The latter-day philosopher Rebecca Solnit once wrote, "That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost." To see oneself clearly — to step outside oneself altogether, and be free of all the baggage we carry through life, one must venture beyond the boundaries of comfort and security. Mystery, disorientation, fear — these are primal sensations that rouse the imagination. Aron once said, "I think it is necessary to leave unanswered questions in a painting... if it is not fully knowable, the truth it holds changes over time and the painting becomes like a living thing." Like waking up in a strange city or losing the trail deep in the woods, Aron's work provokes us to do our own mythmaking, opening our minds to the unknown.
Despite the fact that he's been busy preparing for his first museum exhibit, which opens on June 10th at the Bakersfield Museum of Art, Aron graciously took the time to share some insight into his work.
Erratic Phenomena: You were born in Washington, D.C. and spent much of your childhood in Santa Cruz, California. Tell me a bit about your experience of growing up. Was anyone in your family an artist? What made you happiest when you were a boy?
Aron Wiesenfeld: My grandmother was an artist — she painted watercolors. I remember her telling me that kids' drawings were always better than grown-ups', and that was very encouraging. So I felt I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, and I could always expect her to say, "That's wonderful!" She even made etchings from the drawings my brother and I did. My mom was also supportive of our artistic endeavors. She taped up all our drawings on the walls. The kitchen and dining room walls were literally filled with our drawings. So my creative seeds were very well watered. We also had some prints on the walls by artists like Rembrandt, Dürer, and Sorolla, and I think I was lucky just to know what great art looked like.
I was kind of a loner as a kid. Not painfully so, but I was just as happy spending hours alone building models or whatever as I was playing with other kids. I remember building things a lot, so I guess that is what made me happiest. They were often very ambitious projects, like a three-story fort with a deck in the backyard. I think my work process now is like building — the joy of it is in seeing it grow and what it will become.
EP: You first began drawing when you were 12, inspired by comics like Conan the Barbarian. Tell me a bit about what you liked to draw when you first began creating images from your imagination.
AW: A friend introduced me to comics in fifth grade, and I became obsessed. I always loved the medium. You can read a comic at your own pace, and you have to connect the pictures in your head to make the story happen, so the reader is a participant in the creation of the story. I was really into fantasy stuff, like D&D and Frazetta, and that was my initial inspiration to draw. Then I saw what Frank Miller was doing, and that made me interested in how the medium can be used to tell the story using a sequence of images — what to show and what to leave to the imagination.
Becoming a comic book artist was something I had to do, and I pursued that goal tenaciously. I would give myself assignments — for example, I would have to draw a fist from every angle, and then I would have to draw each of those fists as if they were lit by a different light source. It was a bit obsessive-compulsive, but it paid off.
EP: Throughout the '90s, you pursued a career as a comic book artist, with your peak coming in 1997 with the publication of the two-issue crossover comic Deathblow and Wolverine. Then, to the perplexity and consternation of many comics fans, you suddenly stopped drawing comics, went back to art school, and emerged a painter. What precipitated this sudden change of direction?
AW: The comic book business is set up to crank out a huge amount of a cheap and disposable product. I was elated when I was first hired, and then horrified when I saw my work in print a few months later. The inker had butchered it, the coloring was terrible, the writer filled all my negative space with word balloons, and the printing sucked. I learned how to compensate for some of those things later, but those kinds of problems were always there. I think people who have long careers as comic book artists just learn to tolerate it, but I couldn't.
The end came when I thought I would finally have control over all the aspects of Deathblow and Wolverine, and so I put everything I had into that project... When I saw it printed, the color was completely washed out, and the editors had changed a lot of dialogue without my knowledge. So that was it for me. I did a few other projects after that, but it was just too heartbreaking to let comics continue to be the focus of my work.
"Girl with Dog"
EP: Much of your work concerns young people persevering in the face of peril and uncertainty, a perennial theme of children's literature. Were there particular books you read as a child which impressed you with the potency of that narrative?
AW: I think I had the usual books as a child... but Maurice Sendak's books left an impression. My favorite was In The Night Kitchen. (Who knew you could make an airplane out of bread dough? At 3 years old, I believed it was possible. I wish I was still that gullible.)
Looking back at some of the books I had as a child has been very inspirational. Lately, I have been having a great time getting reacquainted with Richard Scarry. Other authors that deal with those themes of unchaperoned youth have been thought-provoking, like Lewis Carroll, Miyazaki and Edward Gorey.
"The Delegate's Daughter"
EP: In your work, the human figures – usually girls – have a palpable energy and power, but are placed in situations that emphasize their vulnerability. Fiercely determined, they face adversity head-on, despite their obvious lack of preparation. Although this is a very compelling idea, it's a rather uncommon subject in painting. Why do you choose to represent young women as heroes?
AW: I don't know why exactly. On the surface, a lone woman is more physically vulnerable to harm than a man, and the hero has to be vulnerable. A friend told me I paint women because they are more internal, and that seems true. It's important to me that the characters have internal lives and stories.
The images start out as notions that struck me for whatever reason. I don't give a lot of thought to what they mean or what the story is before I start, but things happen when I'm working. Accidents are always the elements that stimulate growth, it's like evolution. Right now I'm working on a drawing of a little girl... When I started it, I quickly scribbled in the facial features, and the way the mouth looked made me think it was like my grandmother as a girl, so that's the direction the drawing took. I try to pay attention to those accidents — I think interpreting accidents can be a way to release imagery from the unconscious, kind of like interpreting a Rorschach test.
EP: Over the past couple of years, you have moved away from painting realistic figures, and begun drawing from the imagination, rather than photo references. Your figures have become lithe and attenuated, at times achieving a prepubescent lankiness and at others a sinuous grace. You use light to give your subjects a very solid, dimensional feeling, and your low horizon line and flat backgrounds often make them seem as if they could be standing in front of an old-fashioned painted backdrop. Tell me a bit about the evolution of your aesthetic, and what these choices represent in your conceptual landscape.
AW: I really want the figure to feel monumental, in a sculptural, larger-than-life kind of way, so that the viewer is confronted with the character as if it were a real person. One moment of discovery happened when I was drawing a boy in a Batman costume out in a windy field. I liked the subject, but I didn't feel like I was connecting with the character — in that context he was just a "type." So I wiped it out, redrew him in the center of the paper as big as possible, and it immediately worked. With the focus entirely on him, it allowed me to develop him as a subjective individual. I think a character has to have the type and the individual working against each other to be interesting.
EP: Many of your paintings feel like a moment in a dream. Is dreaming important to your conceptual process?
AW: Dreams are one of the sources of ideas, but there are a lot of sources. I think any artist has to have an access to the unconscious, and for me that access is granted slowly as I work — drawing and redrawing an image, stepping back to consider, and letting the image take on a life of its own. It's very rare that an initial idea makes it to the final stage completely intact.
EP: You once said, "The desire to see into the unknown is what inspires me the most." Why do you think the life of the imagination is so compelling for us today? Are we wired for wonder, and therefore driven to pursue the unknown and intangible as a substitute for the very real mysteries our forebears contemplated?
AW: The best explanation I have heard was from Jonathan Miller, who did a PBS series about religion. He said that when our ancestors heard a noise in the dark, they didn't ask, "What's that?" They asked, "Who's that?" — which was an important distinction, because a "who" was probably much more dangerous than a "what." From that question, maybe we can explain the birth of myths and gods in the minds of our ancestors. Trying to come up with explanations about strangers in the dark has been fertile ground for storytellers ever since, so maybe it is still in our DNA to ask, "Who's that?" when we hear a noise in the dark.
"The Fish Gatherer"
EP: While your ominous landscapes sometimes betray their modernity with telltales like power poles and buses, there is something quite timeless about them that reminds me a bit of the windswept, atmospheric paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Tell me about your relationship with the landscape and your emotional perspective on the forces of nature.
AW: Landscape is a manifestation of our emotions — we all understand this without explanation. Nature is a language. Virgin snow, a fallow cornfield, steep cliffs... in a work of art, it is a priori knowledge that these things are metaphors about people.
In a way, nature is a bunch of symbols just sitting there waiting to be used. Despite their apparent naturalism, Caspar David Friedrich's paintings were all invented in his studio. He used the language of nature to communicate about internal conditions, relationships, politics, and religion.
EP: Charcoal is a limited and notoriously tricky medium, yet you use it to create large, detailed compositions. What attributes does charcoal have that make it one of your most trusted tools?
AW: It's a very easily changeable medium, which can be frustrating, but that's also a strength. If you have quality paper, you can erase and redraw charcoal forever. It's very direct — it's like direct impulses from the brain to the paper without technical concerns getting in the way. Graphite gets shiny, but charcoal is just pure shades of grey, which is what our visual sensation of things is, minus the color. So I think that's why it lends itself so well to achieving a sense of atmosphere, like black and white photography.
EP: Though Chris van Allsburg's earliest children's books may have appeared too late to have been a part of your childhood, there is something in your charcoal work that is reminiscent of the strange scenarios he depicted in books like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Would you say van Allsburg's work has been an influence?
AW: I have heard that several times. I admire his work, but I think the similarity is coincidental because I haven't spent very much time looking at it.
EP: Your paintings are sometimes compared to those of contemporary art star John Currin, whose figurative work is more grotesque and sexual than yours, but probably shares a number of influences. While you seek to instill your subjects with a sense of dauntlessness and heroism, Currin usually appears to be satirizing or mocking his. How do you feel about that comparison? Is it a facile observation based mostly upon the dearth of figurative painters in the contemporary art scene, or do you see it as a valid correlation?
AW: John Currin is definitely an influence. When I saw his retrospective at the Whitney in 2004, it really blew me away. I had forgotten that painting was supposed to be fun! Most of his paintings are a joke in the form of a caricature, yet he has obviously invested a huge amount of time and energy learning the skills of the Old Masters. That combination of virtuosity and prankishness is such a strange combination, it's what makes his work so unique and unexpected.
EP: You seem to have a fascination with tunnels. Is there some memory or image from your past that makes them particularly meaningful to you?
AW: Not only tunnels, but holes and big black areas are things I keep returning to. As far as tunnels specifically, scenes from the movies The Fugitive and Kurosawa's Dreams made me feel the tunnel entrance was a very poignant image. It's a loaded symbol about death, as in a threshold between one reality and another, and rebirth, as in the start of an underground journey... which is full of symbolism itself.
EP: Many of your paintings began as ideas that occurred to you while reading novels. Could you tell me about a couple of those images, and what books inspired them?
AW: Some books and poems have evoked feelings that I wanted to put in paintings. A poem by Charles Simic was in my head when I was working on a drawing called "The Lesson." His poems are more like stories, and that particular one is about a boy who goes bathing in a river. His clothes are stolen and he has to covertly run home naked at dusk as the city lights start to turn on. I was affected by the off-balance, in-betweenness of the situation. I love the idea of being in neither one place or another, but in-between, which is the feeling in the drawing. Other times, a few words from a novel spark an image I want to sketch. It's usually totally removed from the context of the story, and if it ever becomes a drawing or painting, the end result has very little to do with the original source.
EP: The simple yet mysterious paintings of Edward Hopper have been among your strongest influences. Like yours, his lonely, psychologically isolated figures have a sense of being shaped by light – of having real form and weight – and they often appear to be facing up to some unwelcome truth. What do you find most compelling about Hopper's work?
AW: You put it very well. What can I say about Hopper that hasn't been said? I love his characters' relationship to the environment, or lack of relationship. His people seem to be in another place in their heads... their empty expression is, I think, paradoxically what makes them feel like real people. One of my favorite paintings is of a woman sitting in an automat, with a big dark window behind her reflecting the overhead lights, extending out into infinity. There is so much mystery in that big dark space behind her. The lack of any specific narratives makes it so inviting to impose some of my own.
EP: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
AW: I go through phases of being influenced by different artists, but there are a few I keep returning to, like El Greco. I'm always moved by the strength of his compositions, the intense dark and light patterns, his energetic brushwork, and the way the figures are integrated into the environments. In regards to the relationship between nature and emotion, his paintings are emotional in every aspect.
EP: If you could have just one classic artwork from history in your studio, what would it be?
AW: If you asked me again in a month it might be a different answer, but right now I wish I could have Bruegel's "Hunters In the Snow."
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?
AW: I want to do something very big and very black, with a person emerging from the blackness. It's like a vision I've been having.
EP: You have a museum exhibition running from June 10th to August 22nd at the Bakersfield Museum of Art. If we venture up to Bakersfield, what can we expect to find?
AW: 18 pieces, charcoal and oil paintings. It's a representation of the themes I have been exploring for the past 8 years or so. Collectors have loaned back some of my personal favorite works for the show, and there are also a few new pieces.
EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
AW: I want to make the best painting that has ever been made! Which of course is impossible, because there is no way to measure that, so I'm doomed to failure. More realistically, I want to feel inspired, and fulfill my own potential, which I don't think I have come close to doing yet. If I am able to resist external pressures, it will happen one day.
Aron Wiesenfeld lives in San Diego and is represented by New York's premier figurative gallery, Arcadia Fine Arts. His exhibition at the Bakersfield Museum of Art opens on June 10th. In addition to the opening reception, there will be a preview talk, barbecue and live music, so it will be worth the trip! Hope you can make it.