Monday, April 27, 2009

aaron johnson: mad scientist

aaron johnson, a nyc based painter of epic talent, is the kind of innovative artist that i hunt for in my oft-daily art safaris on "the internets" (term borrowed from henry rollins, who is a hilarious, volatile, though incredibly long winded speaker). not only is his visual style unique, but the process through which the artist creates his pieces is wholly original, and in many ways its complexity adds to the singularity of the compositions. johnson's themes range from carnival like characters to the circus of modern politics, and every shade of horror and chaos in between. and yet despite the carnal quality of johnson's work his playful palette and lyrical passages of filigree champion the beauty within the macabre. 

aaron johnson, the gunslinger, 2007 acrylic and collage on plastic construction netting

CG: You live and work in NYC, arguably the epicenter of contemporary art. How does the city inspire you?

I find that the chaos, frenzy, crowds, and action of the city provide the right balance to my studio, which is the opposite, a place of solitude, isolation, and singular focus on the one big thing: making art. The two extremes compliment each other.

CG: Do you attend many art shows in NY? Favorite galleries? Working artists who's work you really enjoy?

I get out to see art in galleries and museums and friends' studios at least once a week. It's important to know what's going on in order to engage in some kind of a common discourse. I'm a fan of too many working artists to name, but here's a few: Jim Lambie, Daniel Richter, Paul McCarthy, Barnaby Whitfield, Tom Sanford, Debra Hampton, Tracey Snelling, Benji Whalen, Kristen Schiele, Laura Schnitger, Peter Saul, Urs Fisher, Trenton Doyle Hancock, John Newsom, Allison Elizabeth Taylor, Judith Supine.....that's a few off the top of my head.

aaron johnson, the second coming of uncle sam, 94"x66" acrylic on polyester flag

CG: Your imagery is at once deliciously grotesque and delicately beautiful. How do you strike a balance? How did you come to this style of imagery?

For me my works are successful when I've reached something that's visceral to the point of making the viewer's skin crawl, visually charged to the point of making the viewer's retinas quiver, and layered in suggestions of narrative that make the viewer psychologically uncomfortable. My visual vocabulary draws from several sources: my degree in Molecular Cellular Biology; the influence of Indian art and culture which was all over my house growing up; and of course a long list of painters I admire from Otto Dix to Bronzino to Peter Saul.

CG: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

The motivation to always make my new works better than the previous ones is a big drive. Listening to talk radio about current events inspires me to make work that deals with our contemporary human condition. Listening to endless music keeps me going in those passages of details that can seem endless (today it's Beirut, Gang Gang Dance, Carbon/Silicon, and Sun Kil Moon).

CG: You have an amazingly complicated technique, that essentially requires you to think backwards to create the final image. Did this process come naturally to you or was it a struggle to train your brain to plan in such a way?

The process started by playing around with drips of paint that I would peel off the plastic covering on the floor (back in the days when my studio was in a corner of my tiny apartment). I'm always experimenting with ways to make a painting. Otherwise I get terribly bored and the works gets stale. The process evolves really naturally. I've been making paintings according to this weird reverse painted acrylic polymer peel process since about 2002, but that process is always in flux and always evolving. The constant has to be change.

aaron johnson, the sword swallower, 106"x97"acrylic and collage on construction debris netting

CG: You've received some seriously impressive accolades in the past few years from publications as lauded and influential as The New York Times and Art News. Any particular compliments/reviews that meant a great deal to you? Whose opinion do you cherish the most when it comes to your work? 

Hmmmm.......well, my work is "difficult" for a lot of people, because it deals with ugly realities, brutality, violence, sexuality, and the dark aspects of The American Dream. Getting positive reviews from some real authoritative critics makes some people take my work more seriously. I really appreciate it when critics support work that is challenging and relevant. There's a nice recent article by Scott Indrisek in Whitewall magazine (you can read it online pages 64-65)

CG: I loved your studio visit on Fecal Face. Great space! Your space is full of work in various states. It would seem that your process is fairly involved. Do you work on one piece at a time, or jump from piece to piece?

I work on 2 or 3 at a time, and then when one particular piece really grabs me full-force, then I'll focus on just that one while the others wait. Some of them get started and then sit around for 6 months before I figure out where they're going.

CG: Here's a funny one for you: A lot of your sort of lacy details remind me of geodes, mineral formations and fossils. Have you ever been a rock collector? Do you draw inspiration from patterns in nature?

When I was a kid I had a "nature museum" in this walk-in closet in our house, which I filled with specimens I collected in the woods. I would display these things (hornets' nests, dead dragonflies, tree fungus, bones, etc) on shelves and I would document each object with a drawing. Years later, like I mentioned, I was a science major in college. In a way it's always been art and science hand in hand for me.

CG: How do you celebrate when you've successfully finished a piece that you're pleased with?

I stare at it for an hour and start the next one.

CG: With the use of the stretched plastic, I can't help but draw a comparison between some of your pieces and Duchamp's The Large Glass. They share that great quality of being at once traditionally two dimensional as well as containing a sort of deeper sculptural quality, inspiring in the viewer a strong desire to look deeper and see beyond the surface. Any past artists whose work inspires your process or who you like to reflect on? 

I see a kinship between my process and the work of Sigmar Polke. He really considers painting as the chemical reaction that it truly is, and he doesn't take anything for granted; everything is chosen for a purpose in the physicality of his works (he has worked on transparent materials, too, and has done reverse paintings on glass).

sigmar polke, beyond the rainbow, 2007, 142cm x 124cm, mixed media on fabric

aaron johnson, commander's feast (in blood and fire), 2008, 53"x44" acrylic polymer and pigment on polyester flag, 

CG: Best pizza in NY?

Grimaldi's in Brooklyn

*Agreed! My cousin (ironically also named Aaron) sent me there when I stayed with him in Williamsburg, best pizza I've ever had!

CG: Favorite Brooklyn landmark/hang out?

Landmark: the Navy Yard (where my studio is)
Hang out: Havana Outpost

CG: If you could instantly acquire a new skill this instant what would you want it to be?

To play guitar like Muddy Waters

CG: Clown or magician?

I hate clowns, and I have no interest in magicians. You could argue I'm a clown and a magician in my artwork, but maybe more a mad scientist, and a court jester.

CG: Night or day?


CG: And finally, if you were going to make a grand entrance, what song would be playing to say "Aaron Johnson has arrived"?

I like to sneak into the room unnoticed.

aaron johnson has an upcoming group show at new image art in los angeles entitled "octo pusses" beginning may 2nd. check it out if you're in the area. new image art is an amazing gallery.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

this week i read...

yeah i'm one of those weirdos who still reads... books that is. quite voraciously actually. in some ways reading is my cheap replacement for continued schooling that i can't afford. i figure just because i can't afford to be a lifelong student doesn't mean i can't spend the rest of my life in the pursuit of knowledge. 

but let's not get it twisted. i'm not out there every day devouring tolstoy and nitzche. i looooove steven king. adore him. and i love cheesy murder mysteries and lurid true crime novels. but i also take great pleasure in reading tomes that are challenging and give pause. this week has been a calm before the storm; a relatively slow week before i dive into the hang for next week's group show. one of those weeks where the phone just doesn't seem to ring and there are many empty, quiet hours to spare. 

i spent those hours reading....

yes, i do on occasion judge a book by its cover. the quirky illustration by matthew green (jacket design by faber) caught my eye in a portland bookstore. also, can't escape the intrigue of the title. i have to hand it to nathan englander for this one. a charming surprise the ministry of special cases carries on the tradition of magical realism with a clever and at times laugh out loud story that takes place during argentina's dirty war. the story, that of the affable yet confounding kaddish poznan, a man's who's job it is to chip the names off of gravestones for families who would rather forget their controversial pasts, dances back and forth between passages of hilarity and mirth and scenes of great tension and terror. i found the book surprisingly heavy given the frequent humor. it had the sort of narcotic but arresting pace of gabriel garcia marquez, though i think that englander fell a bit short of the narrative power of marquez at his best. 

krakauer at his finest. i was a bit wary of this one. i'm a notoriously unspiritual person, and though i see validity in trying to understand religion as an extraordinarily powerful social force, i have difficulty wrapping my mind around what i perceive as the extremity of blind faith. under the banner of heaven starts with a flash and doesn't let up until the final chapter. even the final passage was pitch perfect, and i think that the quote that krakauer chose to conclude his book with couldn't have been more apt. meticulously researched and powerfully written krakauer's book takes an in depth look at america's complex homegrown religion, framing the tragic tale of the murders of brenda and erica lafferty at the hands of two devout fundamentalist relatives with compelling chapters detailing the religion's history and significant leaders. rather than attack mormonism as the direct source of such a violent act, krakauer explains how mormonism's fundamental tenants open the religion up to periodic splintering and wide interpretation. some of the stories about the various fundamentalist groups that have cropped up over the years are extremely harrowing in their graphicness. mormon fundamentalist groups are rife with institutionalized racism, blatant and often violent sexism and condoned acts of statutory rape and even incest. krakauer, a great adventure writer, alleviates some of the tension with wonderful passages describing the natural environment in the mormon kingdom of utah, and finds heros in unlikely places to champion in stark contrast to the antagonists of the story. a quick read and highly informative. only draw back? i may be rethinking that hiking trip i was planning to zion. 

i pull this book out every few months to peruse the brilliant essays on topics ranging from process to figuration. this morning i was re-reading a great interview with roy lichtenstein conducted by g.r. swenson in 1963. what a g.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

hungry lion


because i bet you didn't know i secretly moonlight as a grimey festie kid.

party like an art star's auteur at langerado '08 - south florida

filthy feet! trademark of all good music gatherings. whooooie those are some white legs!

max kaufmann

max kauffman, if this is any indication

i am admittedly one of those horrible seaboard dwelling americans who has a veritable blank spot in my mental map when it comes to the midwest. 

ohio? really?

missouri? no idea.

basically my working knowledge of midwestern states comes only from the music festivals they hold each summer. 

michigan? rothbury!

minnesota? 10,000 lakes!

illinois? summer camp!

well fortunately looks like illinois has much more to brag about than summer camp '09. originally from chicago, illinois artist and illustrator max kauffman spent his idyllic youth in south bend, indiana rolling between the countryside and the city on four wheels and a deck. this fluid relationship between the urban and the bucolic can be seen reflected in the organic and simultaneously architecturally constructed compositions of this very talented and free spirited artist. 

max kauffman, power exchange, 12"x12" mixed media on watercolor paper

kauffman left the midwest for arizona in 2000 and finished up an art degree at arizona state university in 2004, with a focus in ceramics. he also earned himself a minor in anthropology, which seems to have had a formative influence on the sort of folkloric, mythological imagery that pervades kauffman's work. much of the artist's oeuvre consists of imagery that alludes to the tenuous relationship between science and nature. though science is often a tool used to understand nature, in recent years science has often been applied in such a way as to move further and further from the natural order of the earth. more and more often we see science used as a tool to tame, corral and subjugate nature to suit our human needs, rather than a lens through which we can explore the best ways that we can live simply on the earth. 

power exchange is a great example of this theme. the composition depicts a robot, easy read as either imposing in its forward thrust posture and agape mouth or somewhat sad in its blank eyed stare and imploring body language, offering a totemic bird figure a hand full of what appear to be batteries. however, the batteries could be alternately read as worms or grubs, being the power source for the bird. i love the bird figure, because it has a very ancient, emblematic presence that reminds me of early animal renderings done by long ago cultures. many of kauffman's works include bird and animal figures that have an sort of raw, native presence. his tangible interest in the relationship between man and machine belies the influence of artists like h.r. giger. 

max kauffman, (thriving) culture

i love kauffman's use of color. his color relationships are natural, appealing and mature. though he certainly never shies away from vibrant, saturated colors kauffman doesn't force contrast for the sake of flash. the artist explains, "color always begins every piece; line and texture fall in line after." using media such as watercolors, ink and washes kauffman successfully carves figures from the meat of his tonal landscapes. texture plays an important part in the artist's style. at once painterly and graphic, the works move seamlessly between carefully controlled passages of color, and loosely rendered, cerebral shapes and lines. his work utilizes a sort of hallucinogenic abstraction to depict the protagonists and landscapes of his own personal imaginary world, replete with a strong sense of conflict and tension. 

max kauffman, birding in egypt, 11"x14"  hand embellished two color silk screen, 2009

kauffman's interest in ancient cultures and their lasting impression on our contemporary world can be seen in pieces like birding in egypt, a piece that employs hieroglyphic like elements to pay homage to the historical relevance of early cultures. in some ways, it seems to me, that this consistent use of ancient symbols serves as a reminder that the concerns, dreams and fears of communal cultures stay relatively the same from century to century. as human beings we are linked from generation to generation, by our desire to fulfill the same needs, answer the same questions and seek the same comforts. 

max kauffman, symbiote, 11"x11" watercolor, sepia and ink, 2008

max's art also calls to mind more contemporary art movements, like modern skateboard art. kauffman, who has himself done skateboard design and sights skateboarding as a major source of inspiration, has an aesthetic that immediately makes me think of skate design greats like thomas campbell and barry mcgee. his line quality has a frenetic, extroverted energy that encapsulates the free-spirited, unconventional style of great skate art. 

max kauffman, motet poster (*big ups to jans ingber who's father is a good buddy of my 'rents)

and lastly, i have to give a shout out to kauffman's great taste in music. a music lover, and a frequent adventurer into the world of live music, max sights the spontanaeity and constantly changing structure of live music as a great source of inspiration. 

art research in today's day and age can be funny. more and more, artists who don't have the time or the resources to create a complicated personal website (kauffman's is currently under construction, though he has a charming and inviting start under his belt) rely on social networking sights like myspace and facebook to promote their art. the first time i had to go to an artist's myspace to get more info i felt like i was invading their privacy. mixed in with the straight forward shots of art pieces are party pics, personal anecdotes and commentary from friends. on action i find myself falling a bit in love with the artists that i look into, or at least find myself wanting to buy them a beer. max is no exception. seems like the kind of kid i'd like to hit up if i make it to summer camp this year (i'm on a mission with my buddy joseph to make it to a new festival each year in a state we haven't been to, and the midwest has plenty of states i haven't been to, and shows i've been meaning to catch). and i'll certainly go out of my way to see his art first hand next time he has a show in the NW. 

kauffman recently finished up a solo show called "ghosts of industry" at push gallery in asheville, nc and has/had a show in april at andenken gallery in denver (where the artist is currently based). he has an impressive list of shows coming up in the next year including a june group show at seattle's halogen gallery (formerly suite 100 gallery) and a self-curated show in october '09 in chicago through oh no! doom

Thursday, April 9, 2009

May 1st Fenario Gallery will be debuting a group show entitled "Menace to Propriety". The show will feature over a dozen artists from all over the nation, including Gilbert Oh, Patrick Haemmerlein, Joshua Witten, Leslie Ditto, Grace Weston, and more. The theme "Menace to Propriety" was designed by curator Chloe Gallagher to underscore the importance of the incendiary side of art. Art's power lies in its ability to inspire discussion and debate... even controversy. With this show the gallery hope's to embrace the controversial and the innovative, breaking boundaries and engaging the fine lines between provocative and the truly shocking. With music and libations provided, and several of the featured artists in attendance the opening is sure to be an exciting night of refreshing art and stimulating conversation. As Gilbert Seles once said, "All great ideas are controversial, or have been at one time."