Portrait of an Artist: Aaron Brown

Girl in a Department Store No. 1 / Aaron Brown / Oil on panel, 2011 / Collection of the artist
Girl in a Department Store No. 1 / Aaron Brown / Oil on panel, 2011 / Collection of the artist

Q: Where are you from, where do you live now?

A: I’m originally from Wichita, Kansas, and currently somewhere in the country just outside of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: My preferred medium is oil on canvas or panel, but I have worked with most traditional media, and occasionally experiment with mixed media for both painting and drawing

Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.

A: The idea for a painting or drawing always starts as a “living collage” in my head, which in turn becomes my working reference. I bring disparate images together to form a new and cohesive whole—an intersection of observation and imagination.

I use photographs since the nature of my chosen subjects usually demands it, but I have extensive experience working from life and interpret the photo according to the vicissitudes of my memory. Essentially, I render the idea in a faithful manner, although I tend toward mild abstraction, and I allow the paint to speak in its own voice.

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.) and how does it contribute to your art?

A: The influences of my formative years came primarily from my family. Both of my parents are artists; they were amicably divorced when I was very young. My father is both a photographer and a painter of abstract landscapes, and this duality has profoundly influenced my work. I spent a lot of time watching him project film and develop photographs, and the environment of the darkroom always seduced me with its magical, alchemical quality.

There is a sense of poignant mystery that surrounds a photograph, a kind of ineffable longing, which haunts me and my work. All the more so, now that traditional photography is fast becoming a relic of some seemingly distant age.

In terms of art, I was mostly familiar with the work of classic illustrators, and my favorites were among the more eccentric (Fritz Eichenberg, Edward Gorey) and fanciful (Eastern European fairy tales illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, the original Oz illustrations of W. W. Denslow and John R. Neill).I had a natural inclination toward narrative forms of representation, which led me to an early and persistent interest in the theater. The painters I admired tended to be Old Masters.

When I finally decided, relatively late in the game, to study art in an academic setting, I had a crash course in art history, and quickly became familiar with contemporary art and issues. It was both a revelation and a blitzkrieg for my sensibilities.This experience has been incorporated into my work as well, on a subliminal level. My tendency is to use urban and institutional settings (countered by the insistent presence of the human figure). The internal, almost mythological struggle between forces of idealism and disillusionment stem from my days as a nontraditional student, as well as the ecstasies and traumas of childhood.

Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.

A: The portrait depicts Lilly, the daughter of an old friend, in a moment of acting for the camera. Ironically, she was pretending to be an artist at an opening. I relocated her to a vintage department store, and in that setting her gesture becomes something more personal, like a silent offering or supplication.

Q: Tell us about your larger body of work.

A: I am developing a body of paintings that tend to focus on a single figure in an environment, although this is not a strict limitation. I’m attracted to the power of the human figure to transform the implications of a particular setting, from something that has a certain range of associations, to a vastly more complicated and ambiguous labyrinth. The impetus is in the tension between the figure, which is an ambassador to vast reservoirs of emotion, and the surrounding environment, which represents the machinations of the mind.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: I just finished a large painting of a boy in a forest. The unadulterated landscape setting is something I have never tried before.

Q: How has your work changed over time?

A: For more than a decade following graduation, I worked in a manner that could be described as contemporary magic realism. The emphasis was on exactitude, in order to render a dreamlike atmosphere of displacement. My subjects ranged from multifigure narratives to animals in domestic interiors to nontraditional still-life tableaux.

At various points throughout the years, I have had a sudden and strong urge to experiment with different approaches and have even invented alter egos to serve as outlets for separate bodies of work. After a series of setbacks, mostly due to a run of disappointing shows and a major relocation from Kansas to Pennsylvania, I again felt the need to reexamine my priorities and working habits. The result of this is my current body of figurative work.

Q: What inspires you?

A: I’m inspired first by the dazzling visual complexity of the waking world, the sheer abundance of beauty and horror. Walking down the street, I’m in a constant state of silent amazement, taking in the compendium of shapes and colors.

Like Alice through the looking glass, I’m completely bewildered by the reflections of shop windows, which offer an entire parallel universe of visual delights. I’m aghast and enthralled by the capacity of humans to create such vast oceans of tenderness and cruelty. The outrageous spectacle of human history hangs like a tapestry across the sky.

I’m also in love with the two-dimensional world. I’m always searching in the field of the picture plane for a combination of space and flatness, degrees of which are completely unknown to me; this makes for an elusive target.

Most of all, I’m inspired by the power of imagination: the ability to integrate all of these things and more into a new and imperfect whole, to take whatever the world has to offer, melt it down and reconstitute it, and bathe it in the strange light of the mind.