When I dropped by his sunlit Brooklyn studio Aaron Johnson was busy preparing for his show at Stux Gallery in Chelsea, which opens Thursday September 15th. In this new body of work Johnson invites us to chow down on a writhing smorgasbord of Americana: severed heads, demonic Uncle Sams, sausage crucifixes, fried eagles, mashed guts, f-burgers, camel roast, and mutant sea creatures sucking down oil oozing fresh from the rig. His new work is opulent and glitters like jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs despite picturing disturbingly grotesque and violent imagery – totally Beautiful/Decay!
Johnson, like those other New Yorkers, the Abstract Expressionists, even uses paint pouring as a technique. Although, in Aaron’s enigmatic way, the paint is poured on in reverse; what is displayed as the finished painting is actually the base layer of paint. This type of reversal and revealing, either by showing the bottom layer as the surface, or by uncovering the secret meaning of (supposedly) beloved Americana, is a consistent method in Johnson’s work. Johnson is known for taking well known cultural icons, like the Statue of Liberty and Jesus, and perverting their normal roles. He’s not doing it to shock you, he’s trying to break their spell on you. By picturing what philosophers call the economy of desire and the will to power, and transforming these well known figures into sexual deviants, fecalphiliacs, and eating machines, Johnson challenges us: “As supposedly enlightened and civilized as we are, we should be able to find a way to live without war.”
This is a work in progress which pictures Paul Bunyan being disemboweled by Babe the Blue Ox. Aaron tackled the mythology of his home state of Minnesota in this painting. You can see how it turned out here.
This is the “back” of the painting, where Johnson actually applies the paint. The entire painting peels off the plastic sheeting, and is applied to a new stretcher when finished.
The Statue of Liberty riding the spiked treads of a tank, and carrying a tiny ejaculating Jesus on her demonic tongue.
The wheels of war are a psychic illusion.
A line from Johnson’s artist statement about the work: “War machines teeming with fecund bloodlust churn through these paintings, fueled by dog shit and the blood of Christ, sanctifying the slaughter of people being crushed beneath tanks, swallowed alive by the ravenous bubbling earth below.”
This photograph still has the transparent plastic layer which will be removed once it is finished. You can see the finished painting here.
Johnson and I talked for a while about the double cheeseburgers which appear in his work. The first appeared years ago in collages. Johnson recently came back to using them as a way to morph sex and eating into one object, and also said that after having been painting in this style for years he finally had enough control to paint them the way he wanted too.
“Those are ideas which started in the sketch, but the painting gets a lot more complicated and weirder.”
Three paintings in progress. This is the work side of the paintings, which means the side to the wall is the actual image.
“These problems seem so big and beyond me, and so dismal. I feel like these paintings are full of laughter, a lot of people see these paintings as angry or aggressive. This endless crisis going on, what can we really do about it?”