Aaron Nagel’s paintings are gleaming examples of how affecting oil paintings can be; they grab you at first look and require more than a passing glance- demanding you give them your full attention. In our interview, he unveils some of the mystery behind his alluring figures, and the text and religiously-charged iconography that accompanies them. Not a man to shy away from challenge, Nagel in fact seeks challenge in working with oils, a medium he says he could work with every day for the rest of his life and still not scratch the surface of. He personalizes the classical forms of religiously art for a contemporary, secular audience and he does so with delicate precision. Look below for more on how his design work influences his painting, what draws him to the female form and his plans for 2012.
You’re a highly skilled self-taught painter – how were you introduced to working in such a technically complicated medium?
I can’t remember what originally pushed me towards oils. I think initially I was just curious about the medium, and got some cheap oils to play around with. I had painted with acrylics for a few years, and then a combination of the two before I moved to painting exclusively with oils. Oils just seemed much more suited to what I wanted to paint, and infinitely challenging.
Why do you choose to paint in an age where art can and does take so many forms?
Oil painting is my favorite form of art, and it would be regardless of whether or not I painted myself, so I suppose that’s at the heart of it. I really appreciate the history behind it too, namely the idea that despite a couple of small details, the application has been basically unchanged for hundreds of years. It’s just pushing pigment and oils around on a canvas. the simplicity of that is very appealing to me — unlike some modern art, there’s nothing to figure out aside from whether it speaks to you or not. There’s no standing in an art museum staring at a string nailed to a wall or a pile of bricks.
Execution is also important to me in appreciating art, not just the final product, so aside from loving a particular painting, I also very much need to (or prefer to) respect the ability of an artist. I’ve always felt oils are a very honest medium, in that you can’t really fake it, so I guess I aspire to meet the same requirements I judge others on. This is not to say that I won’t try my hand at another form of art at some point, but I feel like I could easily paint every day for the rest of my life and still not feel like I’ve scratched the surface of what is possible with oils.
You also work as a web designer, which is pretty much at the opposite end of the artistic spectrum. Can you tell us a little bit about how your design work informs your fine art work, and vice versa?
My design work definitely informs my painting. I do approach composition in the same way, in that I’m very conscious of the “weight” of elements in a painting, and often rely on using symmetry and more graphic elements (type, outlines, etc.) to balance out a piece. Design is a huge part of composing a piece for any artist, and I think having to exercise that part of my art brain on a regular basis might make it easier for me to be aware and more deliberate with design. I’m not sure that my paintings have informed my design work so much, as the biggest difference between the two is functionality.
What drew you to working in portraiture?
I’ve always been a figurative painter, so much so that I don’t think I’ve done anything else despite years of intentions. Portraiture feels like the most basic aspect of figurative painting; the only purpose being to capture a subject in one’s own way. I appreciate that simplicity, but also enjoy the structure. I find it more and more satisfying as I get more comfortable with it, but it only becomes more challenging…subtle changes in application do as much to the feel of a piece as subtle changes in expression…it’s endlessly entertaining. Plus, there are certain subjects that I find so beautiful that having the honor to simply try and reproduce and interpret that beauty is really all I need and totally satisfying.
Do you strictly work with the female form for any conceptual reason? Have you ever painted a male nude?
I occasionally do portraits of males, but I reserve my non-portraiture stuff for women… primarily, for aesthetic reasons. Conceptually, there are a ton of different directions I could go in painting women, but my first concern is always painting something that is visually pleasing to me. Plus, starting with something beautiful as a reference is always a good jump-off point for a painting. I can totally find beauty in any body, be it male or female, but there isn’t really any comparison when it comes to which would make a better subject for me.
How do you try to push the limits of such a classical form of painting, in order to create something relevant to this specific point in time?
I’m not necessarily trying to push limits; I’m just trying to paint something that’s relevant to me personally. I’m also not very conscious of what is relevant to this point in time either, but more what is relevant to myself and people that may have similar views. This mainly applies to my interpretations of iconography and religious art: I love the impact and grandeur of the genre, but as an atheist, can’t relate at all to the subject matter. So I’m doing my own.
How do you choose the references you include in your work? Is there some kind of over-arching narrative?
I always approach subject matter from an aesthetic point of view first: if it doesn’t look cool, I probably won’t paint it. After that, I just play around with references to religious imagery, sometimes very subtly, and sometimes more overtly. I do have a fondness for imagery that is meant to convey love and religious commitment (the crucifixion, martyred saints, etc.) but is so dark and ominous in nature.
Can you give us a little bit of insight into what the background text in your work is talking about?
I use the text as a graphical element and to create mood foremost, but it is all actual text. Usually they are old Latin phrases that I find particularly appropriate to a particular piece. Lately I’ve started to encrypt passages from various books using codes, which is super nerdy, but I like it (plus, I’m running out of Latin text, with it being a dead language and all). I avoid text that people can read straight off (hence the Latin and codes) so that the actual meaning of the text doesn’t distract from the piece. Plus, I like the mystery; that there’s an aspect of those pieces that has to be figured out.
Are there any elements that you would like to maybe try experimenting with in the future that you haven’t quite incorporated in this latest body of work?
There is one design element, the pin-striping around the portraits that I discovered during the prep for this show that I’m really happy with and will likely continue to expand on in the next series. Aside from that, I would like to both pursue more stylized portraits like the “Royalty” series in this current show, and larger pieces in the vein of “Shrapnel” — that one was a little out of my comfort zone and I’m happy with the outcome. Also, it’s always been my intention to paint some large baroque-like narrative pieces, and I’m approaching being comfortable enough to attempt it.
What’s on the horizon for you, both personally and in regards to your artwork?
I’m looking forward to working on the next series already and starting to plan out my 2012, which will hopefully include a New York show. Aside from that, I’d like to work a little larger and spend a little more time on the big pieces – and work with lots of new people. Personally, I’m going to try not to work myself into the ground, and better manage the three jobs I have.