"I'm not an artist," says Aaron Kraten. "Well, I'm an artist in that I'm a producer, but I'm not an 'artist,'" he adds, emphasizing the quotation marks. "Nobody likes to think that some kid who looks like Liza Minnelli makes art."
So that's the Aaron Kraten aesthetic: "kid." (Go ahead, ask him about the relative technical merits of the eight-bit Sega Genesis and Nintendo system processors if you want to check his qualifications.) Though he's really 27, his paintings are loud with the echoes of adolescence—that ticking time bomb of superintense, postmodern, postpubescent craziness (equal parts every emotion ever, cranked to the limit and burned golden brown by the glow of a TV screen) that plops out when you squeeze a cul-de-sac too long and too hard. Okay, so maybe that wasn't your adolescence. Maybe you actually got laid in high school. But Kraten's never self-absorbed or self-righteous paintings capture the anti-romance of a skewed suburban experience with disarming ease. It's not the media-marketed version of adolescence that drifts down from on high. It's Aaron's life, and maybe it's yours, too.
His paintings are a swirl of pop, punk, TV, comic books and video games; they're trash objects, literally and metaphorically, imbued with new energy and meaning. He assembles deep and textured collages of such found objects as Polaroids, old textbooks, pamphlets—pretty much anything he can fish out of alleys—and then washes it all over with thick, deep swaths of color. Then he scrimshaws his characters over them. A lifelong pen-and-ink scritch-scratcher, Kraten has a closet full of obsessively detailed drawings of waifish teenagers; overelaborate tape decks and control consoles; battle-ready, manga-style robots; and all the residual traces of a media-saturated childhood. But he's not a pop casualty, one of those cargo-culters who digs through the detritus of the 1970s and '80s for new icons to venerate. His pop is a language, not an affectation—it's how you learn to communicate when you're raised by the media and which you then hijack and make your own.
His iconic paintings hum with this urgency. They look like graffiti, like propaganda posters, like they're trying very hard to tell you something. In the late 1920s, the Russians had the technique down, compressing a filmic narrative into a single poster and reducing a story to a snapshot. In this information millennium, it still works just as well. Peek at this untitled work (most of Kraten's work is untitled unless he feels like tagging on something snotty): a deep Martian red, latticed with an intricate city skyline. It's so densely detailed it's almost dizzying, but it snaps into focus when Kraten taps the four panels submerged under the city—four people, two each in silver and gold, peering out between the thick black lines. Or this one of someone hovering over a pale-white backdrop of rooftops and power lines—between the brush strokes are the obscured pages of an almanac listing every city in the country. Or the one with the girl growing out of a potted plant; or the one with needles and ties and tiny people screaming at you; or the truncated robots; or the ratty, doe-eyed thrift-store kids looking everywhere except at one another. They're all stories, says Kraten—stories of people fading into their backgrounds, of people lost and disoriented and disappearing, of people like ghosts that you can see right through. Recognize anyone you know?
But still, maybe it's pinning a lot on this kid who really does kind of look like Liza Minnelli, who really has slept in a trash bin, and whose art career—not that he ever wants to depend on his art to keep himself fed—was derailed when a friend puked all over the only slides of his work. And maybe punk is noise, graffiti is crime, and people who write reviews like this just need to go out and get laid. And maybe he's right about being a producer —but that is so much better than being a consumer, which is what it seems being a kid is all about right now. If "authentic" and "real" weren't ad-zombie marketspeak, maybe I'd use them. Instead, if you've had certain experiences in your life, you'll look at one of Aaron Kraten's paintings and see yourself. And if you haven't, don't worry: the paintings will still look very nice.
Aaron Kraten shows some of his work at Crew Salon in the Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-0111. Indefinite.