01 March 2012

The Distance in Your Eyes: Aron Wiesenfeld

Girl with dog (2008)
   Coming from a background in comic books, Aron Wiesenfeld has developed a look in his pieces that is at once misty and lucid, and a composition rich with detail, gravitas, humor, and story which all fuse together to give them astonishing life.

   Even as the pieces are beautifully rendered in composition, precision of brushstrokes, and lighting, they don't rest there. Working mainly in two media: charcoal on paper, and oil on canvas, one of the tremendous assets of Wiesenfeld's work is that it brings up the ever-unresolved debate about the balance of realism and meaning. Of the three or four dozen pieces in his oeuvre, only a handful omit people as their subjects. And that's a good thing since Wiesenfeld's concentration on people makes his work resonate, encouraging us to seek out a story or to find a message to take away. As for what message they might hold, they differ from Jean-Francois Millet's realism, even though they share many compositional resemblances. Millet used his canvases as a social tool by ennobling rural workers, while Wiesenfeld's pieces veer to more metaphysical settings somewhere between the urban outsider feel in Edward Hopper's work, the mysticism of Caspar David Friedrich's work, and the creepy dream-worlds of Odd Nerdrum. Through his characters, Wiesenfeld places us on the outskirts of the suburbs, and sometimes deep in the wilderness. He doesn't flood the pieces with many reminders of our technological age, which is refreshing, but he does drop a few subtle touches in each piece that give us a modern-day context, such as the bared mid-riff outfit in Girl with a dog, the skateboard in Drain Pipe, the Japanese tshirt in The Ending, or the dainty shoes trudging through the snow in The Oath-Breakers. That's part of the magic of these pieces: the choice of objects that make them relevant to urban life, or conversely the objects that rub against rural life. The objects are so slight and so sparsely placed that satire is not the main feel, but rather there is an air of unease that rises up from the settings, underlining how out-of-place the characters are, and how far they are from their urban hubs. 

The Oath-Breakers (2009)
   It is that unease which often lays the foundation for the character to experience a moment of mysticism or existential epiphany, and so the pieces are in this sense the imagined glimpse the characters have of themselves. We are given access to the moment where he or she (mainly she, and mainly white-she) loses sight of her surrounding drama, to become focused only on her physical and emotional immediacies. Thus, we see that these are pieces not only of mirthful invitations for us to create our own stories but simultaneously also pieces rich in the call to meditation and a deep awareness of self and surrounding. 
   After spending time with even one or two pieces, it becomes obvious that Wiesenfeld aims and pushes himself to reach a masterly level, and he is succeeding, even as he manages to retain his sense of wonder and playfulness.

   We had the chance to ask Aron a few questions about his work, and that interview follows below.


Drain Pipe (2010)
YowzerYowzer: Your images have such a dynamic visual style to them; it's clear and real, and yet highly stylized at the same time, which calls Nerdrum's work to mind. We're curious whether you use models or photographs in your works, and whether you use any digital techniques.

Aron Wiesenfeld: I'll take a painting as far as I can without any visual aids.  I can get it about 90% of the way there out of my head, so I think that's where the stylization comes from.  It reaches a point where the painting needs more specific information than I can invent.  Then I use photos or props for help with the non-human elements: clothing, plants, architecture, etc.

YY: We love how your paintings steer between portraiture and narrative to reveal a very liberating and surprisingly-wide creative space that you've discovered. Instead of keeping the people and the backgrounds separate in your paintings, you depict the people deeply embedded within the settings, often the people are in the midst of action. It's a cool creative choice which gives a feeling that there is an entire life or story behind each piece and seems to give us license to make our own stories around the pieces. Do you agree with that assessment?

AW: Thank you. I do agree, most of my paintings are invitations to participate in telling a story.  My experience as a viewer of art is that there is nothing more exciting than a mystery, but it has to be in a world I have been enticed to enter, and care about.  And it has to be a real mystery, not just random elements tossed in, if you know what I mean.                             

YY: So, you're not documenting any specific scene the way a photograph does, but rather you're orchestrating each scene in a particular way, the way a movie director uses actors, costumes, props and settings to evoke various moods.

AW: Yes, maybe that comes from comic books. A comic book artist has to be the actor, director, photographer, etc. I tend to look to painters from the past for role models of storytelling.

YY: In one sense, there is a uniting spirit of contemplation to your work, but looking deeper,   there are many sub-themes, like the Nancy Drew-ish sense of mystery, for example in The Ending, the  Norman Rockwell-like day-in-the-life pieces, deep intimate glimpses into the soul, haunting personalities, worry, contemplation, isolation, and even eery scenes of death. That's a pretty wide range, and only a small part of the themes and moods you've depicted. 

AW: Before, every painting I did looked like it was done by a different artist, but more recently I've been pleasantly surprised to be able to look back on a group of works and see that themes have showed up by themselves.

YY: Rosy white skin seems to come so naturally to you, we weren't sure you would be able to pull off a person of another shade, until we saw your lovely new piece: Delta.

AW: Painting flesh was always my Achilles heel, until I "discovered" how to do it while looking at Rubens paintings at the Norton Simon museum: with each change of value through the spectrum from highlight to lights to middle tone to shadow to darks, alternate the color from cool to warm. With that formula, you can paint convincing flesh tones anywhere on the color wheel.

Soldier (2009)

YY: That method has certainly done well for you, especially in a piece like Soldier. The distinct symmetry brought on by the elongated neck is done very well, calling Modigliani's work to mind.   

AW: She seems Middle-Eastern to me, both the fact that she's wearing a military uniform and that she is like a religious icon.

YY: Ah, the religious aspect does come across in the lighting, and it juxtaposes nicely with the pose and the cammies. It's a pretty intense piece. What can you tell us about Girl with dog? The mist looks so good in a black & white piece. We love the parallel expressions, the terrain. It's simply bad-assed!

AW: Thanks. That drawing came together a bit at a time.  I had sketch of a younger girl, and when I drew it on big paper I liked the head, but decided she needed to be older, and then older, so her body kept getting longer, and I had to add a second piece of paper to the bottom.  The dog was one of the last elements to be added.  

The Ending (2009)
YY: And what about The Ending? That one seems particularly easy to like, what with the colors, the water fading into the mist, and the illuminated foreground. The title is great because it contrasts against the image which seems to depict the very peak of excitement in a mystery story.

AW: Titles are difficult sometimes. I try not to make titles that will distract or add too much. 

YY: By the way, what can you tell us about those symbols on the shirt?

AW: I took a picture of a woman in Japantown in San Francisco who was wearing that shirt.  A friend who reads Japanese told me it's a greeting. I think when you are working a piece for a long time anything that comes along during that time can become part of it.

YY: So your pieces don't come about in one session? 

AW: No, they don't. I love starting paintings, but not finishing them, so I have a lot of unfinished canvases in my studio.  I'm sort of addicted to that initial feeling of inspiration in the very first stages of a painting. When the actual work begins, I get restless, and feel the need to start new things. Sometimes I will pull something out that I had started and forgotten, even years later, and finish it. 

Winter Cabin (2011)

YY: That's fascinating, because they all look so rooted in a single moment. Last question- Is there any way that you think San Diego can grow to better accept quality artwork?

AW: Getting a good art school here would be a start. We are lucky to have a great art museum though.

YY: Good idea. Paying attention to the education aspect of art seems very promising. Thanks so much for your time, and your uncanny images, Aron. We may not come up with the definitive assessment of your work, but you sure have made it fun to try.

AW: This was great. Thank you.

[For more info on Aron Wiesenfeld's work, feel free to visit his website at: aronwiesenfeld.com]

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