Artist Aaron Gilbert on Bypassing the Rules of Capitalism
This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Darker Issue, no. 365, winter 2021. Order your copy here.
Aaron Gilbert is a Cuban-American artist who lives and works in Brooklyn. His work is symbolic, spiritual and enigmatic, and finds relationships between the transcendent and the sacred and modern everyday life.
What struck me about your work the first time I discovered it was its very clear relationship to the sacred, and the way you intertwine it with the daily life of ordinary people.
The sacred is what I am invested in. Decipher how we access a power that transcends the entire material structure of this world. I would say I operate on the idea that none of us know how powerful we are. None of us know what we are capable of or why we are here and for me the most interesting thing about being alive is trying to decipher that, unlock it and be a transformative force in the world. I’ll try not to go too far with this, but basically-
No. No. Go all the way.
No matter who I am nearby at all times, I think there is this possibility that they are carrying something that could unlock something for me and, I can for them. I tend to focus on these very subtle and intimate interactions with people who are close to each other. If you described it over the phone to someone, it wouldn’t sound monumental. But then, as I started to build the picture, you see the presence of these larger historical forces.
Aaron wears all of the model’s clothes.
You paint everyone’s eyes in a similar style. Why is that? It kind of improves my sense of the spiritual and the sacred at work. There is another world to all these figures in these paintings as if they had passed to this other sphere.
I’m not sure exactly why I’m doing this, but I think it’s something that points to a mythological reading. It draws on older painting traditions that were more symbolic, where the architecture, the scale, the figures, in fact all the decisions were made to show different hierarchies of meaning instead of dazzling you with their realism. . Maybe that’s an answer. Another is this shell, our exterior, and then there’s this thing inside that we identify as the self. It’s amorphous and really hard to pin down, so the eyes alienate the connection between the two, or it creates that distance and separation between them.
I guess that’s part of one of the things that leads me to think of the vernacular, in the sense that you don’t read it like a sham. They are confrontational. It is truly mysterious and emotional.
It’s nice to hear. There is something there with the reference to the vernacular. I am not trained and I have never done classical painting, I have never been interested in it. I’m more interested in my own idiosyncrasies.
But when you talk about those intimate relationships, those moments between people, it inevitably reminded me of early Italian Renaissance painting where there are those quiet moments that become revelations, both for the subjects of the paintings and also for the viewer. Is he a role model for you?
I love the moments in the history of painting which have lived on a bridge between two modes of thought, there are these ruptures and these logics between Giotto for example and then Trecento, Quattrocento. Like Fra Angelico, you are still in this world of magic, but you are also halfway in this world of logic and reason. There are these ruptures.
Your images and the context in which these characters and people find themselves are intensely, aggressively ordinary and mundane. For example, the painting of the man handing food to this friend, the bus driver behind the plastic sheeting during Covid. It almost seems local. Do you see yourself as a local artist?
Absoutely. When you look at these greatest spiritual signs, to me they have value in how you can use them to order the way you move in the world you live in. For me, I’m only interested in the spiritual insofar as it helps me guide how I should move in the world today.
I think there is an observation of interstitial, psychic and physical spaces. Just in terms of people’s clothes or the environment they find themselves in. But beyond that, when you talk about the physical world we find ourselves in, the bodies you portray seem to be under the weight of capitalism.
I want this force to be very present. I want him to be as dominant in work as he is in our lives. You have these forces present but then I’m interested in finding where we can access the power that can bend the rules of the game, you know?
Photography Steven Traylor
Chipmunk Mathis Mode
Hair Nikki Nelms (Deana Lawson)
Make-up Sara Tagaloa with MAC Cosmetics
Photo assistance Harris Mizrahi and Joshua Elan
Fashion aid Armando Armenta and Chanti Walker
Makeup Aid Anna Kato
Production camera club
Special thanks to Sunhaus, The Forge, Icon LA, Chroma Center, Karis Dolberry and Jil Sander
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING