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QUIET LUNCH, PAINTNG THE ABSURD: THE ENGROSSING GROTESQUE ART OF AARON JOHNSON
Seeking a detailed, unsettling antidote to minimal art? You can’t do much better than the exciting expressionist art of Aaron Johnson. Gone Fishin’, the current exhibition of Johnson’s work, is on view through May 20th at Joshua Liner gallery in Chelsea (Manhattan). Works in the show take painting as a common medium, covering themes as mundane and elevated as cheeseburgers and death. With subject matter embracing folk art stylings and even oddly echoing Japan’s infamous “demon painter” Kawanabe Kyosai, Johnson has absorbed eclectic precedents into his visionary compositions which reveal the unseen emotions subconsciously influencing our everyday lives. Johnson doesn’t stop at his eclectic compositions: he also brings in a wide range of materials to create his works, incorporating layers of acrylic polymers and socks (yes, socks), among other substances. His scenes blend the ordinary with the hideous: a fisherman and his wife, surrounded by hamburger minions and exhibiting fangs and misshapen eyes, purport to exhibit an ordinary fishing trip in a nightmarish alternate dimension. Taking portraiture and group scenes as a departure point, his cowboys, hot tubbers and fishermen embrace the unnatural aspects that lay dormant within our everyday experience.
Along with these paintings, Johnson has produced painted relics that dominate an area at the gallery’s center. Mining pop culture and junk food objects, hammers and handguns vie for attention with menacing cheeseburgers. These items bring the subject matter of Johnson’s two-dimensional(ish) painting into the real world, producing an immersive effect. Suddenly, visitors are forced to double-check their own surroundings to make sure other nearby guests haven’t sprouted monstrous features on their arms and necks. This clever use of three-dimensional objects to bring the escapist nature of his subjects out into the gallery environment underscores Johnson’s awareness of the impact of his artwork: he spares no expense to assert a sense of potent un-reality. His paintings deftly maneuver the wide berth between spectacle and mundane, fantasy and blasphemy, by way of clever psychedelic observation. The otherworldly and spiritual is implicated in the artwork, albeit from a dystopic Americana perspective.
Johnson excels at revealing the grotesque and menacing aspects latent within our fantasies. The formal elements of these artworks – jarring textures, compositions, and color combinations – combine to hypnotic effect. Gone Fishin’ is a dark and humorous journey through the rabbit hole of contemporary art and the American psyche. Johnson is at the forefront of a new breed of contemporary painting, fearlessly pushing the medium toward a bright new hallucinatory future.--Audra Lambert
DOZE COLLECTIVE INTERVIEW 4-20-2017
If it happened that someone who is clearly a skeptic went to your show and asked you what’s it about about, what will you tell that person?
I’m exploring lighthearted escapist scenarios in these works, the idea of checking out from reality, especially in these times of frightening current events. In that spirit I give you a fishing painting, a hot tub painting, a hiking painting, and a full moon joyride make-out session in a pickup truck on a country road, and etc. A dark sense of humor comes into the work though, as the bliss of escape seems to elude and instead a sense of something rotten pervades.
Why (used) socks?
The first sock to hit the canvas (in 2012) was an irreverent gesture, throwing a sock into the sacred space of painting. Beyond that I got engaged with the sock as a kind of ready made impasto: a sock cleverly mimics a beefy brushstroke. The socks are used, which brings everyone into the work, literally. I like to make work that is accessible, that pulls the viewer in, and by using your old socks I am pulling in a little fragment of your person into my work. In that sense it’s a collaboration. I solicit old socks on social media, and in exchange I mail out little drawings to my sock donors. The exchange brings a collective consciousness to the work. The socks certainly contribute to metaphor: human filth, soiled sweaty feet, dirty laundry, all of those associations creep into the experience of the work.
Can you talk a little bit about your process? Did you introduce something new for this series compared with your previous ones?
I work in several of distinct processes, the results of all of which are hanging in this show. The reverse paintings function in layers receding backwards from the picture plane, while the sock paintings do the opposite: layering forward into sculptural extensions. My works on paper approach is fast and loose: slobbering and blotting paint, seeking bodies that organically emerge from the paint. The newest approach is sculptures made of socks, and this show is my sculptural debut!
What is the experience that you want your audience to take-away from this show?
I hope people get immersed exploring the details, surfaces, and narratives. Some resulting laughs and cringes, and things in between, would be great.
What is your favorite piece from the show? Why?
Gone Fishin’ is the title of the largest work, and my favorite. I love working big and creating a potential space to engulf the viewer. I think there’s an uncanny quality to the fish, as they startled me a bit with their weird sense of unreal/realism, and that feels important. I look at this painting, now that it’s finished, and I would like to be living it. I would like to be that weirdo fisherman, eating burgers and pizza and drinking wine, with his wife in his shoddy little boat, hoping the buzzards don’t bite, just adrift on a lake.
What do you get when you mix Francisco de Goya's taste for horror, Nickelodeon's passion for the playfully grotesque, and the contents of an abandoned laundry machine? The sock paintings of an artist named Aaron Johnson. Johnson turns crusty old foot garments into an unexplored artistic medium -- a three dimensional impasto as effective as it is self-ridiculing. In Johnson's words: "The sweat-soaked, toe-nail-torn, holey socks create a painterly surface punctuated with orifices, phallic bulges, and a swirling seductive physicality." Simultaneously accurate, poetic and laughably overblown, Johnson's words mirror his artwork's ability to prove a point and make a joke at the same beautiful time. "'As I stare at this painting, it stares back at me, and as I stand here in my two socks, so does the painting hang there in its many socks,'" Johnson recalled in an email to the Huffington Post Arts. "That seemed absolutely absurd, and therein somehow startlingly profound." And then, we'd like to add, absurd again, which is part of Johnson's charm. For his "Sock Painting" series, Johnson called out for sock donations through social media, exchanging used socks for original drawings. The socks he received, despite their banal former lives, possessed ghostly qualities, containing within each fiber the DNA, the steps and the stories of so many friends and strangers. When looking at Johnson's squirming socks it's hard to tell if he's stumbling upon their hidden spirituality or has completely lost his mind. We're pretty sure, however, this is all part of his plan. Be warned, some sock art is NSFW. (We never thought we'd say that.) "Sock Paintings" will run from October 11 until November 16, 2013 at Gallery Poulsen Copenhagen.
Modern Painters, January 2011, Scott Indrisek
In the current dismal state of the nation, viewing Johnson’s explosively grotesque paintings is suddenly a bit like looking in the mirror. As subtle as a popped blister, they ransack the cultural vernacular—Christianity, Thanksgiving, war, Michele Bachmann, Babe the Blue Ox—and spew it back in our face, with plenty of blood, guts, and bodily fluids. And let’s take a moment to appreciate that the announcement card for this show features the image of a military-helmeted dog crapping in Jesus’s mouth while fellating him. God Bless America.
New York Times, Art in Review, Roberta Smith, 10-17-08
Star-Crossed at Stux Gallery: Aaron Johnson seems to have found a new use for his love of searingly grotesque figures and carefully controlled painterly excess: lampooning what he depicts as our latest long national nightmare. The characters of his new paintings are often quite specific, although some of the details have been changed to expose the guilty. They include George W. Bush with enormous pink horns, about to devour a plate of steaming human heads using a Statue of Liberty and a Jesus as utensils; a jesterlike Uncle Sam atop a camel; and Lady Liberty again, this time big, as a Cyclops being assaulted.
In paintings like “Juggler,” “Thumbs Up America,” “Hell-Beast Rushmore” and “We Get Results (Las Resultas de Goya),” the personalities are less specific, but the bite doesn’t soften. In some works, coiling, fire-breathing beasts indicate close attention to the often violent demons of Himalayan art; in others Peter Saul seems to serve as inspiration. These works are as vehement visually and decoratively as they are politically. Colors are livid; techniques range from glittery Lyrical Abstraction splashes to micro-checking and dotting.
Mr. Johnson gives a hint of the intricacies of his technique in the show’s lengthy subtitle: “New Reverse-Painted Acrylic Polymer Peel Paintings on Polyester American Flags.” This is a mouthful, but if you look carefully it is all there in works that are visceral, beautiful and flamboyantly timely, which is saying a lot.
Art News, November 2008, Valerie Gladstone
Star-Crossed at Stefan Stux Gallery: Aaron Johnson is angry, talented, and courageous. In 12 huge, garish paintings, and 8 finely drawn works on paper, he takes on everyone from President Bush to Johnny Appleseed, Lady Liberty, and even Jesus Christ. He portrays his characters killing randomly, having sex, torturing others, and destroying everything in their paths. Johnson paints images on clear plastic then collages them, establishing a slick, three-dimensional look that magnifies the horrors he depicts in grotesque shapes and tawdry acid tones.
As he morphs figures in explosive blasts of protoplasm, Johnson creates a strikingly effective fusion of paint, process, and image that oozes evil. And just to ensure that viewers understand his political position, he uses the American flag as a base for many of his works. The flag was especially prominent in works such as the provocative- and amusing- 'Second Coming of Uncle Sam' (2008) which shows a wild-eyed man wearing a crown as he rides a camel with melted ice cream on its humps. In 'Star Crossed' (2008) a bearded figure in a high hat rapes Lady Liberty; both characters are one-eyed like the Cyclops.
While every painting in the show had a point to make, some of them took viewers off guard with their deceptive beauty. The red, yellow, and brown swirls of color in 'Death of a Monster' (2008) at first glance suggested a vivid, gorgeous sky and only later registered as the end of life. Johnson's presentation was a tour de force of talent and passion.
DART International, #21 Fall 2007, Christopher Hart Chambers
Hellhound Rodeo at Priska C Juschka Fine Art: Aaron Johnson's discoveries have to do with constructing weirdo paintings and applying unique and rather involved techniques. His gnarly, glaring monster mash imagery comprises hard edge goblety gook patterning, drips and psychedelic moldy stuff; splots, gobs, and collaged elements swirling amid iridescent, apocalyptic catastrophes of missiles flying into wart nosed humanoid geeks and gibbering cretinous demigods in blazing sunbeams and undersea netherworlds. Like Ivan Albright meets Christian Schumann while on acid in Philadelphia in 1976. Or perhaps a bit more like protean proterozoic anthropoids quagmired in a miasma of gargantuan genuflecting goblins and skeezed-out tweeking chimera. [Johnson] deals with cheap trash culture, plastic resinous membranes and anarchistic tendencies . . . a fifth generation pop artist rediscovering the American myth.
Beautiful Decay, Issue T, 8/2007, Yaelle Amir
Using an innovative painting process and unique language, Aaron Johnson creates seductive works that deliver a biting critique of the over-all current state of society, and its American constituent in particular. Figurative in form and conceptual in nature, these paintings are replete with contradictions and seemingly infinite bits of information that are amalgamated to illustrate the continuous struggle of man and the beast that lives within . . . . . . .Johnson investigates the physical and mental structure of our culture through contradicting elements of both form and content. On the whole, the works are dominated by clashing components- the use of collage bits vs. swooping painterly gestures, rigid geometric forms vs. organic ones, or the expression of attraction vs. repulsion to name a few. Their overall structure also holds an inherent incongruity, where the constrained modernist grid provides the foundation upon which the ornate and chaotic scenarios unfold. Even the leading characters are forever teetering on a fine line between beauty and the grotesque .
Village Voice, 6/5/2007, Best in Show, R C Baker
Hybrids of the id, Johnson's monsters are collaged from pictures of rolled cold cuts and human and animal body parts. These nightmares range across his large paintings like walking, exposed intestines, bloated and veined with psychedelic colors. Add op-art-ish backgrounds and rainbow splatters, and the horror vacui sensation is akin to Bosch's overpopulated Hell or underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson's warring pirates, whose faces erupt into grape-shot coagulations even as they engage in drooling copulations. Be sure to take a gander at the back of the painting suspended from the ceiling to more fully appreciate the formal rigor underpinning Johnson's lovely abominations.
New York Times, 11/4/2005, Art in Review, Roberta Smith
Fiend Club Lounge, Priska C. Juschka Fine Art: Just in time for the Halloween season, the semi-abstract intestinal forms of Aaron Johnson's paintings have tightened into full-fledged rainbow-colored ghouls. They now have skin or at least outlines, faces and often wardrobes as well as profusions of dots, repeating patterns and bits of magazine images. These obsessive details keep their gaudy protoplasm in a state of convulsive turmoil. In ''Flower Swallower,'' for example, two snarling, transparent Kabuki monsters have at each other, their entrails fully visible. Streaming with paint and led by digits that appear to have lives of their own, the hurrying harlequin called ''Mr. Fingers'' is about to disintegrate all by himself, unopposed.
Mr. Johnson's manic dotting, small-dice collages and shambling mutant figures have numerous precedents; Chris Ofili, Fred Tomaselli, Erik Parker, Bryan Crockett, Stephen Charles and Peter Saul come to mind, along with R. Crumb and Robert Williams. But his work bears up well under the weight of such obligations. A boon is a fittingly crazed technique that involves painting the images on clear plastic and then collaging them together on translucent plastic. One result is an unusually efficient fusion of paint, process and image that, whether you like it or not, teems with decorative malevolence.
Village Voice, 10/20/2005, Voice Choices, RC Baker
Slathered onto construction fence mesh, these six-foot-tall-beasts, concocted from photo collages of gaping mouths, slobering tongues lolling over yellowed fangs, and oozing orifices (both human and animal) crammed with gelatinous appendages, are pushed past mere outrageouseness through splashy but considered paint handling. Johnson's unique surfaces turn garish carnival compositions into something lurking on the dark side of beauty.