George W. Bush makes an excellent zombie. It's a fact- his dead and hollow
eyes, shambling posture and shit-eating grin lend themselves all-too-well to
the post-apocalyptic, brain-eating makeover. I found myself confronted with
just such an image this July; in Colombus, Ohio's Mayhan Gallery. The
artist was an old friend of mine, but the hell-fire-infused political
commentary going on in his recent work was entirely new to me. Having
struggled through the dense and abstracted work he'd been producing for
years, I was astounded to find such lucid and moving images, such
accessibility. Utilizing a blend of blue-collar Biblical imagery, horror-film puke and
gore, and transcendent post-war leftist politics, Aaron Zimmerman has
crafted something equal parts revolting and attractive. End-Times Visions
as dire warnings, the wages of sin that led to the current atmosphere of
terror in America laid bare. This is Fourth World War commentary as I've
never seen it.
Adam: You grew up in Appalachia, came of age in Columbus, Ohio (at the
Columbus College of Art and Design) and finally settled in Manhattan
(following an MFA at the School of Visual Arts.) I'm curious what you've
taken from each locale, and how those experiences continue to influence you.
What first comes to mind when I mention West Virginia?
Aaron: When you first mention Appalachia I think: home. Then I think:
family. Huntington,WV is such a comfortable and tranquil place compared to
Most of my immediate family are in West Virginia or Southeastern Ohio and
most of my closest friends too. I feel at ease when I'm there. It's my
womb. But there's also the dark side of Appalachia that comes to mind: the
racism, the poverty, the lack of education of so many people, the religious
conservatism, the cultural backwardness, the trash, violence and rampant
obesity. These are all things that lurk in the Ohio River Valley and make
it what it is. All of that is part of me and influences me still.
In Columbus I felt a sense of bleakness and despair that I've felt nowhere
else. It's so flat and barren there that the winds blow a hole through you.
It can feel like you've got on wet socks in the winter all the time. I
really felt a lot of pain in Ohio. Despite all that, it was there that I
learned talent didn't mean anything unless you developed a vision through
hard work; lots and lots of hard work.
In New York I've continued to develop the work ethic, but social skills have
meant so much more. There's something about the skyscrapers and pace of
this place that inspires ambition. That's wonderful for a goal-driven
person like me. I've always been an artist, on some level, to gain a sense
of self awareness through solitude. To learn that (being a successful
artist) is as much about the opposite has been really tough. But I
regularly walk through my neighborhood, take in a deep breath and think
"This is where I want to be. This is awesome. I can live here and survive."
Even after 7 years and so much bullshit on every level I recognize this is
my home and I'm happy about it.
Do you feel that time spent in Appalachia continues to inform the work that
you currently produce?
I chose this kind of representation and a garish Garbage Pail Kids meets
Frank Frazetta aesthetic because I know that Middle America understands
realistic representations of things as "art worth something". To the average
American, Norman Rockwell is the best, but Jackson Pollack and Donald Judd
are shit. "My kid could do that!" I heard all the time from Elevator
operators in the Upper East Side apartment buildings I delivered art to.
So I wanted to use that type of representation to reach beyond the art world
to communicate to that kind of person about the war, the Bush/Cheney
administration, American gluttony and over-consumption and the lack of
separation between church and state that we see so heavily influencing
foreign policy in the Middle East. These are issues I have become supremely
aware of as a result of the darker side of Appalachia I mentioned earlier.
How long did it take you to overcome the initial culture shock of being
transplanted to Manhattan?
A couple of years. But I'm still not over it in a lot of ways. The
proportion of attractive women here boggles my mind.
And the class differences are astounding. In West Virginia and Ohio even
the well-off families are just barely middle class. Here there's such a
staggering amount of wealth that it's been hard to understand the values
that spring forth from it.
How vital is your current locale to the work that you produce?
It has everything to do with it especially considering most of what I do
involves the emotional fallout associated with living through 9/11/01.
Superman Sleeps speaks to that, as well as the new illustrations. The
brutality, bloodshed and trauma that we witnessed that day and are sheltered
from by America's self-censoring media in Iraq is, I feel, most boldly
experienced in this country here in New York. Also New York offers the
possibility of reaching the most amount of people in the shortest amount of
time with your work because the means of cultural production and
dissemination are centralized here.
I have to admit that it's been amazing to watch the transformation you've
undergone these past 3 years. Without belittling the quality of your
previous work, the post-9/11 material has really restored my faith in your
ability to effectively communicate to your audience. Rather than wandering
through some intentionally obscure abstractions (as was often the case with
previous work), we're treated to images that speak loudly and directly, but
allow us to draw our own conclusions. I see "Superman Sleeps" as the starting point for a lot of that, and I
wanted to talk about that piece a little bit more.
I think it's important to understand your process for that performance- the
image alone says a lot, but I know that in preparing for it you underwent
voluntary sedation, and I wanted to bring that out. (I think the
"materials" used to elicit the performance are as much a part of the
statement as the image itself.) Can you give us some background on that?
Well, I had done a similar performance as Scooby Doo for a show at Syracuse
University's Spark Gallery. With that the message was about being sedated
by the influence of mass media just before reaching some kind of pivotal
pschological breakthrough. "Asleep at the escape hatch door... " it read on
a chalk board posing as a trap door on the floor of the gallery next to
where I slept. But Superman became an important symbol for me for two
reasons. First, because I'm always getting called Clark Kent by people on
the street and secondly because my psychological defense during the days
after 9/11 was to sleep and sleep and sleep. I would put in like 16 hours a
day during that period. What was going on was just so overwhelming that I
simply shut down. I had no job, nowhere to go during the day except my
girlfriend's apartment, and making art seemed ridiculous. There was so much
volunteer work going on. So many were rushing to pour out support in so
many different ways, but I was psychologically disabled. I felt guilty. I
wished I could have done something.
Then I realized that most of America was doing this very same thing, except
there was no guilt about it. Here, inside us all, was the capacity to live
up to all the patriotism and nationalism we were holding out to the world as
a badge of courage in those months when we invaded Afghanistan, but no one
was truly doing anything to affect change. Our powers of good were asleep,
like a passed-out apathetic super-hero. It all seemed to fall into place to
create this performance piece that I felt compelled to realize. Then the
opportunity to actually do it arrived when the curatorial responsibility for
the Homeland Security show at 450 Broadway Gallery fell in my lap.
What sort of reactions did you receive, and did you make any attempt to
document the interactions that invariably occurred with the audience as you
performed "Superman Sleeps"?
The reactions were good. Ward Sutton and the stArt group from Judson Church
came to the Homeland Security opening and loved it. They asked John Jodzio
and I to be in a show there which was a great honor considering the
tradition Judson Church has for supporting those seeking political asylum.
Their support for performance art in the sixties is pretty legendary as
well. To be contextualized in the group of political cartoonists Ward
gathered for that Show was again an honor. To be in a show with The Onion
guys, This Modern World, Tom Tommorrow, Ted Rall, Robert Smigel and the TV
Funhouse crew and a slew of contemporary political cartoonist was awesome.
But mostly at the opening of Homeland Security my coworkers from Crozier
threw shit at me. And yes it was recorded and yes there is a video of it
and yes it was exhibited at the "Failed American Idols" show at Iron Monkey
gallery this past spring. Copies are available for 20$ on VHS and 25$ on
DVD. Get yours today.
Huckster. Your recent work exhibits a directness of image and message that sharply
contrasts the more abstracted concepts and execution of your earlier pieces.
What has inspired this shift?
Those earlier cartoon paintings were heavily influenced by my education and
a desire to fit into the art world as it was in the late '90's. My
professors at SVA like Jake Bertot, Jerry Saltz and Gary Stephan, had a
direct hand in their manifestation. So did the success of (classmate) Andy
Collins, Inka Essenhigh, Giles Lyon, and other people working with flat
color field abstraction and cartoon surrealism. Moving away from that time
in art history and those teachers has meant investing more of my energy in
self exploration and genuine self-criticality. Also, after 9/11, I feel
like the last thing the world needs to see more of is light, fluffy, vague
abstraction. So, I've been investing a lot of energy over the past couple
of years in getting at the root of what I am as an artist and more
importantly as a person without regard to art history, academia, art world
conventions, and other constructs that dilute personality and lived
experience into the gestalt of time and society. I think I'm getting closer
to saying things with my work the way I see them in my head. It'll never be
good enough to satisfy my inner vision, but striving toward satisfying that
union is a life long pursuit. I'm happy to be expressing things with more
of myself at the forefront, but I'm not happy with it at all yet. This new
stuff is just the beginning. I have a lot more work to do. These are just
I want to continue to apply intelligent thought with regard to a certain
indirectness, so that my work will resonate like a well-placed metaphor in a
poem or fiction, or a great point made in an argument.
I think you've begun to accomplish that. Pieces like "Jesus Walks On the
Pipelines" and "Weightwatcher" offer up some sublime metaphor, while still
carrying a directness of image that allows the Average Joe access to the
work. How critical is accessibility to your work at this point?
Utterly indispensable. Likened to the apprehensibility of an episode of
Barney or the sight of a head on collision.
It seems as though you're engaging some increasingly traditional influences
as well, reaching into that corner of the art world that Middle America
identifies with and can relate to. "Soldier" offers an oddly fascinating
blend of styles and images- you've practically "remixed" elements of an
existing painting into this piece. I was hoping you could discuss some of
these more pervasive influences and how they are entering your work, your
intentions towards them and what it has been like to work with such loaded
The process used to create these images was simply a collage technique with
adjustments and revisions made in the material execution. "Soldier" draws
from Albrecht Durer's depiction of Armageddon, for the chest piece. It
seemed relevant to the hubris with which America is fighting its war on
terror. Angels killing the unrighteous. But that image is supported by
soldier's legs that come from the G.W. Bush action figure, which in turn was
based on his infamous flight onto the aircraft carrier where he pronounced
victory in Iraq.
You can draw your own conclusions from that. In terms of loaded and charged
symbols, using Jesus in art was pretty difficult. He's such a charged
figure with such a tremendous weight historically. I mean shit, our very
system of naming years is based on his birth. That's huge. So I tried to be careful with him.
You characterize your current paintings, drawings and etchings as bearing a
certain realistic garishness. This gruesomeness is contrasted and paired
with the strongly iconographic religious images you invoke. These images
are spared the "garish" treatment, and appear with a certain reverential
Bringing in issues from my Fundamentalist Baptist Right Wing upbringing
seemed really important for this work. My grandmother and father are always
talking about the return of Christ and how important it is that we support
Israel and eradicate Muslim because it's sending innocent souls to hell
because they aren't getting saved, and how Bush rules because he's a
professing Christian etc, etc.
The war in Iraq is a holy war to them. I wanted to say things in a way they
would understand. So I drew on the tradition of rapture paintings in
folk-art to evoke this sense of awe over the second coming. The contrast of
garishness and inspiration speaks to the conflation of American idealism and
the reality of warfare as distorted by mass media. This work is as much
about the mythologization of the war as another step toward the second
coming as it is about the problematic perception Americans have of warfare
(it being perceptually on par with a horror film for most of the
media-desensitized American public.)
I witnessed some first-hand reactions to your work this July, most notably
the woman who described "Lazyboy With Rage" as being "...the most disgusting
thing I've ever seen" Do you in any way delight in having induced such
Well of course I do. Don't be silly. But it's to expose something vital
our culture is missing. The news mutes all the violence and bloodshed
associated with what we're involved in in the Middle East. I want to show
that directly, because I'm certain John Ohio and Jane Wisconsin have no idea
what it really means to fight in a war. Unless they have children or family
there in which case my heart goes out to them and wish all the love and
support in the world that their loved ones get back safe. The idea of war
is confused with movie violence and TV drama so that there's no real
difference between "The Dawn of the Dead" and The Book of Revelations or
between Entertainment Tonight and FOX News.
What has inspired your decision to employ "gross-out" tactics?
Somehow our right to consume 2/3's of the world's energy and goods has come
to mean "freedom". People in the Middle East are blowing themselves and
others to bits, blood and guts are everywhere, and people are losing
everything they own and everybody they love so we have the right to shop at
Walmart and drive around in gas-guzzling SUVs, getting heart problems from
the morbid obesity they've ended up with from McDonalds burgers and fries.
That is what's really repulsive to me. I'm just reflecting that.