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.

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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 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 Gods Must be Savage: Leon Golub’s Raw Expressionism

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Gigantomachy II, 1966, oil on linen

Upon entry to the 4th floor gallery at the Met Breuer, where Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is on view, viewers are greeted with the colossal tour de force of the 9 feet, 11 1/2 inches x 24 feet, 10 1/2 inches, unstretched, oil on linen painting titled Gigantomachy II (1966)The larger than life canvas depicts a ferocious battle of nude muscular Olympian gods and giants (the title refers to a battle from Greek Mythology), who through a deliberately rough treatment of paint, appear savagely brutalized. Immediately upon gazing at this work of art, we are given an unapologetic overview of Leon Golub’s epic career as a Humanist artist, whose paintings are a scalding condemnation of the evil that men do.

The 19th-20th century philosopher, George Santayana, stated “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Golub’s paintings are a visual paraphrasing of that famous statement. In fact, Golub was an astute scholar of both history and art history, however, he viewed the canonical legacy of both through the lens of a skeptic. Golub references the Western canon of art history in paintings like Dead Bird II (1955) and Colossal Torso (1960), however, his treatment of Classical imagery is anything but glorious, nor representative of the Democratic label that often accompanies Greco-Roman culture. The rough surface texture on Colossal Torso, realized through a process of layering paint and peeling it away again, is akin to the act of sculpting. Golub even used tools that are more common in a sculptor’s toolkit than a painter’s. His additive and subtractive methods of transforming the surface of the canvas result in an unfinished look or a feeling of decay. The material appearance of these rough canvases typically lends itself to strong visceral and reflective feelings from the viewer. The emotional response is further exemplified through Golub’s use of unsettling and uncomfortable subject matter, which is steeped in a grotesque critique of Western empires that span from the Greco-Roman era through the 21st century.

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Dean’s World

Sometimes the success and recognition of an artist isn’t truly revealed until they’ve passed on from this world. Perhaps, Peter Dean, who died in 1993, was ahead of his time during his prolific career. His most iconic imagery expressed burlesque and grotesque expressions of the social and political turmoil, starting with strong reactions to the Vietnam War and continuing with commentary on social and political themes throughout the following decades. His talent was recognized by the influential Marcia Tucker, who exhibited his work at the 41st Venice Biennale in 1984. However, Dean’s potent use of the figure and his commitment to painterly expressionism, while that type of painting was being eschewed, kept him mainly at odds with the concurrent trends in art during his career. Dean’s subject matter was tough at times, but through careful examination, he was creating poignant narratives that sought to question and scrutinize contemporary life. Upon re-visiting his work today, a viewer might realize that Dean’s response to his era was synonymous, or similarly connected to what is currently happening around us. 

Dean painted vibrant scenes from American History, which he interpreted using his fantastical imagination. Through combining history and fantasy, Dean created mythological narratives that invite us to see historical events through new perspectives.  For example, one of his most famous works Dallas Chaos (parts I and II), presents several overlapping and conflicting narratives for the assassination of JFK and questions what we think we know as fact and reality, which is all the more relevant in the current era of “Fake News.” Dean was weary about the blind acceptance of things as facts. He understood that events are interpreted and reinterpreted through several lenses, depending on who’s recounting the story and what their motives are. These paintings implore us to question the nature of things more carefully and become more informed about what is going on all around us. 

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Massacre-Boston-El Salvador, 1983, oil on canvas, 84 x 64 inches

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Reflections on 14th Street and Beyond

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Sheila Schwid, installtion view of Reflections on 14th Street at El Taller Latino, From L to R: Where Are We? Where Are We Going?; Marching Ever Forward Calling Obstacles Their FriendsFive Guys and Seven Days

On an average day, New York City’s streets are filled with thousands of people moving at a rapid pace, so it’s exceptional that New York based artist Sheila Schwid’s paintings capture and commemorate these fluctuating moments in time to reflect on the contemplative and personal events that are often overlooked.

That is the crux of her recent series of paintings, which are the result of snapshots taken by the artist while attentively riding along 14th Street by bus. Sheila explains “I take photos thru the window on the 14th Street bus.  For some reason, that street has many reflections.  At first I was interested in the buildings and the the windows, and how they reflected.  However, as I got into it I realized that I really care about the people.  They are so strong. They just keep going.”

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Bob + Selina

Relationships between artists aren’t often easy and many artists will express that they would prefer not to be in a relationship with another artist. After all, the saying “opposites attract” is one that holds true for many couples. However, when I met Robert Henry and Selina Trieff, I was moved by how they married their love for art and one another over the course of six decades. Since the day these two artists met in class at Brooklyn College during the 1950s, they were inseparable, passionately supporting each other inside and outside of the studio. Their story is nothing short of inspiring so I was overjoyed when I came across this video on YouTube by Whitney J. Fox documenting the love that Bob and Selina had for each other and their art.

Naked at the Edge

Louis M. Eilshemius, Untitled (Figures in a Moonlit Landscape), c.1905, oil on paperboard, 22 1/2

Louis M. Eilshemius, Untitled (Figures in a Moonlit Landscape), c.1905, oil on paperboard, 22 1/2″ x 26 1/2″

The current show at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery embraces the arrival of Autumn in a warm and exhilarating fashion. Naked at the Edge is a two person show of two very distinct American painters, Louis Eilshemius (1864-1941) and Bob Thompson (1937-1966). While the two painters never crossed paths, their work shares many similar elements.

Bob Thompson, Circus, 1963, oil on canvas, 36 3/8

Bob Thompson, Circus, 1963, oil on canvas, 36 3/8″ x 36 3/8″

The colors and subject matter in each of the artists’ paintings comes right in time for the Fall season, which is also the beginning of the gallery season here in New York. Eilshemius used earth tones, specifically muted greens, blues and browns in his fantastical landscapes of nudes, nymphs, and mythological beings. Thompson’s early palette reflected dark earthy tones, but they soon made way for the Fauvist inspired hues that became his signature style.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s amazing exhibition space allows both of the artists to have ample room, while also allowing a very intimate viewing. The show presents both artists as two distinct solo shows, as well as one overarching exhibition, joining these two seminal painters who were generations apart in a contemporary dialog with one another.

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Suggested Reading: Long Live Art Edition

– The idiom “Painting is Dead” has been thrown around by many artists and critics alike since the end of the Modernist era. What do we mean when we declare that a movement or a style is “dead?” Is painting today viewed by a new generation reared on digital media as an anachronism? I don’t know the answer (a poll might be in order), but Seph Rodney has published a short but sweet piece in Hyperallergic that is also generating some interesting discourse in the comment section. via Hyperallergic

– “It is a hobby of all cultural fields to bury their critics every few months with another essay on the death of criticism. But one afterlife we may not have considered rigorously enough is online publishing.” This is a must read by Orit Gat which states that art critics need to get serious if we want to thrive online. via The Art Newspaper

– Shocking but welcome news: Chinese Authorities have given Ai Weiwei his passport back after having it revoked for 4 years! The artist made the announcement on his Instagram account. via artnet 

– In related news, another activist artist has been re-granted their passport. Tania Bruguera had been stuck in Havana for planning a performance critical of political oppression, and after months of limbo and struggle she has been green-lighted to leave the island. Bruguera has an esteemed position in New York City awaiting her. The mayor’s office of immigrant affairs recently appointed Bruguera as the first artist for its residency program. via Miami New Times

– The New York Times’ David Brooks wrote a profile on Dustin Yellin’s Pioneer Works, calling the artist a “modern community builder.” via The New York Times

Suggested Viewing: Must See Shows Edition

This year was one of the most pleasurable Bushwick Open Studios. Aimlessly wandering throughout the many industrial spaces proved to be very inspiring. I caught up with artists who I haven’t seen in a while, and met a few new artists that I will continue to look at. Now that the party has winded down, it is time to get back to the many ongoing exhibitions throughout New York City and beyond. This suggested viewing post features a concise selection of current and upcoming exhibitions with a strong focus on painting and politically themed art.

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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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