Interview: Aaron Perkins

Aaron Perkins / Our Sunshine (a Suprematist Lament) / 2017 / oil paint, oil pastel and pencil on canvas / 76 x 51 cm

Aaron Perkins' practice explores how words might function within a painted, rather than grammatical, syntax. Through an abstracted combination of text sourced from cryptic crosswords and news photography, his practice seeks to activate the space between text and image, where any ‘meaning’ inferred is akin to a conspiracy, in that it may only be grasped instinctively or suspected.

From 10 - 17 September Aaron showed us what he's been working on and talked us through some of his processes on our Instagram @inresidence_ari. Interviewed by Miranda Hine.

Miranda Hine: You’re interested in the idea of a meaning constructed between words and images. How significant is the role of audience interpretation for your work, rather than you dictating a single meaning?

Aaron Perkins: I’m pretty skeptical of any claim of unequivocal meaning as there’s an ambiguity in every (combination of) word, image or utterance which, inevitably, requires interpretation. But abstracting words and images and setting them in an ambiguous relationship I’m trying to make conscious that act of interpretation. So, to the extent that my work doesn’t offer any immediately sensible meaning, the role of audience interpretation is quite significant. But, at the same time, my hand is plainly evident there upon the canvas. So each work is also the singular record of an attempt at understanding my own agency among all these words and images.

MH: The poem your friend wrote in response to Introspective Inferno is a beautiful example of a viewer responding to your work in their own subjective way. Do you have ideas for what other forms these responses could take?

AP: When I asked Emmalyn (Hawthorne) if she’d write something responding to Introspective Inferno I didn’t really have any expectations as to what would eventuate. I was just curious about how her reading of the words in my work — which I’ve taken out of context, pulled apart and put back together — might translate across media and between a viewer-imposed relational syntax and a grammatical syntax. Emmalyn’s response just plain gobsmacked me. It’s a playful mirroring of my own process but is also an independent work in its own right. So, as far as other responses might go, I’m open… I still don’t have any expectations as to what might eventuate but I’m still curious about the possibilities of translating my work into other media.

MH: Could you talk a little more about how you decide on the images to use in your works?

AP: I use press or stock photography sourced from various online news services. The decision to use one particular image is, though, fairly arbitrary as any narrative accompanying article is irrelevant. My only ‘rules’ are that it was published on the day of, or immediately preceding, my painting, and that I have access to the same news service’s cryptic crossword of that day.

MH: Text is a major aspect of your work, but not in the coherent syntax and structure we are used to. I’d love to know how you feel about writing – do you enjoy using words to explore ideas, or do you prefer communicating through imagery?

AP: I really enjoy writing. It’s a slow, meandering and always surprising process which is foundational to my work, but it’s a different process to actually making a picture. So, although I use words, their capacity to carry meaning is limited — affected, at least — by their use in a visual medium. (Also, as a slight aside, although there’s a conceptual equivalence between words and images in my paintings. I don’t consider them as equivalent to, or as a form of, writing; my work isn’t concrete poetry, for instance.) But, that said, writing (and reading) certainly informs my work, in that I want it to be read word by word rather than understood at a glance, where its affect isn’t instantaneous but cumulative.

MH: Your painting Our Sunshine (a Suprematist Lament) references ideologies and authoritative narratives present in both Suprematism and the story of Ned Kelly. Are these stories particularly significant to you, or do they simply stand in for more general ideas of authoritative single-voice narratives?

AP: Malevich’s Black Square and Ned Kelly have both been formative for me: Malevich in terms of abstract and monochromatic painting, and Ned Kelly through the various depictions in painting by Sidney Nolan, in writing by Robert Drewe and Peter Carey, and as a caricature in Australiana. What initially brought these together for me was likening the cracked surface of Black Square to Kelly’s bullet-strewn armour and seeing this as analogous to the ultimate trajectory of their ideologies.

What was particularly interesting, though, was the mutability of their icons throughout and beyond this initial trajectory. The visual language of suprematism was co-opted by constructivism and Malevich eventually became this shrunken figure. Similarly, the black square can be seen as a precursor to Nolan’s Ned Kelly, eventually worn by Mick Jagger and being used to advertise petrol stations. So, the “SLIP SLOP SLAP” inscription on Our Sunshine (a Suprematist Lament) was intended as a kind of tongue-in-cheek reminder of this capacity for icons — narratives, too — to hold multiple meanings.

MH: Can you talk us through your physical painting process? For example, what mediums do you use, how long does a work usually take to create, and what preparation do you do beforehand?

AP: I start solving the cryptic crossword in a black oil pastel directly upon the canvas, to a point where either the crossword stumps me or a tension emerges between the marks. I then spray a fixative over the writing, let it set, and get my palette ready. Each work has a tonal range between the off-white of the clear-primed canvas and the black-pigmented oil paint as it is straight out of the tube; the intermediate values are effectively just different levels of transparency achieved through an impasto medium and stand oil. I then put the image down fairly haphazardly and drag a soft brush over its surface so as to soften or ‘average’ the image and remove any explicit detail. I usually complete the work in a single sitting of three to eight hours.

MH: What’s up next for you after you graduate?

AP: After the grad show I’ll be heading back to QCA for honours. Emmalyn and I are also planning a show together looking at the poetic potential of the gap between word and image.

MH: Do you think you’ll be hanging around Brisbane for a while?

AP: For the moment!

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