Above the Grid: Thomas Aaron
Thomas Aaron’s (NAP #96) birds-eye visions of natural landscapes shift the viewer’s perspective instantly. His paintings offer us satellite-like images of the earth, highlighting both nature and man’s imposition upon it.
His work reflects something of a combination of photographic realism and fantasy, as Aaron’s forced positioning of structured order, gridlines, and commoditization of the earth is projected in subtle earth-tones and paintings that somehow evoke peacefulness and calm rather than violence and degradation. - Elen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Ellen Caldwell: Man’s use of the grid has always intrigued me, so I loved reading about the connections you make between man imposing a grid on land and nature's reaction to it. Can you discuss this a bit more, particularly in relation to your paintings?
Thomas Aaron: The western landscape is slow. I remember the first time I visited family in Virginia and saw trees sprouting up like weeds in an abandoned field. Land here in the desert keeps a record of human interaction much longer – it heals at a lethargic pace. A flight over the Great Basin will show you 150+ years of “western” history in strange trails and roads and current or abandoned projects of one type or another. (Native cultures were much softer on the land before that so their impact is harder to see.)
EC: That is a great sentiment that “western landscape is slow.” And I love the idea that you are tracing a history of the earth, much like counting and exposing the rings of a tree. Please discuss this more in terms of your grids.
TA: The PLSS (Public Land Survey System) established a paradigm in the minds of the people who came here to claim their piece of America. It created a way to conceptualize, divide, and control and by extension commoditize the vastness of the land. The lines were drawn. The fences and roads began to conform to the grid. Salt Lake City itself conformed rigorously to the original survey plat because it was a planned city and didn’t grow up naturally. Some divisions of the grid space were cultivated and other sections were left untouched. Fence lines and roads are barriers to livestock, and even native heard animals. Grazing takes place on one side of a fence and not the other affecting the mix of vegetation. Before long the flora of certain areas begins to conform to the grid.
This cadastral system is visually obvious in the aerial views of the Midwest where all the land is cultivated. But here in this slowly changing arid land, it’s tenuous and fleeting. The palimpsest of humanity is subtle, but it’s all here, layer on layer. There are few places that don’t bear the signs of our interruption. From trails to farms to nuclear testing sites.
EC: I really find the work fascinating. How did you first become interested in the grids as a means of exploring a human relationship to the land?
TA: I live in Salt Lake City and I grew up here in the west. Traditional landscape painting is pervasive and for good reason. The landscape is inescapable and from my earliest memories I have been attracted to it. I wanted to paint the landscape. But most expressions of the landscape are idealized and romantic. I saw that romantic landscape at times but never in isolation. I also grew up in suburbia so my concept of nature was always framed in terms of human control over it.
Our relationship with land is not just a visual panorama or an Arcadian farm or a strip mine but a complex stage of politics and ambitions that encompass all that and more. Land is at the heart of the history of humanity. So I began to search for a way to talk about the land as an amalgam of ideas and history and with this appreciation of the complexity of the landscape I wanted a more detached methodology to approach it. I decided on painting Townships and Sections of the PLSS as a way of separation. It let me treat my work more as a document. Not a document of exact quantifiable reality but of experiential reality.
EC: What kinds of media comprise your "mixed media" you use in these works?
TA: I usually use acrylics with spray enamels and spray primers to various effects. I like to stain the acrylic with oil glazes. Commercial acrylic latex sneaks in there in the right circumstances. I use a lot of graphite, ink, pastel, oil pastel, wax crayon, and charcoal. I’ll often add sand, coal, powdered marble dust or iron powder to the mix. I also use paper correction fluid quite a bit. I really enjoy that clash of materials. I just kind of pick stuff up that feels right and go. It’s all ad hoc. That doesn’t mean I don’t consider my choices but that consideration comes before and after the moment.
Right now my work isn’t focused on material issues per se so I let subject take a more prominent role than material.
EC: Will you explore similar subjects in your next shows?
I just finished some work for a show in Michigan where I pushed the prominence of the grid far more than in these NAP works. I think the future is filled with more back and forth between exerting prominence and dissolving the edges of the grid. I also want to make more mono-material works.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.