Aaron Johnson on Painting and Passionate Pursuits

When we were kids, it seemed I couldn’t make enough noise around my brother. I chased him and his friends around, singing, giggling and squealing, and lost the “see how long we can be quiet” game within seconds every time. What can I say? He was my cool big brother and I was…excitable. Today, though he remains one of the coolest people I know, his artwork leaves me speechless.

Aaron’s latest show, Freedom From Want, is a “bold reflection on the decaying excesses of our insatiable culture,” according to a press release. The glimmering pieces feature gruesome, sadistic, venom-spewing monsters and address heavy issues, from the cruelty of war to the “absurd intersection of religion and government.”

Every wall of Stux Gallery features his psychedelically colorful paintings of grand size and grander meaning. As you step toward each one, tens, if not hundreds, of stories reveal themselves. His paintings aren’t mere images or decor, though they are beautiful to look at, but poignant experiences.

Aaron took time out of his busy, bohemian life to share some insight. (Thanks, Bro!)

You use a highly unusual technique to create your works. How would you describe the process to a layperson?
I invented my process through kind of a mad-scientist approach toward painting. These days the process involves painting in reverse on clear plastic sheeting, building up layers of paint onto the plastic, and finally peeling all that paint off the plastic and mounting it on a polyester net.

I’ve always been inspired by your decision to switch gears from pre-med to art. What was the process of making that decision like?
It was a really natural transition. I had been painting and drawing as a hobby all through college, then after I graduated I went to live in Honduras for a year, postponing medical school because I wasn’t feeling excited about it. In Honduras I was volunteering with a social work group, and I had plenty of free time so I painted a lot, so much that it became my primary interest. After Honduras I decided to move to NYC to try to make it as an artist.

What inspired you to create “Freedom From Want?”
This body of work began with a painting that was my reinterpretation of a Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom From Want,” his famous Thanksgiving painting. I am interested in representing the changing notion of America as we’ve shifted from the American Dream of Rockwell’s visions to the current American Nightmare of today’s reality. That point of view is variously explored through other paintings in this exhibition, reflections on the concoction of war, consumerism, corruption, collapse, greed, brutality, and religious violence that is our contemporary world.

For the foodies among us, I have to ask: What’s with all the vittles in your work?
I mainly use food as a direct metaphor for consumerism, greed, desires. I paint monsters ravenously gorging themselves as a reflection of our ultra-consumerist culture.

Which painting in the exhibition is your favorite?
It’s hard to say, depending on the day, a different painting may resonate with me the most. I’d say “Tea Party Nightmare” may be the most important piece to me because it specifies the political critique that is more open ended in the other pieces.

What aspect of your career are you most proud of?
I’m really grateful that I do what I love to do for a living, and I’m fortunate to be exhibiting so that many people see my work. Along with that privilege I also feel a serious responsibility to work really hard, and to make work that communicates and engages a social consciousness.

What’s a typical day like for you?
I tend to roll out of bed, eat breakfast, and get to work in the studio right away. I spend a lot of hours painting and listening to NPR.

What would surprise people most about you or artistry in general?
About me: I’m a really mild-mannered guy, not a crazy monster like the paintings may suggest. About Art: it’s a lot of really hard work.

Any advice for up-and-coming artists?
Pursue the work that you love to do. To learn more, visit Aaron Johnson’s homepage.

What do you love about art–whether visual, literary or otherwise? What inspires you to create it? Any thoughts or questions for Aaron?