The Indiana Artist Network is pleased to introduce Aaron Pickens, our "People's Choice" winner from our 2020 exhibition.
Aaron Pickens was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. He attended Toledo School for the Arts between 2001 – 2007. In December of 2011, Aaron completed his BFA in Digital Arts at Bowling Green State University and completed his MFA in painting at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2015. After graduate school, Aaron worked as a digital technical assistant for internationally recognized digital installation artist, Erwin Redl. Aaron currently resides in Greentown, Indiana and is an Assistant Professor of New Media, Art, and Technology at Indiana University Kokomo. Both his plein air paintings and toy still life paintings have been accepted into juried exhibitions throughout the United States, notably the Surreal Salon 10 in Baton Rouge, LA juried by Ron English, and both the 79th and 81st Midyear Juried Show at the Butler Institute for American Art.
Artist Interview with the Indiana Artist Network
IAN: What do you like most about being an artist?
I love the process of bringing an idea to fruition visually. It is a hyper-stimulating pursuit, one that requires constant investigation, critical analysis, and labor. Being an artist reinforces a state of being curious.
In addition, art has given me an immense appreciation for the natural world. The ever-evolving landscape, especially the changing light, constantly enriches my day and instills a sense of wonderment and optimism. Although a simple joy, I am always giddy about clouds and seeing green in the sky.
IAN: We understand that you are currently working as an assistant professor of new media in Kokomo, IN. What is your favorite thing about teaching?
I thoroughly enjoy assisting students on their creative journey. Specifically, if I can help a student identify their strength, and/or aid them in cultivating a distinctive, creative voice, this for me is immensely gratifying as an educator.
Furthermore, I get to talk about art and share what I’ve gleaned all day!
IAN: How do you navigate the art world?
To be entirely truthful, the art world is somewhat of a mystery to me. The work that is being produced on the East and West coast seems to dominate the narrative of the art world, and I am currently just an observer. In addition, a good portion of the art world appears to be substance free, vapid, and aesthetically trendy. I’ve seen too many “art” publications care more about curating their Instagram feed based on a distinct color palette, instead of showcasing thoughtful or innovative work.
Therefore, I simply make the work that I need to make and establish connections regionally, either with artists directly or with venues that would be willing to showcase my paintings. I find these connections to be the most meaningful and typically lead to other opportunities down the road. It also helps that I see my work as being distinctly Midwestern.
However, in order to maintain an awareness on the current discourse, I use Instagram extensively to find new artists, as well as follow the evolution of the artists I admire. I will also on occasion read ARTNews or the recent New American Paintings publication as a way to break free from the algorithm of Instagram. Finally, I will periodically apply for various exhibition opportunities as way to show my work outside of the region, typically using Call for Entry.
IAN: Who is currently inspiring you?
So many artists to name, but in terms of painting, I’ve been looking at Nicolas Uribe, Tad Retz, and Caleb Kortokrax.
My natural inclination as a painter is to work in a very methodical approach, typically with a tight application of paint. In order to counter this tendency, I often seek out painters who are loose in their process but still retain a solid structure in their drawing. Furthermore, both Nicolas Uribe and Caleb Kortokrax provide wonderful video content online, which highlights their conceptual and technical processes. Often, I will have these videos on in the background while I make breakfast or drink coffee in the late afternoon.
IAN: What is one short-term goal and one long-term goal you have as an artist?
My immediate short-term goal is to complete a new body of work by the end of 2021. This specific set of paintings will continue to use toys as a way of exploring self-reflective themes – in this case, insecurities that arise from constant judgement and scrutiny. The digital composites are predominantly complete, and more than half of the surfaces have been prepped. This body of work will be my first to incorporate sound design, and a painting on a three-dimensional surface, in hopes of creating a more immersive experience for the viewer.
I also have several other auxiliary paintings that are in various stages of development, either with sketches, photoshoots, and/or Photoshop comps. I often have to take a break from the larger body of work as a palette cleanser. In many instances, this is where plein air painting comes into play.
As for the long term, I simply want to continue to make the best damn paintings I possibly can. If this is my focus, the opportunities that are right for me will naturally unfold. I don’t foresee myself chasing the gallery circuit in New York or attempting to pursue a major museum exhibition. Although these could happen down the line, I would not want this sort of goal to supersede the development of the paintings themselves.
IAN: How has your body of work changed over time?
During my undergraduate education at Bowling Green State University, I was focused on animation and digital preproduction art. It wasn’t until my senior year that I discovered oil painting and quickly felt a connection with the medium. Soon after I graduated with my BFA, I decided to apply to graduate school as a way to fully immerse myself into studying this discipline. While at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, I first started to develop a series of oil paintings focused on a convoluted narrative about robots. At the advice of my graduate committee, I shifted solely to painting the landscape and interiors from direct observation. It wasn’t until the end of my second year of graduate school that toys began to enter into my still lives.
Although the toys and landscapes are likely to stay for a while, how I approach the work will constantly evolve, both with the process, and the content I seek to express. For example, I hope to find a balance in my long form still life paintings where I retain both energetic brush work, and an immersive, luminous end result.
I should also mention that in addition to painting, I’ve worked as a character designer for a small mobile game company and as a video editor/compositor for a digital installation artist. I love having multiple avenues for expression and foresee some of these skillsets being integrated into future projects as a more effective way to communicate my ideas.
IAN: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I’ve always had mentors that have led by example and less by words. I’ve received so many micro lessons over the years that have greatly impacted my worth ethic and outlook as an artist, but none can be distilled down to a singular profound statement. However, I have always liked the quote by Albert Einstein, “Try not to be a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”
IAN: What role does the artist have in society?
Now more than ever, artists are needed in our contemporary society for a variety of reasons ranging from escapism, showing truth, and establishing empathy for others. Art works on a visceral level that goes beyond language and has the potential of mitigating cultural barriers.
IAN: In your opinion, what is a “real” artist?
An artist is someone who makes work that is genuine and sincere. Although there may be a distinction between high art and a craft, they are both valid endeavors for expression. Sometimes, you need to just glue some googly eyes to a rock because it’s fun.
However, with this said, I tend to predominantly look at artwork that is either conceptually thoughtful or honest, and/or demonstrates technical prowess.
IAN: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Likely, I would refrain from saying anything to my younger self. I simply would allow things to play out as they did. I would fear that any advice would negatively alter the outcome.
As an observationally based painter, I maintain two seemingly disparate bodies of work: toy tableaux still lifes and alla prima plein air paintings. Although the conceptual motivations between the two differ, they are both linked by an intense curiosity on process, materials, and the desire to capture light. Evolving in tandem for the last several years, I have found that the push and pull between the two approaches both informs, as well as invigorates, one another.
Toys, in all truthfulness, facilitated my imagination and desire to create at an early age. The act of play was a catalyst for me to pursue the arts and instilled in me an enthusiasm that has consistently fueled my work to this day. With the toy tableaux paintings, I can honor the origin of my creative process, while infusing the seemingly playful narratives with self-reflection and commentary on current social issues.
When designing a new painting for this body of work, I begin to assemble a still life in a child-like manner with objects associated with playtime. Each arrangement is governed by a simple interest in color and form, as well as the narrative or concept I wish to address. Once I am satisfied with the formal arrangement and narrative of each diorama, I begin the process of building the image with paint. I always seek to create immersive paintings that emphasize light and the materiality of the depicted objects. In particular, plastic toys present a unique and fascinating technical dilemma, in which the colors of these forms are often just beyond the gamut of archival pigments. Having technical challenges such as this ensures that the process is exciting and ever-evolving.
However, aside from the technical stimulation, the paintings offer the opportunity for my own observances of the world to be subtly expressed. With toys used as symbols in the constructed narratives, I can interweave commentary on topics ranging from environmental concerns, gun rights, native activism, and even art criticism. These contemporary issues are addressed with familiar imagery in a humorous fashion. The lighthearted veneer is utilized to entice the viewer to look beyond the surface and acknowledge the concept that informed each painting.
Recently, the underlying theme for this work has shifted towards developing a self-reflective, sub-series. After the financial stability of my family was momentarily put into peril, I began to recognize how important it was to maintain an illusion of security. Furthermore, this experience unexpectedly called into question my identity which had been intrinsically tied with my profession. The combination of not knowing how to provide for one's family and unsure of my true self left a sense of helplessness and impending doom that needed to be explored with innocent, playful imagery.
To complement the obsessive, slow-paced, nature of my toy tableaux still lifes, the practice of alla prima plein air painting forces me to work with a sense of urgency. Each small field study is a depiction of a specific time and place, and how I perceived those passing moments both visually and emotionally. Every painting is an adventure in battling the elements, simplifying the complexity of nature, and faithfully recording color relationships to describe an accurate sense of light. These compositions evolve organically, without premeditation or any conceptual agenda. Consequently, working this way yields to a sincerity in the paintings that is difficult to achieve otherwise. Although this process is in stark contrast to my toy tableaux paintings, it is critical in energizing my practice as a realist painter by honing my eye, and allowing me to play with the application of paint.