The Conjuring of Colors and Spirit in Aaron Johnson’s New Paintings

Aaron Johnson, who has been continuously pushing the boundaries of painting, presents recent works at Joshua Liner Gallery that highlight his latest innovate painterly technique: stain painting. Previously, Johnson has employed a “reverse-painted acrylic polymer-peel” technique, which consists of multiple painted layers, separated by a clear acrylic polymer, providing captivating spatial dimensions where sleek vibrant colors appear to pop off the canvas plane. Following his reverse-painted acrylic polymer-peel works, Johnson created hybrid combine paintings using an impasto technique of applying acrylic paint over used socks.

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Installation photograph of Aaron Johnson: New Paintings. Courtesy of Joshua Liner Gallery.

In his latest body of work, exemplified in the current Joshua Liner Gallery exhibition simply titled New Paintings, Aaron Johnson stuns us with another technical feat by staining raw canvas with highly fluid acrylic paint and summoning up throngs of fantastical figures from within the colorful bursts of paint. At this point in his career, Johnson’s signature subject matter is easily recognizable. His bestiaries and burlesque scenes, featuring hordes of grotesque figures performing lewd acts and other scenes that would satisfy our nightmares, are a sight to behold and are not for the faint of heart. However, this new selection of paintings feels more ethereal, dreamlike, and pragmatic than anything he’s painted before.

In these paintings, Johnson channels the lyrical sensibility of Color Field Painters such as Pat Lipsky (b. 1941), Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), and Ronnie Landfield (b. 1947), and utilizes a palette that is luminous and suggestive of spiritual and psychological energies. The myriad of colors in each painting blend together and are in conversation with one another to generate a social and emotional impact that is both mysterious and familiar. Depending on the viewer’s previous experience, Johnson’s paintings can be interpreted as symbolic representations of the conscious and subconscious mind in a lucid state. While these images are a manifestation of the artist’s subconscious mind, we all perceive differently. Each of our realities are constructed through a combination of intrinsic and experienced elements. When we channel our internal thoughts, we are able to realize life in a subjective and unique manner. When we are exposed to external and material forces that shape who we are in relationship to herd mentality or decentralized decision-making, we see things in a more objective way. In other words, while we have the power of being in our own thoughts, we are also conditioned to the collective grind of contemporary life. Both of these factors influence our behavior and rationale and shape the way we construct reality.

The juxtaposition of objective and subjective reality is important to understand when viewing these new works by Aaron Johnson. Dualities are important ingredients in his oeuvre. Whether it is the tension between different techniques or subject matter, Johnson eloquently plays with the idea of emphasizing contrasting pieces to form a cohesive composition. These compositions elicit a gamut of responses from the viewer because of their polarity and their social, emotional, and metaphysical relatability.

We have all likely had the experience of being on a crowded street or in a bustling environment where we are faced with a plethora of stimuli. The figure in the crowd has been a longstanding theme in modern and contemporary painting in order to signify the modern psyche in a state of flux. Expressionistic paintings of figures in the crowd by artists like Lester Johnson (1919-2010), James Ensor (1860-1949), and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), have commented on how modern life is simultaneously fulfilling and alienating. The duality of life and death is always present, reminding us of our mortality. The ways in which we live life and embrace death are largely subjective and personal. We construct a variety of conflicting narratives to deal with the complexities of life. We’re not fixed in our thoughts, rather, we’re works in progress. Art has typically represented a unique way of embodying this sentiment.

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Aaron Johnson, How the Lemons Got Loose, acrylic on canvas, 2018, 96 x 84 inches. Courtesy of Joshua Liner Gallery.

Aaron Johnson’s crowd scenes feel like a push/pull between objective reality and our subconscious thoughts. Archetypal images such as skeletons, cowboys, and ominous mythological beasts, are painted in translucent chakra colors and seamlessly blended into one another to create dual feelings of harmony and discord. One interpretation is that these images appear as apparitions, a memento mori suggesting the soul’s journey between the physical and spiritual realms. Some might view these images to have a moralistic standpoint, while others might interpret them to have abject implications (or perhaps a combination of the two). Are they a reaction to the socio-political climate? Is this an intimate view of an alternate world full of diverse characters, whose intent is questionable? If so, are they benevolent or maleficent in nature, or a mixture of both characteristics? There are no clear answers, it is up to you as the viewer to assign meaning and bring significance to these paintings.

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Aaron Johnson, Nothing Comes from Nowhere, acrylic on canvas, 2018, 78 x 66 inches framed. Courtesy of Joshua Liner Gallery.

What is clear is that Johnson has conjured up a potent group of paintings that are at once manifestations of familiar and unfamiliar realities. These paintings are gateways to experiences we have had and moments we have dreamt of. In this instance, they are journeys through the vast universe that is present in each and everyone of us. The power of Johnson’s work, aside from the technical prowess, is its ability to stir up a variety of unique social, emotional, and spiritual responses within each of us.


Aaron Johnson: New Paintings will be on view through July 6, 2018 at Joshua Liner Gallery, located at 540 West 28th Street, New York, NY 10001.

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