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 www.whitewallmag.com 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.