By JONATHAN VINER, MAY 2017
Last night's subway ride home from the studio (just one stop) reminded me that it's generally a good idea to have a drink before you ride. Homeless man pissing to the left of me, bourgeois lady puking to the right - yes, this is why we drink in NYC.
So tonight, before I head out, I'm enjoying a white Bordeaux with notes of grapefruit, fresh grass, and Flintstones chewable vitamins, and it seems to be doing the job. During my abbreviated cocktail hour for one, it occurs to me to download some music for the 25 minute subterranean journey ahead. I'll be going to Joshua Liner Gallery in Chelsea to see Aaron Johnson's show, "Gone Fishin'". The preview images I've seen depict cartoony zombies reveling in an Americana apocalypse. So I browse Apple Music for some Bluegrass noir to set the mood. It's gotta have some banjo and Deliverance-esque creepiness.
I find a couple of albums that fit the bill: Back Porch Bluegrass by The Dillards (1963), and The Best of Doc Watson (1964-1968). The Dillards offer up a song called "Polly Vaughn", a cautionary tale about a hunter who accidentally kills his true love because she looked like a swan in the dim light of sunset. Spoiler alert: Her ghost appears at his trial to exonerate him. Then I find a song called "Omie Wise" by Doc Watson, which seems particularly apropos. No banjo, but some pretty Appalachian guitar picking. The story unfolds that poor Omie Wise thinks a fella' is taking her to get married, but soon realizes he's taking her to the river to drown her and their unborn baby. Her body is found by two boys who had, yup, gone fishin'.
Now I'm ready to go look at art. Nothing makes a subway ride zoom along faster than a little booze and music to block out the fluorescent bulb lit reality and the next thing you know I'm at the gallery. The owner Josh Liner and I go back a bit. Before he moved to NYC he had shown (and sold) my work, and I've watched his gallery and program grow over the years. His pristine street level space looks great, and Johnson's vivid, tactile works pop off the walls.
The first painting I see upon entering the gallery is the show's titular artwork, "Gone Fishin". It's a painted relief sculpture made of socks soaked in glue and then sealed and painted with acrylics. Most of Johnson's work buzzes with a frenetic quality, and this one is no different. It depicts a grotesque man and woman fishing and partying with pizza, burgers, and wine. They're catching fish, the fish are eating their pizza, birds are swooping in to grab some burgers...it's a bit of a clusterfuck. Nature is kind of like that.
I was always such a wimp about fishing, as a kid my father would take us fishing each summer. I hated impaling those slimy, squirming night crawlers on the barbed fish hook. Fishing is mostly baiting your hook, losing your bait, and baiting your hook again. Not long ago I went to the same lake where I first learned how to fish as a kid. My father came along and it was time to show my kids how to bait a hook. The night crawlers were too long for the small hooks, so I figured I should cut the thing in half, and asked my dad to pass me a pocket knife. With a hint of confusion and disappointment he took the worm from me and just tore it in half with his fingers and said, "You don't need a knife."
I respect fishing, but it literally jumped the shark for me when my father actually caught a shark, about two feet long. He had advanced to a bigger boat, bigger waters, bigger rods, and bigger hooks. He got a bite, fought hard to reel it in, dangled the shark against the side of the boat, and bashed its head several times with a metal club before bringing it onboard. To his credit he did eat it, even though it probably tasted shitty. I hated certain aspects of fishing because I'm squeamish, but in the end, when the shit hits the fan, you'd better know how to fish.
Jeez, so where was I? Yeah, I'm in the gallery. A clean, white table full of stand alone "sock sculptures" presents us with delightfully strange yet familiar objets: fish, pizza, glasses of sloshing red wine, silver six-shooters, fried chicken, and anthropomorphized burgers that have eyes and teeth. These are sculpted from socks, the most banal of missing laundry, soaked in some kind of Elmer's jizz, er, I mean glue, and shaped into surprisingly realistic sculptures. Maybe it's the burgers with faces, but I'm reminded of a nightmare I had in which I ate a piece of chicken and then realized that the rest of the chicken was still slightly alive. But I digress.
I say hi to the artist and we go over to a painting called "Gone Truckin", to talk more in depth about his process. It's one of his "reverse paintings". He applies detailed layers in reverse order on a sheet of plastic. In the end he peels away the plastic to reveal the front side of the painting. He mounts the peeled painting onto stretched archery netting, which is the mesh designed to catch stray arrows that miss their targets. This painting is particularly reminiscent of Japanese Yurei-zu, which are paintings and prints that depict eerie ghosts and demons with bulging eyes. In "Gone Truckin" a ghoulish couple is sucking face, has crashed into a deer, and is flying through the windshield of their pickup truck. Tiny ghosts stream out of the window into the night sky.
Before long Johnson is pulled away by another visitor and I drift past a couple other reverse paintings, "Rattlesnake Ridge" and "Cheeseburger Cowboy", and a sock painting called "Hot Tubbin" and then make my way over to a series of creepy acrylic works on paper. I enjoy the dense details. Some of these figures have cooked turkey heads, the cop looks porcine, there's a slice of pizza between that corpse's legs, etc.
Suddenly the man standing next to me shows me his phone screen - it's his art, abstract stuff. He tells me it's his first painting, then he zooms in and out for me - he seems off. As this man is telling me about his magic powers I notice he has lots of sores all over his skin, he swipes his screen to show me more work and I see a photo of prescription pills. He explains they gave him the wrong meds and he needed to send the picture. He's not well, and I politely extricate myself as quickly as possible - yes, this is why we drink in NYC. It occurs to me that the show as a whole seems closely connected to the New Objectivity painters of Weimar Germany, such as George Grosz and Otto Dix. Like them, Johnson emphasizes the ugly and sordid, but in this case the subject appears to be stereotypical rural American culture. Perhaps these creatures are caricatures of so called "real Americans" we hear about from conservative politicians. Or maybe they are the zombie victims of American consumerism running amok. But I don't take the specific cast and setting too literally - the theme is universal.
At the base level, Johnson's work is an expression of existential horror infused with a playful and artful aesthetic. I see metaphors for the atavistic urges that bubble up from humanity's primordial core. These are the fears and drives imbedded in human nature that fuel consumerism. The message I get is that you can take the human out of Nature, but you can't take Nature out of the human - and Nature is such a clusterfuck. WM