Chris Bors: Thanks for coming over. You just got back from a residency, right?
Aaron Johnson: Yeah, I did. Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. But it’s great to be here, and to see all your work.
CB: I really wanted you to see some of the new things I was doing, because even though we work differently, obviously, I’ve been trying to have dialogues with artists, particularly painters, that sometimes deal with aspects of the abject, or just things that aren’t necessarily what you would call beautiful, or maybe things that take somebody off guard, whether it’s visually, or politically, or what have you. At my recent residency at Guttenberg Arts in New Jersey I originally thought I was going to do more text-based work, but then I wound up doing this Mickey Mouse series where he’s giving the middle finger, and also using the QR code for the Google image search of ISIS. In a way, it’s a pseudo-patriotic “Fuck you, ISIS” painting. Then I did a couple different versions of this Anal Cunt logo painting. Most people have never even heard of the band, for obvious reasons.
AJ: Yeah, that was one of my first questions. I know a lot of your stuff is coming from punk and hardcore bands. I’ve never heard of Anal Cunt, but I was assuming it was a band logo, because I know the context a little bit. How important is it to you for a random viewer to know where that’s coming from? For example, if that painting was taken in just autonomously from everything else here by somebody that doesn’t know any of the references?
CB: I don’t think it’s that important. It’s interesting, because in the catalog for my solo show at Guttenberg Arts, Carl Gunhouse, who wrote the essay, a photographer who documents, among other things, pro wrestling and hardcore, really played up the aspect of this secret society of hardcore music, because it’s this underground thing. Anal Cunt is not around anymore by the way, because the lead singer died of a heart attack.
AJ: What’s the background of the band? When were they around?
CB: Technically they’re not a hardcore band. They’re a grindcore band. They’re from Massachusetts, and I think they started in the late ’80s. They were around for quite awhile. Obviously, super underground. The songs had mostly screamed, unintelligible vocals and superfast, noisy guitar. One of the things that people associated them with was their ass and vagina logo, because it’s so extreme. I’m interested in it more as this graphic symbol. If nobody got that it was from a band that’s OK, but it’s obviously some sort of sexual symbol.
Aaron: Yeah. You get that right away.
Chris: Part of my residency at Guttenberg was just about experimentation. I had never done silkscreen on canvas. This was the first time I had actually painted a background and then did silkscreen on top, similar to how Warhol worked, but obviously looks nothing like a Warhol really. I’m interested in the idea of making the work less thought out and then editing it later if necessary. I wanted to just throw stuff out there, whether or not it was fully formed. A couple years ago, I had done an interview, and I had basically said that I wanted to make things that looked less like art.
AJ: I feel like maybe they’re starting to look more like art, because I’m looking at one next to this one that’s called This Is Not a Fugazi Painting, and that’s so crisp, and so graphic, and it could be a poster. I feel like, in a way, that is a painting that’s not looking like art. I think what I really like about these new ones, like the Mickey Mouse ones with the drips, and the Anal Cunt logo with this slapdash paint handling under it, is that it’s bringing up painters like Richter, and it’s bringing up some of the Crapstraction, hip, abstract painting movements from the past few years.
I like seeing that, and I like seeing that you take this vernacular image, the Anal Cunt or the Mickey Mouse, and the abject quality of that, and the lowbrow, non-art, punk rock, hardcore background of the logo. It’s this highbrow atmospheric abstraction, and then slapping a silkscreen on top of it. Not just a silkscreen, but also a silkscreen that’s this abject, or obscene imagery. In that sense, it’s all really successful. Where’s the Mickey Mouse coming from?
CB: I’m a pack rat and somebody gave me this graphic of Mickey Mouse in high school. It had words that went along with it about parking your car, like, “Hey, fuck you. You don’t know how to park, asshole,” or something like that. It was some little, weird graphic you were supposed to put on someone’s car. I’ve had it since I was sixteen or thereabouts, but I’ve never used it until now. I thought that was the perfect low imagery to use in a silkscreen. In the 80s most zines and things like that were photocopied. Obviously there was no Internet, just these little, crappy Xeroxed zines. I’m also interested in images like this, how they fell apart after having been copied so many times. The crispness of the QR code of the ISIS Google image search versus the deteriorating Mickey really attracts me. I purposely didn’t get a good transparency for the Mickey silkscreen. I really wanted it to look like a crappy Xerox.
AJ: That’s good. The way that that Mickey is illustrated already in the beginning is kind of a bad drawing, kind of a bad tattoo of Mickey. It’s like a tattoo you might get when you are drunk. Works really well in the whole series of multiples. It’s a funny combination with the ISIS QR code.
CB: I’m interested in some sort of provocation, but also just throwing things out there. I reread Walter Benjamin’s classic The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and he was talking about how images become more intertwined in politics, and also just so many different things that I was thinking about as far as, “Does something have an aura if it’s just reproduced, or is painting still valid? Is that what makes a painting a painting, because you still need the original?”
I think that one of the things I was fascinated by as well is making a whole series with the same Mickey. It freaked me out a little bit, because I generally don’t do that. My older work has the same template with the paint with water activity book for children, but then usually the imagery inside is different. I was, I wouldn’t say trepidatious, but it was just something new for me to let loose, and just say, “Fuck it, this is good enough. This is a successful painting.” At least, it could be a successful painting. You don’t know until it’s totally finished. Also, part of it is the medium of when you’re combining printmaking with painting, obviously. If you do a one-off silkscreen, it’s a lot more work than it is to do a bunch.
AJ: Yeah. Those also feel like maybe they’re coming out of the drip paintings you have, the watercolor pan drips. That’s the work of yours I was most familiar with first, and those are super interesting, because it’s this super crisp, rigid application. You said it’s from a stencil, right?
AJ: It looks like a watercolor pan, and then there’s a super precisely, rigidly applied image under it, and you are allowing those colors to just bleed into it. There’s this level of chaos applied onto something that’s ultra-controlled. It feels like in these Mickey paintings, maybe you’re just letting that become the whole under layer, and then going on top of an image a little bit. What’s happening here is a little bit of swapping the roles of those two ways of working.
CB: I think the idea of flipping or changing your work is important. Everybody keeps talking about Guston recently, because of that whole transitional work, and the show from that period that’s at Hauser and Wirth right now. The thing that I’m also interested in is how somebody like yourself can do multiple bodies of work, because you’re working with these sock paintings, which are quite extreme. Then you have your more well known way of working, which is not traditional, but the work that maybe more people know from you, in which the images come from paint layered on the back somehow.
AJ: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Reverse-painted and layered.
CB: Almost like a hand-painted cell from an animated movie.
AJ: Kind of, yeah.
CB: I’m very interested in people that are able to say, “Okay, now I’m going to do something a little different.”
CB: I visited Nicole Eisenman’s studio once and she had some new paintings that she hadn’t shown yet. It was really intriguing. I haven’t really seen them a lot, but I think she showed them in LA. It was a completely different thing than what she was doing normally. They were really thick, and they were made from, I believe, expanding foam. They were built up, like this really insane, built up surface.
AJ: That’s crazy. Yeah, I’ve never seen those.
CB: Yeah. They were just super heavy, super thick. They were massive. It was just really cool to see somebody say, “Well, I’m really successful at one thing, but fuck it. I’m going to try something else.” In a way, I feel like I still have a lot to say with my black and white-style imagery, but I also want to branch out and not be so rigid.
AJ: Yeah. Everything in here feels very cohesive. I don’t see anything as being way outside the spectrum of what you’ve been doing. It all feels in conversation for sure. So in this painting, underneath the watercolor circles there’s an upside-down image. Is this Jesus and Steve Urkel?
AJ: And an Agnostic Front logo?
CB: Yep, yep.
AJ: It’s hysterical, the Steve Urkel. Is that from an Agnostic Front album?
CB: No, I just grabbed that from the Internet, a process which I call virtual dumpster diving. I don’t know what the band would think of it. I’m in contact with some of the bands that have seen my work, and usually they’re quite receptive. I think the combination of Steve Urkel from Family Matters, and Jesus, both appearing pixilated, really makes sense with what agnosticism is about, and that in a way, pop culture or television is more important to a lot of people than faith. I do think that, again, going back to what Benjamin was saying, even though that essay was written a long time ago, I feel like there’s so much to glean from his essay about how images are very powerful, even when you don’t see them in person, or just the whole idea of the power of the media and how images are copied in contemporary society. I feel like the ’80s generation are the first to really be overwhelmed by television, whereas now everyone is overwhelmed by …
AJ: The Internet?
CB: Yeah, the Internet and social media.
AJ: Social media, yeah. What’s the origin of the watercolor pan drips idea?
CB: It’s from a paint-with-water activity book. Here’s a Star Trek one I have. There’s a set of colors at the top that you’re supposed to dip the wet brush in and then go down and paint. When I first saw these as a kid, I really liked them because they were just so compact, and it wasn’t super messy. You could actually make a painting without having to prepare anything. I think their graphic quality really lends itself well to being reinterpreted. I really like putting weird color combinations in the circles, which would normally be filled with standard colors.
AJ: Yeah. It’s interesting, taking that as a formal device. Then you have these abstract paintings that are just a small circle within a small rectangle with a bleed of paint going one or both ways out of it. They just function as abstractions, but then, once you take them into the context of all this, it brings in another layer of where it’s coming from.
CB: Yeah. I don’t know if they have any real meaning that I could assign to them, but they’re definitely related obviously to the work that you mentioned, I think. They work on different levels, in a way.
AJ: Yeah, they just feel like portals, geometric abstraction paired with a little bit of abstract expressionism. Without the Steve Urkels and the Jesus.
CB: Right. Right. This one is just a black drip. I did do one with a white drip and the Minor Threat logo. People seem to be drawn to them, but when I first showed them I was a little bit unsure, just because I wouldn’t really call myself a … I don’t know if they’re considered abstractions, but I guess I’ve jumped into that territory to some extent. It’s funny, because I didn’t necessarily look at a lot of Kenneth Noland’s or anything like that.
AJ: Mm-hmm. No, it’s really interesting, actually, the arriving at something that could be derived from something like Kenneth Noland, but you’re coming to it from somewhere else, very different. Then, of course, you’re aware of minimalist painting while you’re doing these, but it’s not like you came to this out of that tradition, so that’s pretty interesting. How about this Guilty of Being White painting? Where are you pulling the phrase from?
CB: That’s from a Minor Threat song, which was written by Ian MacKaye when he was, I think, nineteen years old. He was a minority white student in a predominantly African American high school. He felt like he was being picked on in a way. At least, that’s how he explains it now, looking back. I also feel like people could use it as a … Obviously, people could use the phrase in a hateful way. It could be switched, but MacKaye has stated that it’s an anti-racist song. Maybe he was saying, “Look, I’m really no different than you are, so don’t tie me into this whole racist society… Don’t blame me for something I had nothing to do with.”
It’s obviously a very loaded phrase, but I think its implications can be discussed at length. Although I’m white and have the advantage of privilege, I’m also really interested in the idea of authenticity, or authorship. For example, is it okay to make a painting, or make a poem, or make a song that brings up these types of issues, and then how responsible are you for creating them? This is the perfect example of that.
AJ: It certainly has a really loaded context within the art world, because … Well, you and I both being white males, we are the majority of who will ever be successful in the art world, and we have no ceiling over our success. In the culture in general, we are the ones that have never been oppressed, and the identity politics for us versus everyone else is a really different situation. I think it’s something I grapple with. In my own identity of who I am, and society, it’s the guilt of being a white man, so it definitely goes there for me.
CB: Obviously, as a white male, I’ve had a lot of opportunities that some people have never had, or will never have, so I think it’s important to be conscious of that, but I also think that wasn’t necessarily my main intention of making it. I really just wanted to see people’s reaction, and start a dialogue. I was amazed that, over the course of a week, I actually had some incredible dialogues with people about it, when it was shown at SPRING/BREAK Art Show in New York.
AJ: What were some of the more memorable things people asked you about?
CB: A few people really put me on the spot, but not in an aggressive way. They wanted to know my own background. I started getting into a lot of very personal autobiography, and my upbringing. Growing up in Ithaca, which is a very liberal, small city, and being friends with people of so many different backgrounds. I didn’t necessarily think there was a lot of racism in Ithaca, being a liberal town and the home of Cornell University, but of course it was there, I’m sure. I didn’t really see people being outright racist until I went to college, and encountered more ignorant, isolated people.
I was talking to people about my life experience, and it was just refreshing, because to talk to somebody for twenty-five minutes about a painting, and about your childhood, and about your whole upbringing, and the relationships you had with people of different backgrounds was something that you wouldn’t normally experience in a gallery setting. It was nice to be challenged and for it to create a dialogue, which is exactly what I wanted the painting to do.
AJ: Yeah. It was good to be walking through SPRING/BREAK, which is a big art fair in the midst of all the big art fairs, just this conglomeration of the art world coming together, and seeing something that calls this out, which is I think, an important reality that we don’t pay much attention to. That the art world is such a white people’s privileged world. That’s what this painting was all about to me.
MC Stevens: I had a question about the surfaces on some of these, like the denim and the skateboard griptape.
CB: This one is called The Big Four, which is referencing the most important bands that started the whole thrash metal genre in the 1980s: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Painting the text on denim relates to the jackets that fans of heavy metal wear. I also made a painting called Possessed to Skate, which had griptape adhered to the front of bright red-orange cloth, and the words “possessed to skate” stenciled on both the sides.
I didn’t look at a lot of minimalist painting when I made these, but I think it relates. Obviously, someone like Peter Halley has a lot of weird surface things going on in his work, where it’s very tactile. I like the fact that the griptape creates this instant texture. I’m just really interested in the graphic qualities of the denim, the griptape, and the bright colored cloth, something that jumps out at you. It’s almost like a poster, or a sign, but then, again, it has the aura of the original.
MCS: Back to Walter.
AJ: Well, yeah. Obviously, you can put this on Instagram, but I still think the aura of the original is important.
CB: The original spark.
MCS: One question for both of you, could you name an artist who you think might be an example of someone who displays intellectual courage?
CB: That’s a good question. I would say, I don’t know, maybe, Marlene McCarty. She does these really detailed pencil drawings, which turn out to be very sinister. She did this whole series of houses that look like really detailed, almost architectural renderings, but they are houses in which children killed their parents. Her portraits of teenage murderers are also delicate renderings that take on new meaning when you learn of their backstory. I’m interested in art that has something beneath the surface. She’s someone that I thought of who, it’s not just what you see is what you get, but there’s something that brings you out of your calm.
AJ: Did either of you see the Jordan Wolfson show at David Zwirner? It’s the big marionette that’s being hoisted up and dropped, and dragged across the floor, and hoisted up again, and dropped. It’s incredible.
MCS: Both of you are associating intellectual courage with violence.
AJ: I was going to say … Just trying to pause and think, “What does intellectual courage mean to me?” I’m not sure. I like really visceral experiences in art. That experience was just so profound. It was sad. It was tragic. It was hilarious. It was a lot of different things all at once. It was frightening. I don’t know if that’s intellectual courage. It’s something I saw recently that I liked.
MCS: Okay. Anybody have a closing remark?
AJ: Some bad-ass work, Chris Bors.
CB: Oh, thank you very much.
Chris Bors was born in Ithaca, New York and received his MFA from School of Visual Arts. Solo shows include Randall Scott Projects in Washington, D.C. His art has also been exhibited at PS1 MoMA, White Columns, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Kinz + Tillou Fine Art in New York, Casino Luxembourg in Luxembourg, Bahnwarterhaus in Esslingen, Germany and Bongout in Berlin. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times, Time Out New York, the Brooklyn Rail and featured in Vogue Italia, K48 and zingmagazine. He has written for Artforum.com, ArtReview, and Art in America, among many other publications.
Aaron Johnson holds an MFA from Hunter College, 2005, and lives and works in Brooklyn. His work is in permanent collections at such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, the Fundacion Mehr, and the Weisman Foundation.His work has been included in museum exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, NY; The Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art; The Knoxville Museum of Contemporary Art; The Katzen Center at American University; and MASS MoCA, MA.He is the recipient of many awards, including The MacDowell Colony Fellowship, The Corporation of Yaddo Residency, The Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program, and the VCCA Fellowship. Johnson’s work has been reviewed in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Village Voice, ArtNews, and ArtForum.
Aaron Johnson’s work is currently part of the group show Summer Mixer at Joshua Liner Gallery through August 19.