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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Dialectic with Stass Shpanin

The Dichotomy of War, 2011. Oil on Canvas – 7 x 8 feet.

The work of Azerbaijan born (in 1990 in the former USSR) and U.S based Stass Shpanin is currently exhibited in the group show Story of a Story, curated by Shlomit Dror, at the Brooklyn based non-profit gallery Smack Mellon. The three paintings currently on display (The Dichotomy of War, 2011; Flying Away, 2012 and A Trialectic Hour, 2012) are from a series that the artist calls “Triealects,” which are large scale paintings containing fragmented vignettes appropriated from archival documents relating to the history of Europe and Russia from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. As an artist born in the USSR, but raised in Massachusetts, these paintings are a personal attempt to interact with his own heritage as well as the larger public history of the Soviet period. Shpanin’s work investigates the recording and retelling of history as a synthesis of many conflicting parts by manipulating archival photographs and re-contextualizing history that had been forbidden in the USSR, or forgotten in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Shpanin combines vignettes from multiple moments in history, which illustrate that history consists of different parts. It is part of the human psyche to try and connect these parts into a comprehensive narrative.

I cannot help but to draw socio-political references of my own when viewing these epic paintings. The fact that these images come from times of conflict give a sense of tension to these large canvases, which is intensified by Shpanin’s varying of hues, textures, and brushstrokes. About his process, Shpanin told me: “I juxtapose those images to create compositional unity, but generate optical conflict within those layers. I am increasing this conflict on the canvas by treating those layers with different color schemes and diverse paint applications, as well as shifting angles between those layers.The images that I use are not from my own archive; all of them are in the public domain due to their historical and public nature.”

Below is a Q + A with Stass Shpanin:

First, do you identify as a figurative painter? 

I’ve never thought about myself as a figurative painter. I certainly understand that I am using some figurative language in my paintings, but I see that as a one of many strategies to use, while working on bigger conceptual ideas.

Secondly, these works feel like they’re addressing fragments of history in a rather intimate way. I understand that your series of “Triealects” is, in a way, an empirical engagement with recorded Soviet history. I’m curious to know how interconnected your personal narrative is to your work’s themes. 

I hear that question quite often from the audience. In many cases I use the word “visual journalism” referring to my artistic practice. I try to keep a distance between me and my work to keep some objectivity. I feel, as I am a historical witness to many visual narrations I am creating in my paintings. My relationship to this history is based on a certain cultural memories presented to me through the numerous random encounters I’ve been experiencing. It’s an internal balance between personal understanding of the matter and public history.

Do you consider these paintings to have a certain political or socially engaged element? I am aware that they’re not overt references to any one particular moment and that the blurring and fragmenting of vignettes alters the perception of what is actually fact and what is widely perceived or distorted as fact. However, I cannot help but to draw socio-political references of my own when viewing these epic paintings.

I do. To be honest, that was the main reason I’ve started working with the history, more specifically with the pre-revolution history of Russia. Being born in the USSR, I’ve been witnessing how history was changing and how people’s reflection and understanding toward history had been changed. My main argument to work with historical photographs, artifacts, coat of arms and other elements from the Tzarist history was the fact that most of the information was either prohibited for the public view or highly filtered through the propagandistic machine of the Soviet Union. So, after the collapse of the USSR, we were able to explore, study and play with the history that was closed for almost all of the XX century. I couldn’t resist.

Lastly, your paintings remind me of Ken Bowman’s work. He isn’t very known at all today (or during his heyday, although he is largely collected and his work coveted and sought after). He was primarily a collagist and part of the Rhino Horn Group. I have been researching this group and I am looking for connections (a similar zeitgeist or painterly dialog) between their work and contemporary artists. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Here is a link to a particular work that was realized from old town archives in a blue collar mining town.

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard about Ken Bowman’s work. However, looking at them now, I find them extremely interesting and open. They remind me some of the German artists working in figurative painting today, like Neo Rauch and his followers.

Are there any artists who have had an influence on you? 

Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Anselm Kiefer, Michael Borremans, Eric Bulatov, Ed Ruscha, Ilya Kobakov, Fred Wilson, Kara Walker…

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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