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When I first met Eric Aho in New Hampshire two summers ago, we were sitting in the grass in front of the bakery at Orchard Hill Farm. We bonded over the best bread in the world (really!) made by his former student at the Putney School, and the next day I visited his studio, just across the Vermont border. I remember being struck by the beautiful mess on his studio floor: bowls of yellow pigment, layers of encrusted paint, wide, loaded brushes, and work gloves. It was earthy and real, like the bread and the vista of farm fields from the day before.
Aho’s works are landscape-based but abstract and painterly. Some are based on the topography of his native New England, while others stem from memories of places visited in the United States and Scandinavia. They deal with the elements and atmosphere more than they record one specific place; his subjects include forest fires, a hole cut through an icy pond, snow, quarries, and wilderness.
Aho received a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and studied at the Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in London, England. He completed his graduate work at the Lahti Art Institute in Finland, supported by a Fulbright Fellowship in 1991-92 and an American-Scandinavian Foundation grant in 1993.
Aho is represented by D.C. Moore Gallery in New York, where he has had solo exhibitions in 2009, 2011, and 2013. His work was the subject of a 2012 exhibition at the Currier Museum of Art, New Hampshire. Aho’s paintings have also been shown internationally in Ireland, South Africa, Cuba, Norway, and Finland. He lives and works in Saxtons River, Vermont.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in New Hampshire, and now live in Vermont. Did your parents encourage your interest in art?
Eric Aho: My father was Finnish-American, and a farm kid, so he could build things, and before he did, he would sketch it out. My mother liked to draw figures, and in high school, she wanted to be a fashion designer. My dad never taught me to fix the brakes on the car. He never taught me to do many of things that he could do, and it was like he was saying, “There are better things to do out there. I want you to live a different kind of life.”
He was very particular, though, and I remember once, I had spent a better part of an hour stacking a cord of wood and he pushed it over and said, “You can do better than that.” I think about that now whenever I stack wood, or frankly, when I attempt nearly anything. But he never said that about drawing, because if it was outside of his experience, there was no criticism. What a great lesson. In a way it was benign neglect: “Just keep going.”
JS: You studied at Massachusetts College of Art. What was your early work like?
EA: I was a printmaker at the Massachusetts College of Art, and I was interested in figurative work. When I was in art school, my whole reason for being was to draw like Degas, with a similar kind of inventiveness, rather than academic precision. I was also deeply enthralled with Ellsworth Kelly’s abstractions and his drawings, which I saw as being part of the real world.
Even today, Kelly’s abstractions feel so real to me: they have their root in the observed world. Shapes derived from the angle of a shadow on a wall become a blue and red enamel form. I could follow that. I understood his practice and admired it. When I was in art school, I saw Kelly’s profile drawing of his father on his deathbed, and I still think it is one of the finest drawings ever made. It is a cold, distant, yet tender drawing.
In 1986 I went to study in London and became interested in Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj and Frank Auerbach among others. I rejected the fashionable art of my time — of the 1980s, specifically Neo-Expressionism — when I was at school. Still, I saw as much of it as I could; I looked at everything. But it didn’t seem to relate to me; there wasn’t enough gravitas for my post-adolescent angst. It wasn’t real enough. It wasn’t of reality.
Now, I see aspects of it appearing here in my painting. I’m more interested in Julian Schnabel now –the sheer materiality of it. It seemed you had to come out of a certain milieu to make it; there was a privilege to be reckless, which I didn’t grant myself until later. What I saw, and what I rejected, had much more of an impact than I ever granted it years ago.
JS: Yes. It is a dominant aesthetic in the art world now: that form of recklessness, which has been labeled “new casualist.”
EA: Oh, is that term really used? I have been describing “the casual eye” for ten years. I don’t think I invented it, but it occurred to me in thinking about John Constable. Constable left London to come back home to Suffolk and Dedham Vale. His landscapes are painted with deep knowledge of how the whole structure of that landscape worked, from its agrarian purpose to its atmospheric incident. But everything was put on his canvas very casually. Constable gave me that idea: it’s not about making something; it is about letting something arrive. It doesn’t have to precise, but it has to be accurate. There is a self-knowing and confidence in the casual.
JS: I have read that you do not work from photography, and in fact, when you were painting images of fire in the landscape, you tried to avoid looking at the news photographs of California wildfires. Why did you avoid it?
EA: I have tried once or twice to work using a photograph as reference, but it polluted my own experience. I am trying to build these paintings out of things I’ve seen. I really respond to paint, although they start with a germ of something I’ve seen. I may have only seen it for two seconds or a minute.
For me, photography ruins it. It takes it away from the fullness of my mind and the aqueous vision, and gives it a very defined, flat source. I do love photography but I can’t imagine using it to reference my work.
JS: When you were mentioning the forms and angles in Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, it made me think of your paintings of the ice cut. How did that work come about?
EA: I have looked at the ice cut for twenty years, thinking about it, but I’ve only been painting it for seven. It is a hole that I cut in a pond during the winter, to jump through after taking a sauna. All of a sudden I decided, realized, I should paint it. I was thinking, “What if this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen?”
The painting is made to scale – the size of the hole that I cut. So it is a weird balance of an observed thing and a completely abstract, geometric shape. I have made seven paintings of the ice cut. They change. Part of settling into my forties is that I get to think of a span of time, which you can’t in your twenties. A painting needs a lot of time. There are threads that I keep adding to.
JS: You started out making figurative work, and I have heard you refer to the idea of landscape itself as a figure. Can you discuss what this means?
EA: I don’t think the paintings would be any different if there was a depicted figure in them. I think about the paint as flesh – it is that unabashed de Kooning-ism. The paint might literally be pink and feel fleshy, or like bubble gum or a woman’s stocking. But it doesn’t have to be pink. If it has any physicality to it, to me it seems like skin. Also, paint forms a skin.
JS: You have several distinct bodies of work in your studio. Can you tell me about them?
EA: Yes, one of these groups of work consists of invented “plein-air” paintings of the French landscape. I am working on a research project exploring my father’s experience serving in World War II. I am trying to put myself in his place in real time, locating the actual spots where he was known to be exactly 70 years ago. These are prototypes, putting myself into the headspace of being in the French landscape in the summer, during the war.
The French landscape is such a cliché of painting. Bonnard was painting fairly happily in 1944. But the soldiers were there for such a different purpose. There were encounters on bright sunny days in the Champagne region, and on the Normandy beaches, which are vast and gorgeous. It is counter to all of our visual reference and ideas about the war, which are black and white. There is something divinely perverse about what I’m considering, examining the beauty of the landscape in contrast to the theatre of the war that played out in it. I’m not painting dead bodies – although the marks might represent this kind of intervention into the landscape.
In general, with these I begin with a certain quality of sky and a band of horizon and then introduce painterly incident into the landscape: a storm or a tide or an action or an event. It is also a way of starting each painting differently, which I try to do each time.
JS: You mention Bonnard painting landscapes while the war raged, and it makes me wonder about your own landscape paintings and your feelings about being apolitical in painting.
EA: Because I have made paintings of fire and paintings of ice, people sometimes assume they are addressing environmental concerns. But paintings are not very effective as activist statements. One of my former students from the Putney School made the recent film “The Bully Project.” That is such an effective piece and part of a wider campaign to change an unfortunate element of the culture. But I am not that person. I’m not set up for it somehow. This vehicle of painting, which I have, is too slow to send its message.
Even Goya’s drawings from the Napoleonic war weren’t seen in his lifetime – or if they were, only by a few; those etchings didn’t go far and wide until later. Daumier had an impact, but his drawings were printed in newspapers, so there was another vehicle. Film and YouTube videos are a much more effective way of reaching an audience with a message. I am just a regular citizen, and I have to believe that it is my vote in this democratic society, which has power.
Painting is never malignant. Even “bad painting” doesn’t hurt people. Painting can be palliative; it can make people feel good. But that is still so slow and quiet that you have to want it; you have to participate. The fire and ice paintings are expressions of the imagination – one open and one closed, in a nutshell.
JS: You mention perhaps getting the germ of an idea from your walks outdoors. Is this how many of the paintings are begun?
EA: Sometimes, but the topographies are often remembered. Recently I made paintings of an area that I visited many years ago, in northernmost Maine, on the Canadian border. I didn’t know this at the time of my visit, but when I was looking through the Maine Gazetteer, I realized the area is referred to as the “Unorganized Territories.”
The whole group of paintings comes out of the idea of the unorganized. It was freeing: they aren’t paintings of a place, they are paintings about unorganized territory. There’s one place called “Square Lake” that is not square. It is remote and wild and there is not much around that we can call wild. I was also thinking about the idea of going as far away as you can go — physically and imaginatively.
Another recent painting is based on an artist’s studio that I visited a couple of summers ago in Central Finland. I saw it, I studied it, and then painted it a year later. The first paintings I made were more graphic in terms of the volume of the painting. Now, in the latest, the only part of the structure that’s left is a drawn green-gray line of the roof. Time kind of fills it in.
It is a 19th-Century studio built by a Finnish National Romantic painter. His work hovered between Romanticism and the Modern. He built his studio from the trees of the forest. The forest was his subject, and also the material for his studio. He lived in the middle of his work. There’s something about how enveloped that whole experience was. The studio became symbolic of an imaginative container. It’s also about possessing something that can’t be possessed: something that doesn’t even exist, because it disappears, it folds into the forest.
I think a lot about what is remembered and what is invented. It is difficult to tell the two apart and in a way, it doesn’t matter. The paintings are fragmented, inconclusive; they are not seamless, they are about interruption. Memory is experience brought forward. Each time you access a story, a past event, you bring forward the most powerful part. After you recall a memory, over and over, you have a strong story, but something of the original memory is gone; it has become crafted. The challenge then is to dig even deeper and discover the part of the memory that has never been accessed.