For the Los Angeles–based painter Aaron Smith, the male figure has always proved an inexhaustible subject. In the Silver Lake home he shares with his husband. Tom Moore, the artist displays a cherished collection of early photography. The collection’s focus is on Victorian and Edwardian dandyism as well as the physical culture movement. Smith has produced a new series of paintings based on some of these photographs, featuring portraits of bearded men, with titles culled from Victorian street slang. Despite their historical origins, the new aesthetics of the paintings tend to draw parallels to a playful relationship with the male persona expressed within various contemporary subcultures. Freak folk, steampunk, bear culture, and beard/moustache culture are a few demographics that celebrate and manipulate traditional masculine archetypes. Smith’s paintings seek to compress and heighten these relationships.
Smith attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where he is now an associate chair. Galleries in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York have mounted multiple solo exhibitions of his work. He was the first artist in residence at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Aaron Smith is represented by Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Los Angeles and Sloan Fine Art in New York, where his next exhibition opens June 1.
The Advocate: Why are you an artist?
Aaron Smith: I’ve always wanted to spend most of my time with paintings, whether they are mine or by others. I crave that moment when I get lost in the work. At the same time, that’s when I feel most present, alive.
What catches your eye?
I’m interested in masculinity in all of its beautiful, dangerous, and ridiculous forms. These days, in my work, it’s all about 19th-century-man style, but I want to overwhelm much of the nostalgia with expressionistic color, texture, and gesture.
Tell us about your process or techniques.
I start by reacting to the photographs I collect. I take a very direct approach, applying thick paint to panel. The lack of color of the source material lets me create the color relationships I want. It’s my goal to imbue the figures with bursting vitality despite their stoic poses.
How do you choose your subjects?
Subjects seem to choose me. Over the last few years I’ve gone from mostly narrative concerns to formal ones. I want to convert the sensual appeal of a thick beard, for instance, into the sensual appeal of paint strokes and color.
How do you describe your work?
The belle epoque on acid.
What makes a good artwork to you?
I always look for authenticity in art, no matter the style or theme. To me, the artist’s idiosyncratic mark-making can convey a sense of intimacy and immediacy — states I cherish in most things.
What artists do you take inspiration from and why?
Like the subjects I paint, my influences often come from the turn of the last century. Swiss modernists like Ferdinand Hodler and Cuno Amiet as well as the Nabi painters of France inspire me with their color and clarity of design. Contemporary painters like Peter Doig, Nolan Hendrickson, Allison Schulnik, Kyle Ranson, and Ryan Mosley make my heart race.