Interview with Aaron Smith
Aaron, I read in an interview you gave a while back where you said that besides Caravaggio you also consider Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler one of your large influences. To satisfy my Swiss pride, can you tell me a little bit more about how he, in particular, influences your work?
I really admire Hodler’s clear color and monumental compositions. I relate to his mysticism and humanism rather than his nationalism. Everything in his paintings has presence. Nothing is extraneous. What a challenge that is as a painter.
Your paintings have a natural artistic beauty to them. There’s a certain ease that’s hard to describe. How intuitive is your painting process?
They’re pretty intuitive. I try to build my paintings from as many authentic marks as I can make. This isn’t always an easy task. I suppose I’ve developed some skills over time, but I often feel more like a witness to the process. Recognizing a good move is more important to me than figuring out how to “master” a technique. Over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable with letting ugly bits animate the paintings.
Is creativity something that came naturally to you from early childhood? Or might you describe it as a later incarnation?
My twin brother Owen and I are both painters, and we grew up making stuff together. Art was never “fun” for me however. It felt terribly meaningful and and immense to me . I almost didn’t pursue it specifically because it seemed so important. I have to say, I finally have managed to appreciate the joy of painting. It’s that ten-thousand hours theory I guess. It probably took ten-thousand hours of painting for me to finally feel authentically present in the studio. I can finally say that I love to paint. That joy is something I hope comes through in the new work.
On the other hand you’re involved in academics. How academic is your painting process and how strong is the influence of your teaching position at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA to your own work?
The only thing academic about me is my fairly fanatical relationship with Art History. I’m a bit of a visual addict, and I read mostly Art History and criticism. Teaching for me is less about doling out information, than responding to my students as new artists, and supporting the discovery of their individual artistic voices. Our culture doesn’t quite know what to make of artists. Helping new artists get acclimated to a studio practice is pretty rewarding.
Intuitive painting is something that I assume must be hard to teach. How do you think one would teach such a thing?
It can’t be taught. The best a teacher can do is be a second set of eyes on a student’s work. I think that an experienced professor can help a new artist begin to understand how his/her work is functioning. My job is to articulate a paintings effect, and to help the student understand it’s context within Contemporary Art as well as Art History.
What are values, skills or techniques that you find important to teach to your students (maybe something you wish somebody would have taught you early on in your burgeoning career)?
I think many students go to art school to gain skills, eliminate weaknesses, and hone in on a singular style. These goals work at the start but can quickly become a series of circular pursuits. Students can get caught in the exclusive pursuit of skill or what some people consider the “atelier” trap. By this I mean it can be very seductive to fetishize “mastery”. One can end up endlessly practicing the “craft” without really making art. The greatest lesson a student can learn is how to get out of their own way and bravely express themselves authentically. Authenticity AND relevance, that’s the elusive combination to strive for.
Your style of painting has a very unique ‘signature’. Especially your application of paint. It has an almost sculptural character. What’s your intention behind this?
That’s an insightful question. I used to paint very differently. Previously, my work was produced using many layers of oil glazes. The effect couldn’t have been more different. As I pushed my paintings toward a new aesthetic, I actually started painting images of medieval polychrome sculptures and rococo porcelain figures. The source image’s colors inspired a more playful color palette, and it seemed natural to “sculpt” the images using increasingly thick paint. My intention is to give the figures a very physical presence.
Are we ever (again?) going to see Aaron Smith sculptures?
I’m currently starting some sculptures that bring the figures of the paintings back into real space.
Color is a key element in your work. What role does it play and how do you decide on a palette for a piece?
I always lay out a full palette each time I paint. I want the process to be very spontaneous. The color’s purpose is often to convey the vitality of the figure. Each painting’s color direction is informed by my emotional reaction to the subject. Once the color is layer in, there begins a certain amount of formal strategizing in response to what’s on the panel.
Looking at your paintings, it struck me that you “almost” always work with “blank” backgrounds. What is the intention behind stripping the character of any surroundings?
By stripping the figures in my paintings of context and isolating them against blank backgrounds I’m pointing toward the idea that these mostly male figures function as surrogates. I want them to operate as stand-ins for various aspects of masculine identity.
Where do you find the subjects for your paintings?
All my subjects are appropriated, whether they’re sculptures found in museums, or Victorian photographs I’ve collected over the years.
Tell us a little bit about the “bearded” characters,(which seem to have become somewhat of an identifier for your paintings)?
Neo-dandyism fascinates me. The playfulness in which some men present themselves today points to an embrace of masculinity as a more pliable concept. By appropriating, mixing and manipulating historical forms of identity through style and fashion, men can position themselves very specifically within a larger cultural dialog. I have always responded to the art and fashion of the belle-epoque. It was such a transitional time: very dynamic. Of course, my idea of the period is largely a construction. Similarly, I have chosen and manipulated vintage images of strangers to manifest a constructed ideal of self.
I know it might be a difficult question to ask any artist, But is there a particular painting to date that you can point to as being a seminal piece? And, why do you think so?
There is a painting called “Chippy” where my mark-making really started to gel. It was one of those elusive paintings that came together quickly and still contains unlearned lessons for me. Some pieces contain the DNA for many subsequent paintings. A more recent piece called “Buck” has a new clarity that’s less labored. These advances are probably too small for others to even see. Sometimes the smallest changes in direction are much harder earned than one might imagine.
What are your plans for the future and where can we expect to see you work next?
Immediately, it’s just about making some more ambitious pieces in the studio. I’m also about time I produced a book of my work from over the last several years. My gallery Sloan Fine Art and I are pursuing galleries far afield from New York, and Los Angeles. The best way for anyone to keep track of me is on the news page of my website www.aaronsmithart.com.