by Scott Gleeson
In therapeutic contexts, anxiety is defined as a fear of the future; depression, as sadness about the past. Artist Luke Ahern confronts possible traumatic futures of American race relations in his anxiety-ridden graphic expressions, a practice informed by the past, but ultimately about the future. Working across mediums in painting, drawing, and found object assemblage sculpture, Ahern builds a visual lexicon of familiar iconography identifying a slippage or rupture in the double meaning of the word "court" as it pertains to African-American youth culture. In the artist's work the basketball court, chain link fences, sweat bands, and nets are analogous to the disciplinary apparatus of the "court of law;" and sport, the sphere of ludic activity bound by the rules of the game, becomes a stand in for the "rule of law" and the powers who wield it. A sense of urgency motivates Ahern's painting practice, which is communicated visually in the free application of marks and speed of execution. The father of a mixed race family, the artist uses his creative practice as a means of communicating anxiety about his children's futures and potential discrimination they may face individually and as a family living in the Midwest. Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist the personal and collective dimensions of his work.
How have issues of identity and identity politics influenced your art? How are individual and collective concerns addressed in your work?
This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. For a few years now I have spent a significant portion of my work researching and making work about a shift in my role and relationship to issues of identity politics and race. In 2014 my wife and I adopted two African American children. As a white male residing in the Midwest I have lived most of my life with a particular point of view, which changed after the adoption. I suddenly have to face the force of race not as a spectator, but as a participant through my children. I was born with this shield of privilege; however, when your children are exposed, you are forced to look at the world around you in a different way. I am never targeted for discrimination, but I consider myself a potential witness to discrimination my children may suffer.
Thus, as a father to kids of color in an atmosphere where they are the vast minority, I have a certain responsibility that is profound and important. We learn together about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, slavery, the Great Migration and why the Obama’s are rock stars. I also have to teach them why they have to be more careful playing with toys guns than other kids. I have to try to explain what it means to get called “nigger” on the playground. My perspective has shifted greatly as I see my kids gets looks at McDonald's sitting with a white family. These subtly discriminatory gestures pervade everyday life, and have a damaging effect. The issue is that I am not qualified for this type of upbringing, but it’s my awesome responsibility to raise an aware and responsive family. At the end of the day, I still am protected by a culturally produced privilege that affects every social situation I’m presented with and every opportunity I come across.
My own implicit bias and judgments come to the forefront so they can be confronted. This confusion and tension has changed the way I look at my work and the work of others. So now when I read Conrad's “The Heart of Darkness” I perceive the racial implications of that work. I hear the tension of black artists making work that doesn’t fit their assigned category in Parliament Funkadelic. I feel the power in Kerry James Marshall rewriting histories and images to reflect a distinctly different and oppressed narrative. This has opened up a new avenue of research across multiple fields of study for my work. It also has made my actions more deliberate and focused. I hope to make work that sings like James Brown. On the surface there is color, texture and joyous rhythm. But there is an undercurrent of funk, grit and grease that permeates through the cracks.
How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.
I typically have an array of objects and images in progress in the studio, all in dialog with each other. Ideally I will have at least one large-scale painting in the works while I make collages and drawings in a different space and time. I always have a series of small canvases or objects that collect extra material and act as experiments or tests for other things. Often times these small works lead to huge breakthroughs and end up being more important to my practice than anything else. This practice of having small objects constantly in flux in the studio has been around in my process for a long time. There’s a certain casual freedom that can occur in this mental space that feeds everything else. I also have found myself making dozens of drawings on an iPad in down times. These have been increasingly important in recent months because of their mobility. The iPad allows me to immediately make color decisions and move through formal elements with a sense of urgency that paint doesn’t always allow.
My materials vary widely. Recently, I have been using oil paint, but previously worked with acrylics and collage. Most finished pieces end up being composed of mixed media, often including non-traditional materials as a vital part of the work’s message. Now I am using, among other materials, cut paper, paint, gravel, dryer lint, cattle markers, homemade walnut ink and inkjet prints. I have always gravitated towards the unpredictability that new materials provide. I am interested in incorporating in my work John Dewey’s ideas about haptic experience in art. I use certain materials in the work to stimulate the senses of touch and sound. I want the tactile surfaces to draw you in at times and, at other times, make you want to back away. In his teaching, Josef Albers used to advocate practice before theory, and I think this methodology has always been crucial to my work.
I am a musician outside of my art life and am constantly trying to blur the boundaries between visual art and music in my work. For instance, I see a connection between saxophone jazz improvisation and children playing in a sand box. I embrace improvisation and a ludic sensibility in every object, image, or sound I create.
In the history of art and architecture Eliel Saarinen's unbuilt 1922 design for the Tribune Tower stands out as a work that became influential despite being unrealized. Describe an unrealized project which you consider important to your practice or which you hope to realize in the future.
A few summers ago I read Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”. Then I re-read it, twice. It’s about time for another go at this point. I read it initially out of interest in her body of work loosely regarding my own work and my interest in identity. When I first read through the book I was struck from the very first page of the novel with her use of colors as adjectives. She is understood as a lyrical and generous author who has a power with adjectives, however, in this book in particular Morrison uses colors to describe hundreds of details throughout the pages of, “The Bluest Eye”. As an Albers fanboy, I was really excited. The last two times I read the book I made a list of every time a color is used. This has created this great lexicon of colors that lays out the narrative of her book through abstraction. I plan on using this list that I’ve extracted from her work to make an installation space. I’m very interested in how the narrative would change when approached abstractly only through color and what of Morrison’s depictions would be highlighted. I’ve made loose plans for such an installation and have been rejected from a space or two thus far. As always, each rejection makes the idea better and more important. This project would be a synthesis for my interest in formal color but with a grounding in a crucial text that massively affects my experience in and out of the studio.
What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?
I distinctly remember this painting that hung in my parents house that my grandmother made. She was a painter, but passed away when I was a small child. It was an encaustic painting of a dove that she made with melted down crayons from my dad’s childhood. The painting was executed on the back of a dartboard, and I used to always love to turn the painting around and show people the substrate. I remain fascinated by the choice of materials and surface because incorporating non-traditional materials in art has the potential to connect art with daily life in a way that expresses the gravity of familiar associations. That dartboard formally acted to make the painting a circular shape. It also is an object resurrected for a different purpose from an old smoke-filled basement. The whole thing is about play for me. The dartboard is a game board for playing, the wax is an old set of crayons that were used for a child's play. The act of creative discovery is a constant and serious look at the act of play.
Tell us about a museum exhibition or travel experience that has influenced your practice in a significant way.
In 2014, about a week after having our two children move in with us at the ages of 6 and 8, my family had to take a trip to Washington D.C. While we were there we had the opportunity to tour the White House. We went through the "House" called "White." We saw the red room, yellow room, blue room and green room. My white family with our two black sons walked through this spectrum space. On the walls hung dozens of pictures of white families who have resided there. This pattern was then suddenly broken by the images of the single black family who were living in this space. This experience made me think about color differently. Color exists on surfaces as disguise or decoration. Just like in Toni Morrison’s writing color can act as an adjective but can also go deeper and penetrate culture and concept. Color belongs to art more than any other creative endeavor. That experience in D.C really awakened something for me.
Describe your work as an educator or administrator and how this relates to your personal art practice.
I currently am a lecturer in painting and drawing at The Ohio State University and teach a foundation class at Capital University, both in Columbus, Ohio. In 2015, I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Denison University. I’ve been teaching off and on since my first year in my MFA program at The University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009. Teaching has proven to be an enriching and important part of my creative life. It constantly pushes me to find new artists, new histories and new influences for my students. I am regularly surprised by my students’ inventiveness with form and hope to pursue this type of curiosity in my own studio as well. Teaching also helps me validate my practice at times when it seems absurd to be making art, which is almost always. I am uncertain about the long-term sustainability of teaching, given the poor working conditions for part-time adjunct educators. The climate of higher education needs a reboot, but that is not likely to happen any time soon and there are few incentives to promote change within the system. But teaching is fulfilling for now, and I feel very fortunate each day I get to go into a studio and inspire young artists about the possibilities of painting as a discipline.