It sure felt like the end. Sometimes it still does. Even on a dusk walk up the winding pavement from Aaron Curry’s studio to the Hollywood Reservoir, sweet puffy clouds throwing shade. Even then, in all that useless beauty, you can’t really avoid the feeling that it’s all sliding down.
But if it must then we ought to find solace and dance in front of these DOOMSDAY PAINTINGS. What Curry has done here is channel all his fear and anxiety during the Covid years into images that are terrible in fury but light in spirit. The dead giveaway is in the central painting, American Pastiche (2022). Smack in the right-hand corner is a shard of cement that reads “cliché” flying right at us, like a cheap 3-D movie gimmick. Duck! It’s an inevitable by-product of the city-stomping violet and emerald Satanic cock-mouth monster sporting grillz that reads “abstraction” and rains excremental “metaphor” down upon a scratchy cardboard city. Arrayed all around are signs that seek to reassure us: Nothing to worry about here! It’s our friend “Aaron Curry” visiting us with some thoughts: “Doomsday” and “American Allegory,” even as that head drips and those teeth attack and bubble lime. Meanwhile, the burbling galactic realm from whence our beast has come is emitting bolts of light that pop the words as easily as the structures the tropes represent.
American Pastiche (2022) sets the tone for the entire group, which was over two years in the making. The painting, like the large Doomsday Abstraction series, requires Curry to orchestrate elements that at first feel “abstract” but which have real physical potency as illusionistic, fleshy objects rendered with holding lines, nonlinear gleams, and then gentle, dry brushstrokes: red on yellow, green next to brown, or a precise mustard pointillism. All these paint modes indicate that we are seeing a part, but never the whole, of a profuse, generative space. In Curry’s earlier work the cosmos was often a black void into which elements swung; now it’s an abundance of color and form. It’s legible and terrifying partly because it comes from a place of honest horror built upon a studiously art historical ground peopled by Peter Saul, Gino Severini, Robert Williams, Rick Baker, Wallace Wood, Salvador Dalí, Roberto Matta, and Georges Seurat. But it all truly coheres because the space within the entire series is unified, deep, and full of light effects that smooth our way to comprehending disjunctive phenomena: a daintily painted smoke ring plays nicely with jagged architecture, for example.
Curry’s methodical dedication to the project, his sense of developing how we might envision and then actively paint pictures and worlds, is evident in his Doomsday Guck Abstraction paintings and the accompanying set of collages. The smaller paintings each center a single pictorial element like a specimen under observation. This is Curry thinking through his medium— developing, say, the relationship between bone structures and guttural spheres, or yellow crescent mouths and pink scarification; honing his stippling, curvatures, and physics, playing in tight focus with limited color palettes and a variety of finishes. Each of these five masterpieces is encased in a painted wood frame of the artist’s devising—appropriating his scuzz-modernist sculptural language for a display mode, practically Mannerist in exuberance, making each painting an oddly welcoming reminder of the hoary stuff of doom—Day-Glo memento mori. Equally crucial are Curry’s collages, in which he pulls extant iconography from the shelf to mix with his own language of loops, stitched scars, initials, and drips. He collapses the difference between interior and exterior sources, offering proof that his own mix of influences can function unblended and offer hints as he moves through a painting.
If the sweeping panorama of American Pastiche (2022) opens the project, the equally large Star Dust (2022) closes it by filling our field of vision with just a single immense object: a yowling humanoid face. It’s a riff on both the Dalí painting The Face of War (1940) and its popular swipe in Norman Saunders’s 1965 Topps Ugly Sticker. Curry Baselitzed the whole thing and then planted infinite faces in eye sockets, spitting the titular material, even as fireworks of Kirby Krackle surround. Its execution splits the difference between Dalí’s Flemish surface and Saunders’s Brooklyn speed. There’s an argument here, as in the collages, that one of Surrealism’s great legacies and one of our culture’s equally great untapped resources is all the popular culture it spawned—from Norman Saunders to Jim Phillips. For all its horror, it’s an oddly reassuring painting, almost a self-portrait: the artist, upside down, taking in and giving out streams of energy. Curry generously hints that there is still more he might do—art historically, cosmically—eyes to see, mouths to chomp, minds to be blown.
—Dan Nadel, September 2022
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