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Creative Research Lab

FEVER - July 2005

painting by Aron Johnston

Aron Johnston
Venus: Post birth Interpretation, 2005
mixed media
47" h x 47" w

Catalog Essay by Alex Codlin:

Aron Johnston compares his work to a cheeseburger: lots of layers and really juicy. If you try to consume it too quickly, it explodes, and if you try to take it in too neatly, it only becomes messier. Johnston considers himself a pop artist, so his reference to a juicy cheeseburger, a quintessential American symbol, makes sense. Like the iconic status of the cheeseburger, he uses symbols and images from everyday life to create work relevant to today’s mass media society and its ways of seeing.

Johnston creates painterly collages by slowly layering different applications of paint over cloth, paper, and plastic. As he works, each layer of the collage determines the next. His process is a challenging one, as each layer that Johnston works into the canvas has to complete and inform the previously applied layer. However, this process of accumulation also strips away his artistic authority as the materials and process themselves ultimately determine the shape and growth of the final piece.

Johnston's works are not only physically layered through the build up of materials on the wooden base, but also conceptually layered. In Venus: Post Birth Interpretation, Aron references Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1485-1486), a painting that used cultural symbols contemporary to its creation to tell an ancient story. Johnston takes this Renaissance masterpiece and updates it for the 21st century viewer by remaking it through his own eyes. The literal shell that the Venus stands upon in the original painting becomes the gas company Shell's logo, a common sight on any street corner in America. The Zephyr blowing in from the left becomes the meteorological symbol for a cold front, a sign familiar to anyone who watches the nightly news. The Venus, no longer waiting to be robed, appears already dressed brandishing a gun in her left hand.

The Venus is a modern Venus, an image of a model from a magazine ad. Johnston plays with the idea of simulacrum in this figure as he reworks the Birth of Venus narrative. He scans the advertising image of the model and then prints it out as a half tone. This process happens over and over again with each new half tone printout becoming the source for the next scan. Slowly the Venus' image disintegrates, becoming a copy of a copy of a copy. He then rips the multiple images and reassembles them together to create the "original," which he promptly scans again and then transfers onto rotex plastic to apply to the surface of the collage. The resulting image records this process: you can still make out the gun in her hand, but as your eye moves from her right to left, the Venus slowly abstracts into a series of dots. This breakdown into dots, the basic format for all printing, recalls the Pop aesthetic of Lichtenstein's Ben Day dots or Warhol's multiple screen prints with each print slowly becoming a shadow of the original. The woman's image goes through so many breakdowns that she is no longer the Venus of the magazine and is many times removed from Botticelli's original vision of Venus as a buxom blonde with long flowing hair.

All of these symbols interweave throughout each physical layer of the work. Consumed separately, they are just symbols easily recognized by the viewer. But juxtaposed against each other, they create a narrative that, aided by Johnston's title, Venus: Post Birth Interpretation, ultimately leads the viewer back to Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Johnston does not want to give the viewer too much information, but just enough to offer them something from which they can begin to freely associate and create their own personal stories for the 21st century Venus. Who is she and why does she have a gun?

Go ahead and bite into Johnston's work like a big juicy cheeseburger. As he says, "I hope you get some of it on your shirt. To actually get my work to leave a stain on your shirt – that would be great."