Aidan Pontarini: Death is Short, Life is Long

Interview by Adam Gill

“All the shit you don’t wanna deal with,” was one of the ways Montreal-based Aidan Pontarini described his art when I recently got the chance to chat with him. With titles like Flush Me, I’ve Been Split Purgatorial Entrails and Pee Dick, the content of his work is most definitely and often literally the shit you don’t wanna deal with. That being said, the dark humor with which Pontarini approaches his subject matter keeps you looking at all the abjection with a smile.

As we went through the many drawings propped up against the living room walls of the artist’s Mile End apartment, Pontarini recounted me with the stories behind his various characters and scenes. A self-deprecating rat that’s constantly on the run and eventually breaks down in tears because lack of social acceptance. An anxious convict prior his execution, full of beans, pizza, booze, complete with a broken boner. I also asked Pontarini a few questions about his practice and art more broadly speaking. Here are his answers regarding topics like the current status of painting, boyish adolescence and his upcoming solo exhibition at Galerie LOCK.

Painting is often conceived of as a fixed medium. Do you think your practice complicates this notion? Can a painting be considered as fluctuating or as a dynamic art form?

The fact that painting has been declared “dead” so many times reaffirms its flexibility. If you take a little time to look there are painters pushing boundaries in every direction. A few of my favorites are Jakub Julian Ziółkowski, André Butzer and, more locally, Joe Becker. Although a dilemma I see in a lot of trending contemporary painting right now is that it’s kind of navel gazing and still asking, “what can a painting be?” That’s a rabbit hole argument and one that only other painters tend to care about. So in that sense, if it is a fixed medium it only has itself to blame. I hope that my practice complicates that characterization but I know I’m still far from that kind of impact.

Stylistically your drawings have a more finished look to them than your paintings do. Is this a purely aesthetic choice or are there other reasons behind the apparent difference in execution?

It’s more about what painting can do better than works on paper and vice-versa. I like to see the things only paint can do, like the gooeyness, the psychedelic colors and the range of mark making. Drawing inherently lends itself to tighter work. I’ve always seen Philip Guston to be a real painter and Robert Crumb to be a real cartoonist. Beyond aesthetic choices, the provisionality of the paintings disrupts their order and helps to keep them tentative and alive.

There’s quite a bit of scatological imagery in your work. The abject was a concept appropriated from psychoanalytic theory during the early nineties to group various artworks with similar themes as well as a term used within identity politics. Do you see the abject as a meaningful theoretical concept in contemporary practices or is it just a trendy art world buzzword from a specific time gone by?

Yeah, the abject definitely had its heyday in the 1990’s but it’s been around for a lot longer. Paul McCarthy’s video works from the seventies are still the most abject works of art I’ve ever seen; however, back then, they weren’t mainstream enough to be labeled and categorized into the canon of art history. I’m glad the history I feel compelled to work in isn’t the “meaningful theoretical concept in contemporary practices” because the odds are that in a few years that work will either be labeled reactionary or be getting categorized for the museum. I also think that the abject has proven to be less of a logical stepping-stone in the scope of art history than, for example, movements such as minimalism, abstract expressionism, web-based art etc. I think that is in part because there was no definitive aesthetic that anchored it in time; it was a term that the art world had to adopt in order to explain new ideas that were surfacing in the mainstream. It’s the type of work I’ve always felt the most viscerally affected by and I’m still fascinated by the term’s implications as well as its elasticity.

Dark humor seems to be a central part of your art. Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the carnivalesque, a mode of subverting the normative via humor. Is humor a viable way of challenging or displacing a dominant order?

I’ve always appreciated the scatterbrained, upside-down nature and constant flux the carnivalesque encourages. I certainly feel that pointless, absurd or repulsive humor effectively displaces order; however, I think allegories are a lot more effective and also more subversive when it comes to displacing a dominant order. I don’t think anyone listens to the clown even though the clown must have seen some crazy shit in order to become a clown in the first place.

Would you say your work is ironic? A recurring criticism of irony as a strategy is the way in which it’s a technique that partakes in commentary on any given subject while maintaining disinterestedness. Do you feel that the equivocation or ambiguity of irony necessarily equals apathetic divestment?

Irony implies a level of sarcasm, mockery or insincerity and I try to make honest work. It’s strange to explain but I think there is an element of dramatic irony throughout the work. Dramatic irony meaning that the audience or viewer is aware of something the actors aren’t. In terms of my own work, the figures are so disinterested, or dislocated, from their own immediate troubles that they foolishly carry on through apathy. So in a sense, the work is ironic because the viewers are aware of the figures’ crises even though the characters themselves aren’t. I do think that irony is a deflection of responsibility if its not used subversively, though I generally try to stay away from it.

Much of your subject matter has a boyishness to it. Someone actually described your paintings to me as if produced by an adolescent boy who happened to have the exceptional skill of a trained artist. Would you say there’s a relationship, whether explicit or implied, between this content and some stage of masculinity as conceived within culture?

That’s funny, I’ve never seen an adolescent boy draw a penis peeing on itself or a guy cutting his nose off. For the most part I think boyishness plays into the work inversely to that interpretation. Some of the semiotics are boyish but the boyishness really comes through the unedited nature of the subject matter, not necessarily the subject matter itself. It also comes through some of the clumsy rendering; but overall, certainly not in terms of what is going on in the works. I’m interested in Ren and Stimpy not a demonized Spongebob Squarepants. I do think that the content contests cultural assumptions of the heroic macho male but I don’t consciously consider that while making the works. I think there is an inherent fragility to the male psyche but it is usually kept internalized. The male identity is always under the gaze of others throughout the works, even if the others are dogs wearing hats, stringy blue guys and other absurd characters.

How would you respond to someone who holds the adjectives boyish or adolescent as definitely synonymous with naïve?

I think naivety is an easy label to put on the work and one that couldn’t be more wrong. An adolescent impulse shouldn’t be mixed up with regression or the naïve. Naivety makes me think about pedestrian art made by retirees in their basements. I don’t like the trending term faux-naïve either because that also implies a regression even though it may be deliberate. Shamim M. Momin explains the adolescent headspace best in Beneath the Remains: What Magic in Myth?, arguing that rather than being childish regression “it is the state of being from which mythic space is created: fluid and fluctuating, awkward and antagonistic, creative and experimental. It represents an open realm of possibility in which violence and vulnerability, vision and destruction, desire and anguish coexist”. For me, the adolescent mindset allows me to work without inhibitions.

Tell me a bit more about your upcoming solo show at Galerie LOCK. Does the exhibit have any specific premises?

It’s called Death Is Short, Life Is Long and, like you mentioned before, there is quite a bit of scatological imagery in the work. I’ve made a sculptural piece for it called Functioning Body and it’s a fountain. It’s funny being in the gallery alone because it sounds like someone is perpetually peeing in the corner. Everyone at Galerie LOCK has been fantastic and they are really carving out their own niche. All the artists they’ve shown have exceeded the expectations of such a young space. There aren’t a lot of galleries in Montréal that take on such young talent; I think what they’re doing is really important for the community.