Untitled (Alps), 2012
Friend of Cheap & Plastique Nathan Wasserbauer interviews Brooklyn-based artist Aaron Williams for Issue 10. See more of Aaron’s work here. Read another interview with Aaron on the Art Fag City website here.
C & P: Your work has changed in the last few years, and you’ve recently completed a new body of work. Was this change a deliberate move or more of a gradual evolution?
Aaron: Sort of both. For the past few years, I’ve been moving away from what I consider to be more traditional and prescribed ways of making things. I started off as an abstract painter and I think I just got tired of the conversations and assumptions of the medium. It all seemed very limiting to me and I made a decision to open up my studio practice as much as possible, to allow for a variety of mediums and working methods. Exploring different facets of an idea through different mediums is important, to try to bring ideas that exist in the studio into the real world as much as possible.
C & P: There is a sense of absence in your work, with visual clues or remnants of that which had been. Works officially “Untitled” also record in parenthesis the person or event that was formerly represented on the page. How significant is this to reading, or reacting to the work?
Aaron: The idea of trace, or remnant has been a constant in my work, both in materials and content. In talking about the effect of a thing, rather than the thing itself, there’s a greater capacity for poetry and an organic meaning to occur, rather than a didactic, sort of one-to-one logic.
The pieces in which I’m manipulating posters of cultural heroes, the figure is generally obscured by brushstrokes and paint splatter. The brushstroke in these pieces represents an almost meaningless, unconscious action. An aggregate of these actions make up a painting that has a specific hierarchy and purpose but taken on it’s own, it becomes more of a void or an accident, a remainder of another, purposeful action. I’m cutting the brushstroke into the paper and this removal of the photographic layer of the poster creates another level of meaning for me. The finished piece has no actual paint, just the memory of that thing, documented.
I’m interested in the relationship between this calcified mark making and the intellectual and emotional capacity of the figure; the point at which a poster ceases to be, say, Muhammad Ali and the physical reality of the material takes over. I’ve thought a lot about Rauschenberg’s Erased DeKooning: at a certain point, that piece ceases to be about erasure as eliminating previous meaning and becomes a unique piece created by positive, assertive mark-making.
C & P: How are the materials chosen for these new works? Talk a little bit about the addition of color, which I believe is a choice you made over time, correct?
Aaron: I’m using mostly quotidian materials right now, book pages and posters. These things have a transitory quality physically, they’re almost non-objects. They do however carry a huge conceptual and emotional capacity. I’m intrigued by the space between the physical reality of a thing and the intellectual or emotional capacity that thing has the potential to evoke. A poster, for example, is a carrier of identity, politics, culture, etc. but the physical fact of that thing is that it’s a frail piece of paper that’s cheaply produced and disseminated.
Color often exists for me in a pretty organic way. There’s a drive that I have in the studio that is largely conceptual but I have an equal ambition to make something that is visually compelling and color often fits into the latter category. Things gain meaning if they’ve hung around the studio long enough and I’ve learned to trust that impulse, even if I can’t really put my finger on why it’s there yet.
Untitled (Ali 2), 2011
Two Opposing Views in 133 Parts (detail), installation at the Portland ICA
C & P: You exhibited a work last summer called Alone: Two Views in 113 Parts. The installation is visually linear in much the same way software film and music editing appears on screen. Is this a direct influence of your work in film?
Aaron: I think it probably is, though that didn’t occur to me until much later. That piece was partially influenced by wall friezes done by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the way that work was unique to the architecture in which it existed. I liked the idea that the viewer would be physically committed to the piece, that they would have to walk from one end to the other to get the full meaning (it’s about 90 feet long). The text in the piece is essentially linear; it can be read from left to right but aside from the text, there are other layers of meaning that occur. I wanted to confound that linearity by gradually making the text unreadable and creating a context where one would have to refer to the middle, beginning or get a total view to get a richer idea of the piece.
C & P: Talk about the choice in this piece of merging the Columbine killers handwriting with a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.
Aaron: This piece has changed over time and it’s meaning has shifted a bit for me. I began the piece thinking about visual shorthands, culturally held assumptions about inherited knowledge from books and photography. The piece is comprised of 113, cut book pages. The pages are idealized photographs of nature, beginning with very close, first person perspective to distant galaxies. These images are practically authorless and begin to take on a larger, cultural meaning of formless notions, like say, god or transcendence. Galaxies for example, as depicted in print, don’t have much relation to how those things really exist and they start to take on broader, mythical meanings.
I think there’s a certain violence in that piece having to do with futility and disaffection. The poem, Alone, isn’t the most subtle poem in the world and there’s an almost desperate nature to it. I wanted to imprint the text with personal meaning, using the handwriting of someone who was involved in an act that was largely based on ideas of loneliness and disaffection. Ultimately, I think there’s an implication in the piece that as the imagery expands outward, the text expands inward at the same velocity.
Untitled (Miles), 2011
C & P: Horror in film has had a large influence on your work and fear seems to be an element you explore in both your studio work and your films. Part of the rush of watching horror films is confronting that base fear, that point of confrontation. Is this how you view the art making process, or your practice in particular? Or both?
Aaron: My love of horror films goes back to my childhood. I watched films that I was probably too young to see at the time and some of these films, like The Exorcist and John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (among many others) left a serious impression on me. This interest definitely influences my studio practice, but in indirect ways, I think. I’m attracted to a certain idea of fear, in the way that experiencing something new can evoke fear. Also, creating things in the studio can carry with it a certain violence. Destruction and death have always been important parts of my process. I try to have the courage to be able to destroy something in order to build it better.
Untitled (Yellow and Red), 2011
C & P: In your film A Man Born Blind Who is Being Told About a Rainbow, you flip through pages of books to show specific artists. Why did you choose these artists? Describe the connection to the footage from your studio.
Aaron: Most of my pieces start off pretty organically and that part began as a sort of curated show of artists that I own books of. I just started taking these books off my shelves and photographing certain images, editing them down until I got to what I thought was a somewhat coherent group. As it progressed, I noticed that there was a theme of creation and destruction developing and that became interesting to me, as these are two equal creative impulses for me in the studio. The piece begins with images of Frank Auerbach, (for me, the epitome of painterly logic) and progresses through images of futuristic optimism and destruction which are depicted in floating cities and homemade bombs. There’s a homemade atom bomb near the end.
The other part of the piece is a long tracking shot of all of the detritus from my studio. It’s a row of remnants of materials that were used to build art pieces: scrap wood, plexiglass, paint, things like that. Negative spaces. I wanted to take these negative spaces and make something from them, to prioritize them. The final shot is of two of these scraps, one on top of the other, signifying the most rudimentary form of creative impulse. It’s the moment when nothing becomes something, the beginning of the studio process.
C & P: I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the filmmakers you’ve edited into your work, as well as how you selected the music.
Aaron: The clips that I use in my video pieces are chosen largely for narrative reasons, although I do have a great love for Tarkovsky and his films figure pretty highly in some of my pieces. I’ve used clips from his films and I’ve borrowed certain themes from his work. For the piece we just discussed, the long tracking shot was based on a scene from the film Stalker in which he depicts an array of culturally important objects underneath water. The turning of pages in art books turns up in a few of his films as well.
The music in my videos is chosen for a couple of reasons. Again, I’m appropriating Tarkovsky, who utilized baroque pieces in his films. My other motivation for choosing particular pieces is that I find video to be a difficult medium as far as audience is concerned. Asking six or seven minutes of someone’s time in a gallery setting is a lot to expect and I wanted to use pieces of music that have an emotional pull, something that would make the viewer stay for more than a few seconds to watch the entirety of the piece unfold.
Untitled (Alps), 2012
C & P: How much of your 3D work is constructed for film only? How much makes to the point of sculpture and installation?
Aaron: So far, all for the constructs in my videos is for specific, film use only. Of course, connections exist between pieces so something that’s used for a film might turn up in another form in the studio at some point.
C & P: Since you’ve undertaken these new concepts in your practice, what conclusions have you drawn? Or are you not at a point of conclusion, but rather in the middle, or even just beginning?
Aaron: A lot of it has to do with trust. I’ve had to learn to re-format my studio practice and trust that there would be something of value at the other end. As far as where I am, I always feel like I’m just about at the beginning.