There’s a whole lot going on in Aaron Johnson’s paintings. They’re visually rich with vibrant colors, densely packed compositions and a profoundly macabre subject matter. Generously larded with potent political and societal themes, the work is created through a complicated technique Aaron refers to as “reverse painted acrylic polymer peel painting.”
In the multi-step process, Aaron starts with a preliminary drawing. “For the small paintings with their hyper detail it helps for me to plan it all out in advance,” he says. “Narratives come easily when I’m drawing with pencil and paper—letting things come into my mind and having fun with it.” The drawings get messy with all the erasing and smudges of graphite and so he makes a tracing of them that he tapes to the front of the polyethylene plastic sheeting on stretchers he uses as his painting surface. “For the bigger ones, I’ll just draw right onto the plastic because it’s a looser piece.”
Aaron’s paintings have three layers of paint each separated by a layer of acrylic polymer. The acrylic polymer is a clear plastic in liquid form, that’s poured onto the finished layer of paint and left overnight to harden. The layering adds a wonderful sense of rhythm and dimensionality to Aaron’s work.
Painting backwards, Aaron must first put down the detail. Disembodied from the rest of the components making up the form, these floating elements (teeth, eyes, nails, etc.) don’t make much sense to anyone at this point other than the artist. This layer is followed by the under coat of color which completes the figures, and finally the background layer is applied. To grasp how hard this is, you have to understand that from the working side, it’s impossible to tell what the painting looks like, it has to be turned around in order to see its true appearance. So, as he's working, Aaron is constantly thinking ahead to what’s going to happen in the next layers.
“The way I paint is the reverse of how most painters work,” Aaron explains. “They start with broad strokes and start to find forms and then refine and approach details. I start with detail and zoom out. It’s like the details are super precise and controlled and I know what I’m going for. In the beginning, I’m using a tiny brush; it’s painstakingly slow and then as the paintings progress, I’m relinquishing control of this thing I labored on. The backgrounds often involve splatters and poured paint—chance things and a little bit of chaos so I’m not exactly quite sure what the finished work is going to look like from the front anymore.”
After all the paint and acrylic polymer is layered onto the plastic, Aaron transfers the work onto stretched netting. This is done by laying the plastic painting surface flat, plastic side down, and pouring a final coat of polymer and then applying the netting. The polymer saturates the net, congealing all those layers of paint to the net as the polymer dries. When it's dry, the plastic is peeled away.
Aaron began using netting because when he used this multi-layered technique on canvas, it wasn’t porous enough and so he ended up with a lot of air bubbles, He got the idea to use the unconventional material walking past a construction site in New York where he spotted the orange net barricades. Eventually, he found a company in Connecticut that manufactures every kind of netting you could find. Aaron even did a commission for them using all the different kinds of netting they produce. They now send him barrels full of remnants.
Aaron’s characters are inspired by Mexican Day of the Dead figures. There’s plenty of blood and grossness in his work, but it’s handled in such an irreverent and intentionally outlandish way, it comes across as darkly funny rather than truly disturbing. In one, a bizarre feast/operation is depicted. It’s a grotesque comedy featuring a cast of oddball death’s headed characters arranged around a table including a nurse who has cut into the body releasing a toaster with toast flying out and hitting her on the face.
Aaron’s mother grew up in Assam and his childhood house was filled with Indian art. He says the Indian aesthetic is so ingrained in his self-conscious he references it without thinking about it. This explains the ease with which he incorporates the sumptuous palette, marvelously inventive patterns and flame-like gestures that recall Indian miniatures and enliven his paintings. In some works, Aaron makes more direct reference: inserting the elephant foot stool he inherited from his grandfather in one, a Ganesh-like figure in another.
Johnson enjoys putting “little things for people to discover” in his paintings. He uses a lot of food imagery. Often, it’s fast food that he utilizes to critique American capitalist culture. It’s a recurring theme that pops up in his paintings, but he keeps the meaning very open. “I’m not really thinking why the fries and hamburger would be dancing on the piano… it’s just available iconography to me. I wanted something on the tabletop to punctuate the wood grain.” And what wood grain! Wild, yet controlled it’s like an evocative caricature of wood grain. His approach to this one this one element neatly sums up his inventive and elaborate approach to subject and process.