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 innovative 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.


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 pigment. 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.

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The Heathen Fundamentalists

Philip Guston’s return to figurative painting was monumental for an artist who came of age with the first generation Abstract Expressionists. He is best known for these disordered figurative paintings of hooded klansmen, cigarette butts, and other cartoonesque objects and symbols, which he began to create in the late 1960s.

Guston is still a major influence on contemporary painterly discourse, and a new exhibition at The Lodge Gallery in the Lower East Side seeks to explore and celebrate Guston’s iconoclastic legacy on today’s contemporary painters. Heathen Fundamentalism, the current exhibition at The Lodge Gallery, features seven contemporary artists who channel elements of Guston’s work to create painterly conversation with him posthumously. Like Guston, each of the seven artists in the exhibition create “impure” painterly imagery, break the mold of aesthetic monotony, and reflect on their cultural environment in a uniquely personal way.
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Connecting Figures: New Humanism in Recent Figurative Painting

The formidable imagery of humanist painting has been troublesome to incorporate within the framework of today’s painting. In the 1960s and 70s when the art market was burgeoning for trendy “art of the day,” artists like those of the Rhino Horn group predicted the shape of things to come. In the group’s manifesto they stated:

“Realize when you see our work that the so-called “thirty years of painting and sculpture” in this country has been built on a lie; it has been packaged, promoted and super-sold by ambitious critics, dealers and curators trying to build their own reputation as they fatten their bankrolls.”

This quotation echoes in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Forever Now” exhibition, the museum’s first contemporary painting survey in three decades. MoMA is renowned for organizing groundbreaking painting survey’s such as Dorothy Canning Miller’s six contemporary exhibitions of American art, which introduced nearly one hundred American artists to the public. “Forever Now” was a far cry from the museum’s esteemed history of seminal contemporary painting surveys. The exhibition was loaded with (largely) derivative and abstract painting (albeit there were some gems in the show) by artists who are established art market favorites. There was very little work in the show that had an emotional impact, but rather an affirmation of the status quo. The influence of money makes the art world go round.

Humanism in the arts is an evolving concept and goes against the evolution of the status quo. Since the heyday of Rhino Horn, there have been monumental changes in technology which has pushed the way our culture communicates and functions to new extremes. The paintings in “Forever Now” felt as if they were driven by technological and material energy. Therefore, I have compiled a list (which is only the beginning and will be expanded) of contemporary painters who are swimming against the grain of technological impulses and art world trends. Their work is figurative and steeped in the human psyche and condition in times of crisis. In some cases their work explores absurd phenomena in our society, or questions the significance of life’s dualities. Sometimes it is meant to disturb, shock, and elicit a visceral response. Overall, they assert new meanings, add to the terminology, and interrogate the lineage of painting.

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The Missing Link

By the late 1970s, art criticism had begun to question the formalist ideals that dominated the era of the New York School, which defined painting as an absolute and universal form of art, and some critics—such as Douglas Crimp (b. 1944), Yves-Alain Bois (b. 1952), Carter Ratcliff (b.1941), and Barbara Rose (b.1938)—even went so far as to raise the question of whether painting was dead as an important art form (See Barbara Rose, “The Politics of Art, Part IV,” Arts Magazine 54 (December 1979): 134; Yves-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, ed. David Joselit (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 29; and Carter Ratcliff, “Modem Life,” Artforum 23 (Summer 1986). Indeed, in a 1981 article “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981), Crimp argued that painting in the 1960s had been in a terminal state. To this view, he cited such factors as the style of hard-edged Minimalism and color field painting and the use of new media, such as images appropriated from photography in painting, as evidence of a “definitive rupture with painting’s unavoidable ties to a centuries-old idealism.”

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