlessly spent two years developing the work and it was subsequently the centerpiece of my Fall  2023 solo/sabbatical exhibition, Rise & Fall. There is a wonderful 2014 book titled “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert that I humorously discovered nine years late and about 80% through the painting’s production. It helped inform some of the latter decisions though in terms of species inclusion, but largely we were working autonomously on addressing the same issue, via book and painting respectively.

Back in spring 2021, I finished a 48ft(w) x 6ft(h) painting commission, so that experience gave me the confidence to be able to tackle an epic scale. However, the diversity of wildlife content (spanning all seven continents and all five oceans), scope of my concept, and the high level of representational rendering in combination with a flat graphic approach in Slack-jawed Consumption, made it substantially more complex. This painting is an 18ft(w) x 3ft(h) oil on mahogany triptych; the intent here is to activate the space it is in and encourage one to confront the issues facing endangered animals by seeking & finding them. Some, like the diminutive Goldstreifiger Beetle require one to get up close, while the life-size shape of the colossal Black Rhino, which is left as unpainted mahogany, can only be observed from a distance. I disbursed actual seek & find game sheets to gallery attendees and gave them the sobering and enjoyable/rewarding task of searching for 32 of the iconography/subjects that I immersed throughout the painting. Curating an artistic piece/experience that elicits both of these contrasting emotions in my audience, regarding a topic that isn’t on their own doorstep is something I’m very proud of to be honest.


How do you ensure your work is accessible to diverse audiences?

Unfortunately, it’s a safe bet that I will likely never run into any form of writer’s block; I wish that weren’t true. To be blunt, the world is objectively screwed in so many ways right now and there’s an overwhelming sense of uncertainty, for our species, our planet and all of its inhabitants. This is heavy stuff for those of us that are reflective, introspective, and feel some sense of responsibility. It will remain challenging to unpack and address for generations. The obvious answer is that the range of topics I address are inherently diverse and therefore the presumption is that it will engage diverse audiences. But let’s be honest, that’s not an adequate answer, and it makes me come off as more of a smart-ass than I actually am..

The genuine answer to this question happens to be one of my favorite aspects of making artwork and a topic that I continually discuss with students: Determining the amount of specificity versus ambiguity that a particular artwork’s visual language and narrative will have is the key for communicating. In other words, is there a specific message that you absolutely need to get across to the audience as a takeaway? Or, do you want to avoid your artwork having any specific narrative and instead want it to be completely open to interpretation by the audience and be subject to any baggage (first or secondhand experiences or preconceived notions) they may have regarding your subject, medium, or style? The former approach is obviously the choice that commercial artists (such as a graphic designers within an advertising firm) whose client has a message, opportunity, or product to sell to a particular demographic lean towards. While the latter approach is usually associated with self-expressive artists working in traditional art mediums. I, however, find the middle ground to be much more interesting and fertile than being on one side of this fence or another. It allows me to selectively pick elements in a single artwork that I wish for the audience to immediately identify while also leaving other elements more abstract or with broken/deconstructed narratives. If you spell everything out, it doesn’t treat the audience as intelligent nor does it allow the work to be open to interpretation and grow beyond what the artist’s hands made.

Let’s be honest, even though culturally our species has never been more global with regards to travel, commerce, and communication, there are still currently over 7000 languages spoken in the world. Heck, not everyone even reads a page top to bottom, left to right. There is no way to ensure that my artwork or anyone else’s references iconography that is recognized by all equally. However, I can stack the odds in my favor by continuously immersing myself in research, scouring books on symbology used in different cultures, and utilizing marketing approaches from my years in design to name a few. I’m not infallible. Some of the punches I throw won’t land and some will, but interpretation at the end of the day isn’t my enemy.

a painting with a forest background in purple, black and grey colours
After the Canaries Left the Coal Mines the Mountains Began to Leave Appalachia by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.
Do you believe that engaging in artistic expression is a mode of nurturing? If so, what are the reasons behind this perspective?

Yes, I do. As mentioned at the top of the interview, I used creative expression to help me through childhood, as a therapeutic expression for adults that I supported in a social care context, and as a compass of sorts to lead me to the balance of being a practicing artist and Professor that I am today. It can get overwhelming as an artist who chooses again and again to develop and deploy artwork on such heavy subject matter. The stringent conceptual process I employ along with the physical graft that goes into each work though usually allow me to overcome any pessimism, sadness or cynicism; eventually feeling unscathed and that the topic is resolved, at least on my end.

What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?

As far as any of us factually know, this is the only life we get and our consciousness and soul don’t transcend our current state to some other place, time or being. I’m open to and hopeful of being disproved. However, until that happens, I’m going to strive to be creatively productive in a way that is responsive to our context, and reflects the contradictions, beauty, and tragedy of the human condition. I recognize in myself a very methodical, meticulous soul who painstakingly labors over details in the ideation and execution of artwork. My own personal record for developing a single piece is sadly a whopping eight years and I have a stack of sketchbooks that are filled with ideas I doubt I’ll ever get to. It can be temporarily debilitating at times when an idea or creative approach that I firmly believe in is yet to be resolved, but overcoming the stalemate and challenge in those type of scenarios is even more rewarding. 

With regards to a call of action: I encourage others to place a concerted effort into developing one’s observational skills. By that, I mean to intentionally be present and introspective with whatever you experience. Whether that be attending an exhibition, reading a novel, having a conversation with a stranger, eating a new food, or traveling to a location that you’ve never been to; focus on the present, move beyond the shallow reflexes of saying “I like” or “I don’t like” something and instead, use adjectives and adverbs to identify what is engaging your attention and why that is so. Once this activity of recognizing what draws you in, what repels you, and why, is established as muscle memory, then it will begin to consciously and subconsciously find its way into your own creative expression and way of being. 

Find more about the artist here.

Cover image:

Detail of Slack-jawed Consumption by Michael Koerner. Image courtesy of Michael Koerner.

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