Aaron Koehn’s work may appear to be materially minimalistic, but its simplicity often belies a complex and extremely diverse artistic process. Using readymade images of the melancholic and objects of the ordinary, his work obsessively creates an abstracted representation of day-to-day life. Koehn’s interest in abstraction does not limit itself to a psychological ideal or pictorial mark. Instead, he places his entire studio practice and the work that results within an abstract endeavor, his works are traces of an intense looking and questioning process. Koehn was born in 1983 in Cleveland, OH, he received his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014 and lives and works out of Ridgewood, NY and Cleveland, OH.
Q&A with Aaron Koehn
Questions by Emily Burns
I feel that I am at a distinct disadvantage seeing your work in photographs instead of in-person. Is this something you think about when making such detailed work in a world of social media and jpegs?
There definitely is a world of experience in the circulating and dispersion of art through jpegs and social media, but there is also a very strong world of receiving a work of art in person and all that goes along with that. That said, I feel the disadvantage you were talking about speaks to the objectness of my paintings. I like making work that surpasses two-dimensionality. I’m not that interested in making pictures, however I do understand that the majority of my work is dispersed and experienced though the jpeg. I think the translation from object or experience into image is really amazing and complex, and I am constantly riffing on that cycle throughout all of my work.
Can you give us some insight into your process? Are you working from photographs or found source materials for the floor/tile paintings?
Everything I do is always based on something I encounter in my day-to-day life. Sometimes I begin with a photograph as a source reference, this serves as an underlying architecture to the framework of a painting. Or sometimes it’s just a shape that interests me. The beginnings of a painting are so important to me, I try to really meditate on it and figure a lot out before I start, using sketches, photoshop or just some simple calculations in math/geometry. Though once a general layout is established, I try to respond more to what the painting needs than what my preliminary ideas were depicting.
Are the surfaces (always floors?) in these paintings from particular places? If so, is there any significance to the location or reference?
My work is shifting and evolving all the time, these “floor” paintings are what I am working on right now, but I have a lot of other work happening in my studio as well. I am constantly fighting for my road to not narrow. All of my work references something that I’ve encountered or experienced, this can happen by going down an internet worm-hole, or while waiting to use the bathroom at my coffee shop. Things just hit me as I go through my day, and I like to take those moments back to the studio and try to figure them out. During that attempt to figure out an idea or an image, something new gets made. Once a piece gets made, I respond to its significance more than where my initial references come from.
Your paintings are incredibly precise—are you employing any tools such as computer software, or hand-cut stencils, etc. to maintain such rigorous perfection in the edges of the grid or repeat patterns?
From a distance they do have a visual precision, but up close, these paintings are filled with inconsistencies and blips. Like you mentioned, photos tend to hide these qualities in my work. Even though my surfaces are 100% flat, there are so many hidden marks and embedded shapes that can really only be seen up close and in-person. I am deeply invested in a viewer's optical experience and how your eyes fill in the gaps for a line that might not be there. I enjoy this phenomenon, and for me it translates to the world outside of art as well. For the last six years or so, I made a lot of work totally void of my hand as a gestural tool. I was using a lot of CNC machines and flat-bed printers to create images that only existed on a computer’s screen or projector. However, right now I feel like it is extremely important for my hand to be fully present in the work. I do use photoshop or a printed photograph to figure out proportions and scale, but after that, everything gets drawn by hand. I draw directly on layers of masking tape that then get cut out directly on the canvas. Each cut layer turns into a stencil informing the next level of paint and tape.
My paintings start off with an incredible amount of control. It's really the only facet of my life that I can exert that much exactness to. They have a tendency to fall apart quite a bit while I'm working on them. But I like that. I set out with a control, and in the chaos, something happens.
Are you using sanding or removal processes on top of painted surfaces, or primarily direct-painting techniques?
My approach to painting is always in a state of flux. With these, the surfaces are built up heavily by using squeegee-like tools that I make to smooth paint through hand-cut stencils. The process somewhat emulates grouting tiles or skim coating a wall. The layering is built up much like a cmyk process print, splitting tones based on their overlapping color. My history with UV-printing has entered my approach to painting in that way. I try to exhibit as much control and consistency as possible, but once these surfaces get built up, they become a bit of a mess. Then, yeah, buffing it all down to one flat even surface is where the painting takes its final shape. Sanding acrylic paint comes with a lot of challenges--it's extremely time-consuming, it's where I lose any sense of control, it can even destroy the whole painting--but I enjoy the process. The topography of the tooth in the canvas used and how it melds with my paint is essential too. I try to emulate the surface quality of glass or a freshly waxed car. I’ve never waxed my car before, but I can see why people do it.
In works like Drain (a stunning painting) the surfaces are incredibly precise in their imperfections. What are some of the challenges to recreating such regimented, yet imprecise details like tile work?
Thank you for saying that about my piece. My approach to painting is probably backwards in comparison to other artists. I might spend weeks picking away shards of tape that bonded with precious layers, but to me that is painting. There's a real slowness to making these and I hope that the viewer has a similar experience in their duration with them. You use the word “recreate,” and I think about that action a lot. The information and ideas that I bring into my studio are all sourced from outside references or places, so in a way I am recreating particular scenes or scenarios. But specifically, I want to recreate the psychology or philosophical presence that was felt in my encounter. That presence in space is important to me, but I don't think the viewer needs to know the significance of that space or thing. The paintings transmit all the viewer needs to know.
I am really drawn to the abstractions that occur in essentially naturalistic paintings. Have you always worked in a realistic style?
Yes and no, I've always been drawn to abstraction but don't think I've ever made abstract paintings (from an art historical context). I am captivated by the abstraction of my everyday encounters and the things around me, my work stems from that relationship. This quality might take the form of something recognizable or naturalistic, but I just find the “thing” in itself to be a point of abstraction. I'm not interested in the real, but the reality of how things come to be. Even in my most “representational” work, I never view them as being representations, they are just placeholders for a larger inquisition.
Viewing these works from the front, in photos, I am dying to know what the edges look like! How do you treat the edges of your paintings?
I put a lot of attention to where the canvas meets the wall. The edges act as a reveal to my ideas. They show the meeting ground between canvas, process, painting and architecture. I place a lot of substance on this meeting ground; it's where the work falls apart, meets the wall and gets put back together again by the viewer. I think a lot about this relationship. I try to preserve a portion of my edges with the raw weave of the canvas as a reminder of the painting’s support system, the rest of the sides are a section cut of the painting itself, showing the layers and fragments of what is happening on the surface. With the edges of my work that are caked and deckled with paint, I take a really sharp blade and edge trim all that off, squaring off the sides of the surface to the wall.
What is one of the most exciting things happening in your studio right now?
Remembering… every day I come to the studio and try to remember where I left off the previous day.
What is a typical day like for you?
My weekdays and occasional weekends are typically filled with some sort of freelance art handling job or something in the construction / fabrication realm. Because I pull so many ideas while working, whether installing exhibitions or while at a machining shop, these work experiences are constantly informing my paintings. My evenings and most weekends are reserved solely for working at my studio, and I try not to compromise that. I’ve been fortunate enough to have chunks of time where I’m able to work on my own projects every day, but that’s not always the case. I work best at my studio in those extremely concentrated time periods where I can just live and breathe whatever's happening in there.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently? What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
The Kerry James Marshall show at MET Breuer was probably one of the most important and complex painting shows I've ever seen in my life. Francis Picabia at MOMA was also really powerful but for different reasons.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Art Power by Boris Groys was and is a highly influential book for me. George Kubler’s The Shape of Time is also a book that I revisit constantly. Currently, I’m reading Dada art and ant-art by Hans Richter.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
“There has to be more fuel in life than just coffee and cigarettes.” -Arnold Joseph Kemp
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far? What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
Music has a huge role in my studio. It totally has the power to shape my state and in turn shape the mood of my work. I try my best to control that state or psyche. I'm really into Chances with Wolves on East Village Radio, Matthew Dear, Plastikman, a lot of Ghostly International artists, etc. There are a handful of podcasts (Car Talk, being my favorite) that I like to listen to while I work, but it depends on where I am at in a painting to really be able to hear and digest information other than what my work is communicating. Occasionally I’ll stream some sort of television show in the background while at work. Though sometimes I work in absolute silence.
How do you interact with social media, both personally and professionally as an artist?
I'm a total voyeur on social media. My presence is pretty minimal but I digest a lot from it. I like Instagram as a means for image dispersal and information about what's going on and where. But the never-ending scroll gets to me sometimes.
Who are three emerging artists making some really exciting work right now?
Nicholas Irzyk, Philip Hinge, and Veronika Pausova.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Aaron and his work, check out his website.