OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Aaron Johnson

Tea Party Nightmare
2011
Acrylic on polyester knit mesh
42 x 54 inches

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your paintings are primarily acrylic on material such as knit mesh and construction debris netting. How did you arrive at the painting surfaces you employ in your work?

Aaron Johnson: It’s been a long slow journey. I didn’t get a BFA in college, I got a degree in Molecular Cellular Biology. Meanwhile, painting was a hobby. I got more and more seduced by painting and eventually—to make a long story short—ended up in New York to really be an artist but had no clue what that really meant.

When I moved to New York in 1998, the Jackson Pollock retrospective was up at MoMA, and it blew my mind, I had never heard of the guy nor did I ever fathom the existence of mega-scale drip paintings. My favorite artist prior to seeing the Pollock show was Salvador Dali (my main exposure being a poster I purchased at a head shop in Tucson and then hung it over my bed all through college), so the show was a really shattering experience for me.

I went home to my Lower East Side apartment and started making squirty drip paintings, acrylic squirts on canvas, with dreadful results, but lots of fun. Because I was painting in an apartment and I needed to keep the floor clean, I had plastic on the floor and got intrigued by the "spill-over" squirts of paint that were accumulating on the plastic. Eventually I began peeling the drips off the plastic and collaging them onto canvas. Soon, I was squirting and pouring paint directly onto the plastic and making collage pieces out of the paint solids.

Since 2002-ish, my interest in peeled acrylic solids has continued to evolve into the process that is my practice today.  Eventually I did get an MFA from Hunter College in New York, but I was self-taught first, which was crucial to me inventing my own nonconventional process. Lately my paintings are reverse-painted acrylic polymer peels on polyester nets— the nets came into the process in 2005 when I just realized through experimentation that synthetic nets are a great pseudo-canvas for holding together the acrylic peels.

Studio Shot
2007

 OPP: The “studio” images included on your website give me a clue into your process but I am still curious about the specific steps that go into the making of your often incredibly large paintings. Can you describe your process?

AJ: The works are painted completely in reverse (like reverse glass painting) on clear plastic sheeting. The figures and small details first, the back grounds and loose forms last.  At several points in the process the plastic is laid flat and I pour on puddles of squirty paint and clear coats of acrylic polymer. These layers accumulate as I build the picture in reverse, and the layers physically add up to a solid acrylic sheet that is finally peeled off the plastic, and in the end mounted on a polyester mesh.

Freedom from Want
2011
Acrylic on polyester knit mesh
84 x 66 inches

OPP: What comes first—an idea for a specific person/icon to address conceptually or or an aesthetic idea about texture, pattern and composition, or do they occur to you simultaneously in a recent painting like Freedom From Want?

AJ: They always start with a figurative and/or narrative idea, sometimes from a sketch, sometimes in relationship to contemporary politics, and sometimes from an art-historical precedent. Freedom From Want is my version of the famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting of the same title. My interest was in articulating how the 1940s American Dream vision of the Rockwell would translate in our contemporary context of our current great American Nightmare. Like a lot of my work, this piece exposes the subverted horror of America. Grandma and Grandpa serving the turkey in my painting have been appropriated directly from the Rockwell, they have turned only slightly monstrous. As the view descends down the composition to the front of the table, we see the characters turn more and more grotesque and fiendish. Among those dining at the table we see a burning earth head, and a horribly wounded veteran.  The turkey itself may be a roasted American Eagle. The fixings on the table include severed heads, mashed guts, fuck-burgers, spurting oil rigs, a dead Indian head, mutant sea creatures, etc.—it’s a very loaded painting.

OPP: You seem to have moved away from incorporating collaged material in your paintings as you did in your earlier works. Your paintings from 2009-present accomplish the level of detail the collaged elements previously provided in highly-detailed painted passages. Can you speak about your shift away from collaged materials?

AJ: When I began painting in reverse, it was incredibly difficult to achieve any clear detail, so collage was a convenient and easy way to insert details, mostly National Geographic animal parts, fast food greasy globs, and porno sexy bits. Now I can paint all that stuff in ways that I find more interesting than what I was doing with collage, so as my painting skills improved, collage slipped out of the process.

OPP: In your daily life outside of the studio do you see the people you encounter as the grotesque figures you paint? I imagine you at the grocery store or on the subway looking around and seeing the world through the lens you’ve created for your paintings.

AJ: Haha, not quite. Recently though, I had a dream where I had a meeting with a curator at the gallery, and the curator, upon shaking my hand, turned into the demon critter I was painting in the studio that day—a little undead guy with an emaciated body and long spindly tentacle-like arms. He jumped on me, suddenly I’m naked, and we’re rolling around on the floor as he is clawing me to shreds, gallery-goers standing around watching like it’s performance art. Then the demon violently digs his claws into my butt-cheek and rips my butt-cheek off as a I awoke with my heart-pounding. Thankfully my butt-cheek still intact.

It Ain't Me Babe
2011
Acrylic on polyester knit mesh
52 x 72 inches

OPP: That is an amazing dream, I'm glad to hear your butt-cheek survived it! So, if you don't necessarily see the world through the lens you’ve created for your work, what is inspiration for your grotesque figures?

AJ: Way back when I was a biology student, I used to draw grotesque little creatures in the outlines of my bio lecture notes, which were influenced by the anatomical and biological forms we were studying. I also was crazy about Garbage Pail Kids and Madballs and other comic-grotesque toys as a kid. Fast forward to that Jackson Pollock moment at the MoMA I mentioned before, when I started being a “serious” painter in New York with my squirty abstractions... I had convinced myself that those juvenile/adolescent monster drawings I used to do were not “serious." I had a few years of making gooey weird “serious” abstract squirty works, and at a certain point, which coincides with watching 9-11 happen from my Brooklyn roof, I started painting monsters into the works, with a new urgency to speak to political issues happening in our contemporary world. The grotesque nature of my monsters comes from the Madballs and the biology, and from current affairs nightmares, but also very largely from the painting process itself. The reverse painting technique doesn’t allow for much accuracy nor for editing, so the figures end up looking sort of naturally deformed and hideous, which is part of the fun. It’s like the process and the figures grew up together and neither could be what they are without the weird symbiotics involved.

OPP: What are you working on now?

AJ: I’m taking a break from painting. My current solo show Freedom From Want is up at Stux Gallery in New York through October 22nd and I’m working on drawings through the course of the show, in order to generate new ideas and to chillout a bit and not obsess over new paintings just yet. I’m really excited about some tattoos I’m designing for people.

To view more of Aaron Johnson’s work, visit aaronjohnsonart.com

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Molly Schafer

Specters / Bloodwrath; At my end I will take you with me
2008
Graphite, acrylic, colored pencil on paper
60" x 48"

OtherPeoplesPixels: How do you think the concept of “going feral” shapes your work? It seems to factor into a number of your works dating back to your 2006 video Centaurides, in which a computer modified child—like voice shares her fantastical observations and dreams; most of which involve a desire to break—free from the mundane, civilized, or unjust.

Molly Schafer: Yes exactly!  “Going feral” is my out to the mundane daily human life.  As I see it back in the day we had it all—tons of time outside, traveling around with the seasons, NOT MULTITASKING, self-reliance, physical strength and endurance, being in the moment and more connected to nature/each other/other animals/Earth/the universe… and then we decided to live in dark, dirty cities buy stuff from stores and sit in offices all day. Blah who wants that? Well it turns out lots of people do. And the idea of “going feral” becomes threatening to society. Perhaps it partially represents everyone’s underlying longing for freedom and/or fear of that desire.

Feral is a term referring to a domesticated creature that has returned to a semi-wild state. In a way, a hybrid state of being—not truly wild, no longer domesticated. I related that to the work I was doing with lady centaurs, themselves a hybrid of woman and horse.

While in graduate school I received feedback that people had trouble relating to the centaurs since they didn’t reflect their own human bodies (unimaginative, no?) so I decided to take that wildness and hybridity I depicted through the physical body of the centaur into a fully human body having gone feral. A major influence on this work is my first entry point into this theme: young adult novels featuring a girl who has isolated herself from society, lives in the wild with an animal companion.

I have had a life-long desire to live in one of those narratives, and I do realize it is slightly silly but I am sincere in that longing. My journey to and stay on Asseateague Island with my cat was my attempt to access a bit of that world. The trip resulted in a body of work Dawn Horse. The drawings in that work reflect the iconic images on the cover of such novels, often the only image in the whole book, their function is to only tell part of the story.

Clan of the Cave Girl (We went feral y'all)
2009
Graphite & watercolor on paper
20" x 20"

OPP: Hearing a child-like voice narrate Centaurides makes me curious about what you liked to draw as a child. What were your early sketchbooks like?

MS: Ha. Yes they weren’t too different from now. Animals, girls/women. More penguins (I was into penguins way before it was cool). My brother and I grew up drawing while we watched TV. Our parents were/are artists.

My junior high sketchbooks featured pencil drawings of awesome punk girls playing guitar. Lots of piercings, Mohawk hairdos, Tribe 8 shirts, L7 tattoos. The boys I knew were into drawing dragons, wizards and punk dudes. They always had trouble getting that we were into the same things. The gender difference or concept/awareness of gender (dragons vs unicorns) was so huge they couldn’t see past it. Not to mention they were intimidated by my skills. Lame.

Ha ha.

I dunno I’ve always liked drawing mice. I guess I’ve always fell somewhere between Beatrix Potter and fantasy novel art. Which may explain my limited successes.

Still From Barrier Island
2007
digital video

OPP: Your arctic-looking house cat plays a prominent role in your video from your Barrier Island series. In reviewing images from your subsequent solo show, Dawn Horse, at Lump Gallery in Raleigh, NC, I noticed at least three other pieces that include visual references to your cat; one that even lists “my cat's fur” in the material list. Can you speak about the role your cat plays in your artmaking? Where does your house cat fit in your work’s relationship to real and imagined animals like centaurs what you describe as “similar hybrids”?

MS: Well I’m glad someone is reading my detailed descriptions of media. Yes that is my boo. His name is Sid and he has been my dawg for 18 years now. I’ve always tried to let him be a cat and as wild as he wants to be.

Once I took Sid to hang out in a park in Pennsylvania (where we both were born and raised) after an hour or so of us just chillin in some woods he started loosing control. He ran around, ate some rabbit poop and got this crazy look in his eye—shiny and wild, like he didn’t recognize me. There are moments—the realization there is no leash and he can run far, when he is at the top of the tree and is considering leaving me—when I dare say he is hearing the call of the wild. Those moments were fascinating and frightening. I related to them and was inspired by that to make this work.

As I mentioned earlier I wanted to live like the characters in my favorite novels—Reindeer Moon, Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins. These characters all had a faithful friend/sidekick who was a non—human animal. I had Sid. And I wanted to see how feral he would go. So we went to Assateague Island to get weird.

Also I mainly make my objects out of whatever I have around with a nod to the materials used by and usefulness of the characters in those novels. Often they validate the killing of animals by using all of it’s parts. I don’t really kill anything for parts but do want animal parts in my work. Sid has plenty of fur to spare. And he and I are linked in a way that it adds meaning and magic to work parts of us into objects.

OPP: Your drawings of animals, centaurs and similar hybrids are often incredibly detailed. What kind of research goes into creating each piece?

MS: Hmm looking at books— field guides, pony guides, Equus Magazine. Reading about how their parts work. I also spent time with and photographed my aunt’s horses. Observing creatures in the wild or growing up around them helps. Just getting to know them. Repeatedly sketching. Honestly I have one trick that I think works best but I consider it a trade secret. Let’s just call it “becoming animal” because I like phrases that sound like the cover of hilarious fantasy novels.

Endangered Species Print Project

OPP: Your own art practice is hybrid in nature. You maintain an individual art practice exhibiting your work widely but also operate outside of the gallery system using your artistic talents to directly support conservation efforts and biodiversity as the co-founder of The Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP). Let’s talk about what ESPP is, how it got started, and how it relates to your work as an individual artist.

MS: Sure. The Endangered Species Print Project, according my collaborator Jenny Kendler, is our brain-love child. We both have strong feelings about conserving biodiversity on this planet.  We had been fumbling around looking for a way to use our artistic talents and skills to benefit a cause we cared about and to make an impact. ESPP is our best version of those efforts. ESPP sells limited-edition prints of critically endangered species. Prints are editioned to reflect the remaining population count of the species depicted. For example, there are only 37 Seychelles sheath-tailed bats remaining in the wild. So only 37 prints of my drawing of this bat will ever be made. Currently 100% of the proceeds from print sales are donated to a conservation organization working to conserve the species on the front lines.

When we started it was only Jenny and me. We have grown to include many guest artists, a blog, and an ESPP extended family which includes artist Christopher Reiger, OtherPeople’sPixels, who sponsors the project, Michael Czerepak of the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) Service Bureau who masterfully prints our work (and who asked me to marry him), and P.O.V. Evolving in Los Angeles, who handle our large print orders. Our work would not be possible without the help of the conservationists and organizations that we partner with nor without the many people who buy ESPP prints!

How it relates to my work as an individual artist? Well, for awhile it has taken over most of my studio time! Jenny and I do ESPP in our spare time. It quiets questions that may interrupt my concentration while drawing like “Why didn’t I go back to school for mammology instead of studio arts?” and “Shouldn’t I be doing something less selfish than this?”

OPP: What are you working on now?

MS: I’m in one of those stages were I am doing lots of little stuff, working up to the next big thing. So I’m slowly working on some books, maybe they fall into the graphic novel category with the chimp hybrid women I was drawing a few years back, I still have a few paintings to make to round out the Dawn Horse work. I’m also working on a collaborative project with artist and pal Tory Wright. I’ve collected a bunch of video and text to make a new narrated video, but at the moment I’m planning the piece to incorporate a good amount of hand drawn animation so I predict this will be a years long project. I’m fascinated/jealous of large predators so I collect pics of them on my blog Megafauna .

I’m moving into a new studio soon so I’m looking forward to that!  Honestly, I’m designing my wedding invitation. Is that lame? So far it features an eagle, a hawk, a peacock, a fox, a bear, a badger and a hare. I think someone else but I’m not sure. Oh! That’s right a slow loris.

To view more of Molly Schafer’s work visit mollyschafer.com.