Born in San Antonio, Texas, and schooled in Chicago and Los Angeles, the multi-hyphenated artist, musician, and publisher Aaron Curry is an amalgam of diverse but cohesive geographic and aesthetic influences. The selected works in his curated show, Press Your Space Face Close To Mine, at The Pit, reflect the impact of each place on his art practice, including teachers, artists and musicians. In addition to his own installation, there are works by Sadie Benning, Richard Hawkins & Elijah Burgher, Gary Panter, AR Penck, Barbara Rossi, Dieter Roth, Don Van Vliet, John Wesley, Robert Williams, and Karl Wirsum.
Curry’s path from Texas to California is a very American story, and many other artists, including a few in this show, have traveled the same route — from small town to art metropolis, searching for fertile ground in which to make art. He studied with Karl Wirsum and Barbara Rossi when he was an undergraduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and made other connections while earning his MFA at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He met additional artists through David Kordanksy, his Los Angeles gallery and the city in which Curry now resides. Altogether the show is a roadmap of his creative development.
Curry made his reputation with freestanding sculptures that look to be inspired by either the Picasso sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza or Gary Panter’s own interpretation of that iconic image. The work on view in Press Your Space Face Close To Mine (the title is a lyric from David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream”) is largely figurative, graphic, cartoon inspired and colorful, although the genres span a wide swath of art history.
Some of the work at the Pit are from the artist’s collection, and one imagines that the others are firmly on his wish list. The figurative strain that runs through the show starts with the work of Karl Wirsum, who is famously associated with the Hairy Who, a group of Chicago artists who banded together in the late sixties in order to exhibit their work. Wirsum’s work is always fantastical and a little trippy. By his own admission he is indebted to outsider art, Art Brut and art from Mesoamerican and Japanese cultures, but his emphasis remains on color and shape, lending an iconic quality to his twisted characters. Though distorted through the lens of a fun house mirror, his subjects aren’t horrific; his paintings delight in the strength of their visual impact, combining and contrasting static tribal shapes with acid colors and complex, active lines. Wirsum’s 1991 Neon Nose (Case of the Cross Current Crumpet) and Cabaza Big Head Pickle Face from 2002 are prime examples of his isolated images, here on shaped wood. Despite their fastidious execution, Wirsum’s work never looks belabored. On display is his irreverent humor, imbuing his work with both a liveliness and charm that made Wirsum a valued teacher at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago as well as an esteemed artist.
Expanding upon the Hairy Who’s inventive vocabulary were the Chicago Imagists who gained attention over the next decade. Included in this group of students from SAIC was Barbara Rossi, a painter known for her more abstract, lyrical art often painted in reverse on Plexiglas. Dog Gone Heads or Tails (Dog-Matic) from 1982 reads like a diptych with two images of dogs side by side, although they are, in fact, a single painting. One dog is aloft on what appears to be the ziggurat top of a skyscraper, while the other sits upon a mat in an interior scene. Rossi’s subjects are poised for action like pieces of a whimsical game board, playing with scale and meaning with her exquisite use of color and line. Rossi has said that she works intuitively, not having a fixed idea when she begins her work, but her fluid lines belie such an improvisational approach; her paintings skillfully extort the benefit of being precise and loose at the same time.
Picking up the thread of the Imagists is Gary Panter, who left Texas for Los Angeles and now resides in New York. He too finds similar inspiration in comics, music, and Japanese pop culture, but Panter broadens his references with the additional influences of advertising, religion, literary allusions, animation, and current events. He also introduces a narrative aspect that gives his paintings a more active quality seen in the many cartoons, books, illustrations, set designs and comics he has created over the years. Along with the narrative comes a psychological depth. His characters reveal their anxieties, angst and longings when their musings appear in text on canvas, like exploded thought balloons. His work varies from simple, color-blocked paintings overlayed with figures and lines to frenetic drawings, dense with imagery and psychic energy. Throughout Panter’s work, and what distinguishes his art from the work out of Chicago, is the personal, confessional element that is usually hidden in plain sight, adding pathos in an unlikely context.
Robert Williams is represented in the show by his painting Six Eyed Kook as the Very Embodiment of the Anti-Clown. Williams, who had his start working for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, is a homegrown Southern California phenomenon. Revered by the underground comic crowd as well as by art collectors, his aggressive style of painting is as academic as it is cartoonish. His themes are perhaps darker than the other artists in Press Your Space Face Close To Mine, but he clearly belongs in the world that fuses pop culture and lowbrow art with fine art self-awareness. He can adeptly configure a crowd with the assurance of Reginald Marsh but imbues his quirky scenes with a menacing, leering realism more in keeping with Ivan Albright.
The remaining work in the show includes John Wesley, who has been active in painting in a pop art/minimalist vein since the sixties, Sadie Benning, whose minimalist painting fits squarely between Wesley’s work and the modular comic collages of Chicago Imagist, Richard Hawkins & Elijah Burgher’s collaborative paper-mache sculptures. Their three sculptures, SpermCult artifact:Culybator of Eunuchorns, SpermCult Artifact: NeverLand RanchHand and SpermCult Artifact: Adhedonicus Avuncularii, are curious artifacts, recalling masks from various cultures, imagery from the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Islanders and even ugly jugs from the Southeast. Straddling the bridge between found artifact and contemporary sculpture, they are perfectly realized, confident, imaginative work; kindred spirits to the caricatures and visages depicted by the Imagists or the masks worn by Mexican wrestlers.
Curry, deeply connected with artist books as both a fan and publisher of Bad Dimension Press, shows Dieter Roth’s Collected Works, Volume 7: bok 3b and bok3d, a reconstruction of the books originally published by forlag ed in 1961. Under Plexiglas, the two visible pages reveal a dense picture book, an obsessive compilation of collaged images. Roth, originally from Switzerland, began his studies as a commercial designer but in short time began making and reconstructing books with found objects, initially combining text with food, which immediately established his reputation. A.R. Penck, a German artist, similarly began in the commercial arts and transitioned to fine art. Known for his primitive paintings that featured stick figures and graphic symbols, Penck’s works were deemed dissident and kept him under siege in East Germany, where the Stasi raided his studio. Upon leaving East Berlin, he flourished, continuing to paint in addition to drumming in a band throughout the eighties. He recently passed away, in May 2017.
Outlier Don Van Vliet is the only work that seems misplaced in Press Your Space Face Close to Mine. His music, under his better known name, Captain Beefheart, certainly correlates to Curry’s interests, but his abstract oil on canvas, Bad Baggum looks out of place amongst the figurative and comic inspired works. Leaning towards Abstract Expressionism, Van Vliet’s painting largely black and white palette might relate to A.R. Penck’s painting, but the difference is vast between the two. His inclusion may be more sentimental, indebted to his music rather than aesthetics.
Lastly, Aaron Curry’s installation is a fantastical penny arcade that boasts a single beautifully restored mold machine in Mold’a’Rama. Set apart in a small space adjacent to the main galleries, Curry plastered the room with op art papers from floor to ceiling and placed the mold making jukebox of a machine directly front and center, as a kind of shrine to kitsch, toys, art and commodity. Tokens are available for purchase, which when deposited activates the vintage machine. Seconds later, a plastic sculpture designed by the artist is spit out, still warm from the process, a commentary perhaps about the transactional/commercial nature of a working artist.
Curry pulls his diverse influences together in a fascinating show that shines light on these eleven artists in a curious compilation. But step back and Press Your Space Face Close to Mine can be viewed as a metaphor for the artist’s/hero’s journey. Ultimately the show reflects back onto the artist, illuminating his rich process and the impact of these influences on his creative life. Aaron Curry’s trip is worth taking, an invitation to see the world through his eyes and join along.
All images courtesy of Loraine Heitzman.
Lorraine Heitzman is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written about the local arts community for ArtCricketLA and Armseye Magazine and is currently a regular contributor to Art and Cake. In addition to exhibiting her art, Lorraine has her own blog, countingknuckles.com, and her art can be seen on her website lorraineheitzman.com