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Aaron Johnson and Barnaby Whitfield at Irvine Contemporary
Aaron Johnson, Venus at the Mirror, 2009. Acrylic on polyester knit mesh. 50 X 77 inches. Photo: Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary,

WASHINGTON, DC.- Irvine Contemporary presents an exhibition of new paintings by Aaron Johnson and Barnaby Whitfield, Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Supposed to Be, May 1 – June 5. This extraordinary exhibition is the result of an artistic friendship and a personal dialog about being artists intensely engaged in new directions for painting.

Roberta Smith recently observed, “Few modern myths about art have been as persistent or as annoying as the so-called death of painting.” Johnson and Whitfield are part of a generation of artists who know all the arguments and counterarguments about painting, and have made stunningly convincing moves that reinvent the game.

Their paintings and mediums are formally very different and highly individuated--Johnson working with acrylics in a multi-layered reverse painting process, and Whitfield in pastels on paper--but they share important strategies and interests: setting up Romantic beauty and the grotesque as codependents, using eroticism and unrestrained, ambiguous sexuality as a way to connect the personal and the public, turning pop culture and art history inside out, and directly engaging the viewer’s gaze in seduction and recognition.

Johnson and Whitfield are both fearless about diving into the psychological deep end to see what happens in the exposure and loss of the self in the work. They both dig down into the primal Freudian “dream work” in providing images of the psyche’s struggle with the body, sex, desire, death, and mortality. We could call them post-irony Romantics: their works are unrestrained, direct, exuberant. Playing along the margins of the surreal, the baroque, the Romantic, and the grotesque, they continually create surprising and unpredictable images that haunt us with recognitions and wonder.

Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson’s work combines multiple processes and genres in a Dionysian riot of figuration and abstraction, drawing energy from equal parts Western painting traditions from the Renaissance to Ab-Ex and Pop, Buddhist Tantra imagery, cues from Pop high culture subversion, imagery channeled through psychedelia, and the iconography of mass media. The pours of paint and multiple layers in his reverse painting technique mirror the process of creating images by accrual of sources and ideas.

Comparisons with other artists—from Van Gogh, Chris Ofili, and Fred Tomaselli to R. Crumb and Robert Williams—expose how Johnson has moved beyond genre categories. Instead of an easy younger artist homage to Fred Tomaselli and his psychedelic compositions made from mind-altering drug materials themselves, Johnson’s works look like he has ingested a Tomaselli painting whole and produced new kaleidoscopic works under the influence.

Appropriations and gestures from art history abound: some images look like blown up details from a Hieronymus Bosch view of bodies skewered in hell, Titian and Old Master allegories of the body of Venus with the gaze turned inside out, Tantric demon figures converted into surrealist animals rodeo-ridden by miniature pop grotesques, Courbet’s eroticism reinterpreted through gender-bending psychedelic genitals and a profusion body parts, innards, and bodily fluids. Johnson’s works seduce us into an imaginary world of desires and fantasies, a place when the contradictions of culture aren’t resolved but collide in all their irrationality. The works form a psychedelic carnival, a new ecstasy of painting.

Aaron Johnson has been in many exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles , London , Denmark , and major art fairs, and recently exhibited with Irvine Contemporary at the Scope-Miami (2009). Roberta Smith, who reviewed Aaron Johnson's shows twice in The New York Times, has called his works "visceral, beautiful and flamboyantly timely, which is saying a lot." Aaron Johnson has an MFA from Hunter College, and lives and works in Brooklyn, NY .

Barnaby Whitfield

Barnaby Whitfield’s compositions in pastels on paper are lushly pigmented images that seduce viewers by their directness, ambiguity, and masterful figuration. With an admiration for Old Masters and classical drawing, Whitfield creates images that recall the audacity of Gauguin’s Romantic myth-making but channeled through a con-temporary sense of dark beauty, the grotesque, and the complexities of sexual identity. Some of Whitfield’s tableaux of sensually provocative figures, insider art jokes, and kitschy Americana settings could be storyboards for a yet unproduced John Waters art history documentary.

Whitfield’s intensely personal scenes draw from the encyclopedia of painting, modern celebrity and camp culture, found Internet images, and the details of personal life. Having been compared to John Currin, Ashley Bickerton, and German Expressionists, Whitfield has defined a new approach that fuses elements of Romanticism, Classicism, and Decadence in a highly personal style. His compositions often have the effect of operatic narrative tableaux: faces, skin, and bodies seem illuminated by some kind of fleshly glow, but juxtaposed with a dark humor directed at our celebrity and youth-besotted popular culture.

Viewers meet the gaze of the figures with a disarmingly direct and bare sexuality, denuded of pretense. Multiple sexual personas abound in Whitfield’s portraits: his own face and body can appear rendered in the figures of both sexes, often draped with symbolic birds and animals. Whitfield’s use of the grotesque and Gothic for critiquing the follies of contemporary culture has affinities with German expressionists like Otto Dix, whose caustic images of Weimar culture were populated with images of distorted nudes, animals, and death. But Whitfield is more at home with comedy through drag and camp than German angst. The works often convey a delicious Oscar Wildean sense of humor, the Wilde of “moderation is a fatal thing; nothing succeeds like excess.”

Barnaby Whitfield has been in many exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, and art fairs, and has been reviewed in Art in America, Beautiful Decay, and Anthem. With Irvine Contemporary, he participated in New Realisms (September, 2009) and at the Scope-Miami (2009). He lives and works in New York City .

Irvine Contemporary | Aaron Johnson | Barnaby Whitfield |

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