One Million Years of Painting: Temporality and Monumentality in the Paintings of Aaron Fowler
By Manya Scheps
In the long run, we are all dead.
-John Maynard Keynes
Time has an eerie presence in the paintings of Aaron Fowler, a fourth year PAFA BFA student and native of St. Louis. Punctuated by glints of brands and designers, the works reach back into a narrative of art history and a lifetime of intensely personal moments. Fowler attempts to stop it, all of it, from fading into the forgotten or from moving too quickly into certain self-destruction. His paintings teeter between the two, imposing six feet of layered and splattered explosions, carefully blocked shapes and fields, and stone-flecked spray-painted ground. They feel so hard they might break.
In describing the sculptural work of Dan Flavin and his contemporaries, Robert Smithson writes in his 1966 essay “Entropy and the New Monuments” that unlike the history-centric monuments of old, new minimalist sculptures “seem to cause us to forget the future.” He goes on:
Both past and future are placed into an objective present. This kind of time has little or no space; it is stationary and without movement, it is going nowhere, it is anti-Newtonian, as well as being instant, and is against the wheels of the time-clock…Time becomes a place minus motion. If time is a place, then innumerable places are possible…A million years is contained in a second, yet we tend to forget the second as soon as it happens.
Smithson goes on to postulate that these artists’ reduction of time annihilated any value of “action” in art, furthering his discussion of post-industrial culture and the entropic condition of civilization. Though the Primary Structures exhibition that Smithson was referencing is a far stretch from Aaron Fowler’s studio on the 10th floor of PAFA, the glitching temporality that Smithson identifies is traceable to Fowler’s approach to representation.
Sourcing his own photographs, Fowler paints characters from his hometown in deeply intimate and haunting situations, recalling their shootings, their funerals, their indulgences. Careful not to become polemic and sopped with judgment, the paintings incorporate ambivalence of subject and obscured gestures — Fowler never shows all his cards. This is not to say that the artist masks himself behind his work; on the contrary, he was forthright about his personal involvement with the images during an afternoon I spent with him in his studio. But through Fowler’s deployment of the instant, his jamming together of a million years in a single canvas, he evades the moralistic overtones that might otherwise drown out the voices he seeks to preserve and monumentalize.
Set after the funeral of a close cousin and a family friend, respectively, Happy D-Day, Ali and RIP T-Jeezy are immense in their physicality. Each piece is a massive, two-panel mixed-media display of figures that loom over the viewer, asserting their hollow gazes. Blanketing the background with a solid gloomy color, the paintings do not allow for any room behind the confrontational facade of brands, shapes, and figures. The whole of the painting is at the very near foreground, suggesting only a few inches between the viewer and the wall of figures. There is hardly a point of entry — in the nooks unoccupied by labels and gestures we find only a swath of indeterminate space or an explosion of black paint.
Happy D-Day, Ali is a preservation of a preservation, a painting of a photograph of a singular moment in the artist’s past. The branded accessories and alcohol, the specificity of the clothes and hairstyles, even the men’s poses, all seek to lock the painting into an instant. And while the drips of oil and acrylic point to the painting’s aggressive rapidity, the canvas sinks in the quicksands of time. We know it is a moment, but what moment? Where? The fact that the painting is of a sixtieth of a second does not help to locate it; rather, the scene swallows itself in ambiguity.
This very uncertainty in space-time points us to a future, or perhaps a feeling of a future. Though the scene is a party, there is a grimness undercutting the celebration. The post-funeral reception feels tenuous and fragile, despite the figures’ best efforts at affecting nonchalance and dominance. This vulnerability manifests most concretely in the dangling Louis Vuitton wallet in the lower right corner of the canvas. The wallet is attached to the matching belt, but the black and brown streaks make it look as if it has been dropped by the hand emerging from the edge of the frame. The motion reifies the suspense in the scene while construing its source. It magnifies the sense of instantaneity, as if everything is in the air for just that moment, the whole scene paused before the crash.
More monumental is RIP T-Jeezy, which is a compilation of those involved in the funeral of Fowler’s brother’s close friend. Standing in the middle of the scene is T-Jeezy himself, undead, though with no uncertain red splatter out of the back of his head, and dark drips pouring from his eyeless sockets. Friends and family surround him, all vying for attention, which, within the space of the painting, is akin to an immortality of sorts.
Just as in Happy D-Day, Ali, there is a whisper of a future destruction. As an analog, note James Ensor’s enormous painting Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889 painted in 1888. Though the painting precedes Fowler’s by over a century, Ensor’s carnival without joy echoes within Fowler’s pictorial space, twitching at the edges. Fowler’s more ambiguous gestures mellow Ensor’s blatant cynicism and bitterness, replacing assured impending doom with melancholy. The parade leader’s erect sword gives way to T-Jeezy’s blown out crotch — the central symbol of masculine drive destroyed, though no less prominent. Ensor’s obvious jeers turn into Fowler’s smiles of presumed genuineness, though they still assert the power of the gathering. Faces are blurred, shadowed, hollowed, and entirely forgotten, leaving the viewer’s eye to wander from outfit to outfit without ever fully entering the crowd.
I’ve concentrated primarily on two paintings, though Fowler’s other work deserves mention — not simply because it is remarkable, but because it deals with the same ambiguous use of time. Newer bodies of work draw from photos taken during a night out at a club. The figures pose dramatically, dripping their fashion and bright colors, in front of backgrounds that suggest (quite fantastically) a Caribbean beach scene or a glamorous red carpet. A large-scale work-in-progress depicts rows of young women affecting their sexiest gazes, twirling their handbags. These paintings locate a singular moment within a field of thousands of presumably similar others. In replacing the figures’ individual identities with blurred shapes and eyeless faces, Fowler redirects specificity to the universal. The paintings become powerful not for their universal empathy but rather for their democratized accessibility.
Let us now return to Smithson’s remarks on Primary Structures: “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future.” Aaron Fowler’s paintings are monuments—not necessarily in their homage to his life in St. Louis, but in their displacement of temporality. An instant is reified as more than itself through a painterly dance of masking and revealing, pushing one back and drawing one out again. Time is somehow both central to the painting and largely unknown; brands and clothes fasten the scene to the particular, but to a particular emptiness as well. The past is quietly mourned, used as an instrument to foreshadow a grey future. These new monuments, these that are “a million years contained in a second”, dismantle potential definitions of themselves as paintings. Fowler thus opens up the possibility for varied interpretations of his work. These space-time bubbles protect against judgment or loaded diatribes; they are steadfast in their ambivalence. They are monuments without memorials; time lingers on.
Manya Scheps is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied fine arts. She is the editor of New Asshole and co-founded Talking Pictures, an art theory reading group, in West Philadelphia. Her critical focus is on DIY art, its production, and its social implications.