When it comes to epitomising the Neo-Dandy on canvas, none do it better than Californian based artist Aaron Smith. A graduate of Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, and now its Associate Chair, Aaron has engaged in artistic experimentation for some years now, exhibiting in many prestigious galleries in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
His paintings are transcendental explorations into the philosophy of beauty, a heady mixture of Expressionism and Post-Impressionism, where colour is very much at the forefront. Aaron explores the personalities of figures, past and present, one of his most eye-catching paintings is a grand portrait of Prince Albert Victor (the Grandson of Queen Victoria) it is this immense passion for history that sets Aaron apart from many of his contemporaries. A continuing theme throughout his work is the male, as a being of fascination stylistically, physically and philosophically, Aaron transcribes these themes to the canvas perfectly; it is an awe inspiring thing to look at his work, which encompasses myriad facets.
Through his artistic musings and ponderings on masculinity, Aaron has achieved an amazing feat of aesthetic grandeur, working, on the most part, from simple black and white photographs; he is able to illuminate male authority and underline fragility with a sublimely accurate precision. I had the opportunity to speak to Aaron, about this intriguing world in which he inhabits….
What first ignited your love affair with painting?
That’s not an easy question to answer. I always site the moment as a young person when I saw a Caravaggio painting for the first time. It was in a travelling show in San Francisco. I was dumbfounded. I thought, “What kind of person could make such a thing? I want to do THAT!” I suppose though, I was already hardwired to be a painter. I have a twin brother who’s also a painter. I think it’s in the genes. We were such Art History nerds from the start. Owen and I used to play “museum” in the house as kids. Even so, it took some soul-searching to really commit to becoming a fine art painter. Much of our culture reveres artists, while simultaneously seeing them as flakes. I shudder to think of all the non-practicing artists out there. I think my brother and I managed to create a supportive bubble where we felt safe to pursue art.
What would you say is your foundation aesthetic?
All through art school I maintained a singular fascination with Baroque painting techniques. My first exhibited paintings were rendered in dramatic chiaroscuro; very dark. I was doing these contemporary interpretations of Victorian cautionary verse from children’s literature in realistic yet theatrical oil paintings. Eventually, I became interested in Post-Impressionist and early Modernist painting. At that point I had a small but loyal collector base, but I was in crisis. That’s when I decided to disappear into the studio to find the headspace to experiment. I basically dropped out for three years. That was one of the most stressful times of my life. It was also one of the most rewarding. When I was ready, I invited my gallery for a studio visit and they took me on as one of their artists again. Luckily, the response has been very positive, although few of my previous collectors responded well to the new work. It’s weirdly liberating to walk away from success, and find it in other places.
Obviously colour plays an important role in your painting, what is it about colour that is so important to you?
Painting is a sensual medium. Colour, for me speaks directly to the heart. I suppose I like to think of colour in almost biological terms since Colour in nature has a seductive power that taps into our basic instincts. That’s why I’ve chosen to render my figures in the colours of Birds of Paradise. The male birds of these species display glorious and varied plumage in startling colour in order to seduce a mate. The Huli Wigmen of Papua New Guinea emulates these colours when they adorn themselves with shells, feathers, and body-paint. I have these references in mind as I paint my Victorian Gentlemen.
Historical figures and male beauty are a prominent features of your work, why is this?
For years I’ve collected vintage photographs of men from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These images for me represent a masculine ideal, if largely a constructed one. Their bearded faces and distinguished attire are spectacular, while their stiff poses and serious expressions belie a kind of vulnerability. I’ve decided to translate these small colorless photographs into relatively monumental, Expressionist portraits in order to ruminate on these contradictions. I’m interested in the cultural construction of an individual’s ideals of masculinity. Although most of the men I paint are anonymous, I occasionally depict a famous person. Often history has exposed the fact their carefully cultivated public images of power masked the less successful realities of their lives.
What is it that you hope to achieve with your painting?
First of all I want to seduce the viewer, but then I want the viewer to question that seduction’s pull. Art has the potential to inspire wonder, but’s it’s more important purpose I think, is to raise interesting questions in our minds.
What is your next project?
I’m in the studio preparing for my next solo exhibition with Sloan Fine Art in New York in June. I’ll be continuing with my interest in vintage imagery, but I suspect my research into tribal male initiation ceremonies will increasingly come into play. That’s where my thoughts are at the moment. I’ll also be continuing to teach at Art Center College of Design. The students there are wonderful, and they continue to inspire me.
Images courtesy of Aaron Smith