Painting the Absurd: the Engrossing, Grotesque Art of Aaron Johnson.

In The Menu, Visual Arts by Audra Lambert

Seeking a detailed, unsettling antidote to minimal art? You can’t do much better than the exciting expressionist art of Aaron Johnson. Gone Fishin’, the current exhibition of Johnson’s work, is on view through May 20th at Joshua Liner gallery in Chelsea (Manhattan). Works in the show take painting as a common medium, covering themes as mundane and elevated as cheeseburgers and death. With subject matter embracing folk art stylings and even oddly echoing Japan’s infamous “demon painter” Kawanabe Kyosai, Johnson has absorbed eclectic precedents into his visionary compositions which reveal the unseen emotions subconsciously influencing our everyday lives. Johnson doesn’t stop at his eclectic compositions: he also brings in a wide range of materials to create his works, incorporating layers of acrylic polymers and socks (yes, socks), among other substances. His scenes blend the ordinary with the hideous: a fisherman and his wife, surrounded by hamburger minions and exhibiting fangs and misshapen eyes, purport to exhibit an ordinary fishing trip in a nightmarish alternate dimension. Taking portraiture and group scenes as a departure point, his cowboys, hot tubbers and fishermen embrace the unnatural aspects that lay dormant within our everyday experience.

Along with these paintings, Johnson has produced painted relics that dominate an area at the gallery’s center. Mining pop culture and junk food objects, hammers and handguns vie for attention with menacing cheeseburgers. These items bring the subject matter of Johnson’s two-dimensional(ish) painting into the real world, producing an immersive effect. Suddenly, visitors are forced to double-check their own surroundings to make sure other nearby guests haven’t sprouted monstrous features on their arms and necks. This clever use of three-dimensional objects to bring the escapist nature of his subjects out into the gallery environment underscores Johnson’s awareness of the impact of his artwork: he spares no expense to assert a sense of potent un-reality. His paintings deftly maneuver the wide berth between spectacle and mundane, fantasy and blasphemy, by way of clever psychedelic observation. The otherworldly and spiritual is implicated in the artwork, albeit from a dystopic Americana perspective.

Johnson excels at revealing the grotesque and menacing aspects latent within our fantasies. The formal elements of these artworks – jarring textures, compositions, and color combinations – combine to hypnotic effect. Gone Fishin’ is a dark and humorous journey through the rabbit hole of contemporary art and the American psyche. Johnson is at the forefront of a new breed of contemporary painting, fearlessly pushing the medium toward a bright new hallucinatory future.

Aaron Johnson. | Gone Fishin’, Acrylic and socks on canvas over panel. 2017. (courtesy Joshua Liner gallery)

Aaron Johnson. | Cheeseburger Cowboy, Acrylic on polyester knit mesh) 2017. (courtesy Joshua Liner gallery)

Installation view of Gone Fishin’, solo exhibit of works by Aaron Johnson. (courtesy Joshua Liner gallery)