February 15, 2012

Tricycle Talks: Aaron Johnson

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©Aaron Johnson, Stux Gallery

If you've read the Spring 2012 edition of Tricycle, I hope you have taken the time to look at the artwork throughout the magazine. There is some incredible work presented here, and over the next couple of months we will be interviewing the artists to get a better sense of the paintings and the process behind their creation.

This week, we are presenting an interview with Aaron Johnson, whose work pairs exceptionally well with Aura Glaser's dharma talk titled "Into the Demon's Mouth." His paintings often represent the ugliest of the ugly in our society, but rather than run away or suppress such images and events, he is asking us to be present and engage, just as Glaser does in her article, which begins with an account of Milarepa's demon problem.

A native of Minnesota, Aaron received a degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology. After a brief stint in Honduras teaching art classes to youth, he moved to New York and began to pursue painting. Influenced by abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock and powerfully affected by the post-9/11 military operations set forth by the Bush regime, Aaron's work has merged into an amalgam of brilliant colour, content and context. The unique medium and style with which Aaron creates his paintings puts his work on a plane of its own. His reverse-painting process, something that I still don't quite understand, has often given him the label "mad scientist"—though in person his kindness belies that description.

I found a definite correlation between his experimental style of painting and his academic background, for they both involve detailed inspection, something the Buddha would be able to relate to. In fact, the anatomical and gory representation of the figures in his work reminded me immediately of the Buddha's teaching on the asubha (foulness) of the body. One sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Kayagata-sati Sutta, comes to mind:

"Furthermore, the monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: 'In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.' Just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain — wheat, rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, husked rice — and a man with good eyesight, pouring it out, were to reflect, 'This is wheat. This is rice. These are mung beans. These are kidney beans. These are sesame seeds. This is husked rice'; in the same way, the monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: 'In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.' And as he remains thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, any memories & resolves related to the household life are abandoned, and with their abandoning his mind gathers & settles inwardly, grows unified & centered. This is how a monk develops mindfulness immersed in the body...."

 

Aaron Johnson

Check out my interview with Aaron, and feel free to post any questions or comments you have. 

Images:
Freedom From Want, 2011, Acrylic on polyester knit mesh, 84 x 66 inches
© Aaron Johson, courtesy of Stux Gallery

It Aint Me Babe, 2011, Acrylic on polyester knit mesh, 52 x 72 inches (132x183)
©Aaron Johnson, courtesy of Stux Gallery

http://www.rmanyc.org/pages/load/290

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wrongjohn's picture

I got a chance to meet the artist in the Stux Gallery and discuss his process. Its amazing how this work has evolved thematically alongside the very layered technique and materials he uses. You can't really appreciate this work unless you are able to get centimeters away from it and see the detail on that level.

James Mullaney's picture

Aaron Johnson's paintings seem to come from the same realm as Jung's unconscious archetypes and Buddhism's "Wrathful Deities." He handles it all with great equanimity and it's refreshing to see that. The political connection to America and George W. Bush's permanent state of war is keen, and appreciated.

richardson.npp's picture

This is a great interview. The work looks like it takes forever to create and there is a lot of detail included. It is always good when someone allows their imagination to create things that most others run away from.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Aaron is in a long line of artists depicting the 4 lower worlds, from http://www.azibaza.com/lecture/images/Image-04.jpg to http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_SxgwDguS9Aw/SSLwYuk4BvI/AAAAAAAAAZQ/wl2OIGxinV...

Eric Wetzel's picture

I forgot to mention that 'Freedom From Want' is a take on Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving painting also titled 'Freedom From Want.'