[commander's feast (in blood & fire)(2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag; the second coming of uncle sam (2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag; star-crossed (2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag; death of a monster (2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag]
showing at stefan stux gallery through october 18 is “star-crossed,” a series of new paintings by aaron johnson that evoke the twisted debate consuming our republic on such no-brainer issues as the separation of church and state, u.s. embroilment in imperial and mercenary conflict abroad, and the cynical one-dimensional patriotism expressed by mainstream media. further, the artist indicts contemporary america on these and other issues with narratives that marry the horrific and hilarious.
all of the works in “star-crossed” are ceremoniously painted upon the emotionally charged, and politically controversial, american flag—adding johnson’s work to a canon including jasper johns, wayne eagleboy, dread scott, and faith ringgold. confronting the cultural morass of desecration, iconoclasm, and sacrilege, johnson simultaneously celebrates the fundamental american ideal of freedom of expression. one need only observe the plethora of crackpot right-wing websites bemoaning flag desecration to realize the how that issue resounds in some dark corners of the body politic.
johnson joins an eminent cadre. just recall the ire in 1989 directed at dread scott’s “what is the proper way to display a u.s. flag?” bush senior called it disgraceful, while the entire u.s. senate passed pompous legislation to “protect the flag”—after doing precious little to protect the lives of americans during the emergence of the aids pandemic. in an effort to protect enshrined constitutional rights, scott and three other protesters burned flags on the steps of the u.s. capital. then there’s “the flag is bleeding #2” by feminist and coretta scott king award-winner faith ringgold, with its bittersweet plea for racial harmony. “we the people” by wayne eagleboy bears the figures of two native american men behind a screen of barbed wire upon the u.s. flag.
probably best known are the spectrum of u.s. flag works created by neo-dadaist jasper johns. johns' 1954-55 work “flag”—an iconic celebration of patriotism is innocuous when compared to his “moratorium” from 1969. commissioned by the leo castelli gallery of los angeles in conjunction with that year’s massive and national october 15 mobilization against the vietnam war (the moratorium), johns made a radical departure from his previous red, white, and blue flag paintings. “moratorium”—a toxic flag poisoned by war—has black and green stripes, with the green vaguely resembling camouflage. its orange field is filled with blackened stars, while—in the center—is a single white dot (representing a bullet hole). like today, america was in the throes of an unpopular imperial war. the image became one of the most well-known images of the vietnam period.
while our nation has come full circle to its current embroilments , johnson brings a fresh perspective to this lineage in a body of work that uniquely allows distortions to occur. among the artist’s dreadful and whimsical cast of intrepid characters are torrid depictions of a crucifixion and lady liberty reinterpreted as cyclops of a singular vision, and a johnny appleseed tormented by a fruitless wasteland. such anti-heroes fumble through murky corners of the american myth. resulting works offer foreboding hints of what is to come, namely disgorged body parts, erupting heads, and ultimately the complete obliteration of the figure. this corporeality resounds our schizophrenic society’s underlying corruption and its failure to feed the minds, bodies and souls of its citizenry—who struggle along in an evaporating economy with substandard education and out-of-reach quality health care.
interestingly, amalgams of figures and distortions in johnson’s paintings are comparable to benji whalen’s clay and fabric sculptures that abound in absurd piles of human beings in fights with emerging body parts. in whalen’s show “claustrotopia,” the tangled bodies are so close to the degree that they border on an aggression-prone claustrophobia: thereby ideas of peaceful coexistence become utopian. in the works of both artists—though in different media—conflicting emotions occur simultaneously.
such distortions of american society come to the fore in johnson’s unique method of painting that utilizes reverse-painted acrylic polymer peel paintings. painting completely in reverse onto plastic film, he builds up multiple layers of paint that are ultimately set with acrylic polymer directly onto american flags—allowing him to release the painted layering from the plastic substrate.
stylistically and formally, johnson’s work embraces a variety of influences, including goya’s “desastres de la guerra,” hieronymus bosch’s “hell,” and peter saul’s pop-psychedelia. with his work in “star-crossed,” johnson rightly asserts his place in a line of artists whose art becomes a platform from which to question contemporary society.
aaron johnson: star-crossed
through october 18, 2008
stefan stux gallery
530 west 25th street, nyc 10001