The artist, who has worked with a variety of media, discussed how racial identity influenced his process.
Growing up in a multiracial household, Aaron Coleman has found his identity in visual art through the synthesis of different aesthetics. The Henry Zarrow Center for Arts and Arts Education showed an exhibition of Coleman’s prints titled “Nothing to See Here” for February’s First Friday.
Coleman was born in Washington D.C. to a black father and white mother. From a young age, they taught him about the “unfair aspects of society and how to be a good human” with acceptance, tolerance and patience. He spoke extensively about how he “had a hard time finding a ‘tribe’ and figuring out where to fit in.” He was unable to completely connect to either racial group, instead seeking to find ways to blend the two and find his own identity.
With this goal, Coleman found inspiration in hip hop culture and graffiti art. Artists like Afrika Bambaataa blended different genres of music: the jazz and soul Coleman associated with his father in combination with the folk and pop his mother listened to. Here, Coleman found a way to understand his identity. While performing in hip hop groups, Coleman recognized another way to synthesize his identity in graffiti art. He described being able to “recontextualize what already exists” by imagining the industrial landscape as something new and personal.
Graffiti became a starting point for Coleman’s work with comic books, both of which he described as “low-brow imagery.” Coleman began to use images from “The Death of Superman” in conjunction with religious imagery because of their structural similarities: both are stories of salvation and atonement of a people by a supernatural being, sacrifice and ultimate resurrection. Beyond this, Coleman described thinking that “stained glass windows are the graphic novel of the religious world ” because of the simplified forms, bold outlines with bright colors and stories of good and evil.
Using a combination of comic book and religious imagery, Coleman found a way to comment on the world around him using synthesized aesthetic vocabularies. An overlaid image of Lois Lane being pushed against a wall atop the Virgin Mary is titled “Akin’s Annunciation,” in reference to Missouri senator Ted Akin. In arguing against abortion rights, Akin had claimed that a woman’s body had ways of preventing pregnancy if she was raped, meaning that “legitimate rape” could not result in pregnancy.
Between projects that necessitated deep contemplation of the injustices of society, Coleman described needing a break. He found solace in creating more abstract collages with an approach he would take to landscapes rather than the serious social issues that weighed on him in other projects. Coleman discussed the importance of “just making stuff” and creating art for its own sake by working without a set plan of action.
During a period as an artist in residence in Massignac, France, Coleman revisited these social issues after having found porcelain blackface figures made in 2015 at an antique shop in the city. Coleman also drew from images of Mickey Mouse, whose original design was inspired by elements of blackface minstrel shows in creating prints during this period. This was around the same time that Colin Kaepernick took a knee and was subsequently ostracized from the NFL. Coleman saw this as an “unbelievably horrible portrait of the people we live around” and sought to explore the phenomenon of “second-class citizenship” black people experienced.
In his exhibition at Zarrow, Coleman shows a collection of small prints created by cutting apart various source materials in collages. He describes the therapeutic experience of sorting through hundreds of pamphlets and pages to find specific images in perspectives that fit his composition. Coleman ended his lecture by quoting a music producer, Nate Harrison, in saying that “history demonstrates that a society free to borrow and build upon the past is culturally richer than a controlled one.” Coleman uses the idea of borrowing from the world around him to create new ways to understand different perspectives in his prints.
The prints exhibited at Zarrow encompass a wide variety of aesthetics from assorted source materials. Each print, although only a few square inches in size each, introduce viewers to thought-provoking imagery. Many works convey a post-apocalyptic tone with a combination of ancient Greco-Roman architecture and busts with more contemporary images of people, technology and nature.
Coleman draws from his inspiration in cathedrals to incorporate architectural elements and intricate designs but introduces nuances to alter this vision. He adds striking and contrasting colors through the inclusion of contemporary figures alongside the subdued tones of the marble sculptures and architecture. His merging of Classical and contemporary images allows viewers to experience a world outside of reality that is still connected to a recognizable visual vocabulary.