A few weeks ago I headed over to Oakland to check out Aaron Nagel's studio as he prepared for his upcoming show, A Thin Line at The Shooting Gallery. It was great to spend some time with Aaron and see his work in such an intimate setting. The pictures you see here are a combo of my own, along with images of Aaron's. And for this visit, I also combined a Q&A for your reading pleasure!
Can you tell us about your inspiration behind your newest body of work for your upcoming show, A Thin Line at The Shooting Gallery?
I'm really inspired by the models that lend their time and likeness to me. Trying to capture the beauty of these women is something that I don't think I'll ever get sick of, it's an amazing jump off point for the direction I want a given piece to follow. "A Thin Line" is a nod to a new graphical element and a reference to the issues I had putting the show together.
I've always been intrigued by religious art, both because I find so much of it appealing despite it's motives, and because I'm endlessly fascinated by the frequent use of torture, suffering, and violence, to serve those motives. The symbolism I paint; halos, arrows, etc, are all common in European iconography of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but I'm trying to take them out of context a bit by placing them around figures who, instead of appearing as martyrs, are unaffected.
I came upon the black painted hands entirely by accident. First and foremost, [I] paint them because I love the way [they] looks; more specifically, the way [they] reflect light and flesh tones. (I think it's almost taboo for an artist, but i'll happily admit that my first concern is always whether or not the image is aesthetically pleasing to me). The more I painted them though, the more I started to think of the painted hands as a metaphor and/or as a symbol. What they represent isn't so specific, I'd rather that the viewer make up their own mind...but I find that it adds depth to an image without being overbearing or too obvious. I have no idea why the painted hands can be sexy in their own right, even without taking the rest of the figure into consideration. I could come up with a whole bunch of possible explanations -- but no one explanation has ever struck me as definite, and I do love the uncertainty.
What are the words in your work?
They're all different, I mainly use them for the look more than the meaning of the text, but it's usually creepy latin phrases. Of the two with text in this show, one is a quote from Satyricon in Latin, and one is a passage from a book that I coded with an enigma machine. Nerdy!
During our studio visit, you mentioned to me that this group of work was particularly hard for you. You said you struggled a bit around your first few paintings - can you tell us about that period and how you got through it?
I did have a really hard time planning for the show, and after a few months and a couple failed paintings, decided that the problem was that I didn't really know what I wanted to paint. More specifically, I was torn between wanting to do much more elaborate and narrative pieces with complex reference shoots, lots of compositional elements and more straightforward portraiture. My brain couldn't really make a decision and more often landed somewhere in the middle, which wasn't what I wanted to be painting either. While I still haven't gotten into making paintings as large and elaborate as I hope to one day, I finally discovered that if I did both the larger surreal pieces and straightforward portraits, instead of trying to mush the two ideas into one piece, the two directions I was being pulled were more or less satisfied.
You are self taught, which is incredible after seeing your work in person. How did you get to where you are now?
I'm a very obsessive and disciplined person, often to a fault (like, real often). That is probably the one thing that's helped me most. Once I decided I wanted to be painting, and once I decided how I wanted to be painting, it was fairly easy for me to lock myself in a room for the better part of 8 years and figure it out. I don't mean to say that painting is easy, because it certainly isn't -- or that spending so much time in a room with only a cat and an audiobook for company is easy, because that can really suck too (not the cat, he's fresh) but making myself do things (or attempt to do things), particularly if they are very hard...that's easy.
Having no formal instruction has hurt me in some respects I'm sure, but it's also allowed me years of trial and error, without anyone to regularly step in and point me in the right direction. It's certainly not the fastest way to learn to paint, but It allowed me time to come up with my own system and made me a whole lot less prone to discouragement. This is all conjecture of course, but it might be true.
I should point out that even though I didn't go to art school, I do a lot of reading up on oil painting techniques and theory, and try my best to pick the brains of those in the know every chance I get. Plus, there are hundreds of years of fantastic paintings to learn from. So I don't consider myself entirely without education, it's just not terribly formal.
Aaron's little friend, Ty -- the fresh kitty. ;)
Lots of reading, lots of blogs, lots of museums, lots of art shows...that's the plan anyway. It's easy to get stuck in the studio, but simply being around art that I really admire, is hugely educational.
When doing research reading up on you - one of the things I have read a lot is this: "he is entirely self-taught; a fact at odds with his classical approach to surrealism" - what does this mean?
I'd like to think it means that my technique appears to be traditional. I'm not really trying to break any new ground with figurative painting as far as the execution is concerned. I do try my best to capture the subject exactly without too much deliberate interpretation. I think that's where the comparison to traditional/classical painting might come in.
Then there [are] all the halos and black hands and things I add that pull the piece away from just straight representational work, that usually lands me in "surreal artist" territory. This is part explanation of the latest show title; as in a thin line between realist and surrealist directions. That's my interpretation anyway, I'm really not sure -- odd, because I think I may have even wrote that.
What's coming up for you next, both professionally and personally?