PORTRAITS THAT STARE BACK
By Sonia Farmer
Guardian National Correspondent
A bank may be the last place a former hardcore graffiti artist would have ever thought to exhibit a body of work, but last night The CentralBank hosted an art opening full of street art-inspired portraits by artist Arjuna “AJ” Watson.
The title of the exhibition,“Primary Colors”, is a misleading one, for the body of work is anything but simple and subdued. Mugshots and guns abound, portraits of celebrities and locals mix, and the paintings always seem to hold another layer to uncover and decipher. Drawing from urban street art and social modern realist backgrounds with a touch of Warhol celebrity, the year’s worth of work is both dizzying and dazzling.
“Everything that we do is concepts of what we see everyday, whether it be other art, news, someone walking past you,” AJ says. “With all that coming in, it all just collides, it’s like two atoms just hitting together, and those two atoms hitting together is this beautiful car crash that I’ve created.”
The name of the show itself references a collaboration as well. “Primary Colors” doesn’t only refer to red, blue and yellow—it pays homage to the music the artist exclusively listened to while creating the work. The hit CD by the Australian punk band Eddie Current Suppression Ring became the working title for the body of work before becoming its official exhibition name. AJ’s close relationship to a few of its members while he played in his own band “Camel Clutch” continues today.
When they gave him their CD “Primary Colors” to listen to, AJ was just embarking on creating this new body of work in between commissioned portraits. Soon enough, he began to use that music as an anchor to differentiate between his own drawing and commissioned drawings.
“The reason I chose to draw to that album is because I needed some continuity to my work,” he says. “The music by that band became my mantra for what I was doing. It was just right time, right place.”
The conversation between the artwork and the music is apparent in the continuity of the pieces. It’s worth pointing out that the music didn’t inspire the work as much as propel it. If the viewer hears the music while viewing the pieces, as they did during last night’s opening, they’ll be privy to an intense exchange—one that’s fully intended for the public to hear.
“This show is me blurting back,” AJ says.
While the music lends another layer of volume and chaos to the body of work, the portraits can stand on their own in all of their glorious haphazardness. Those familiar with AJ’s work will recognize the same spirit of the graffiti artist come through the enamel and oil paint surfaces on his own constructed canvas. This work is intensely physical with its fierce brushstrokes and fearless approach to color and greys alike, and its politically-driven subject matter promises to be a topic of much conversation while it remains on display in The Central Bank of The Bahamas until May 30.
“This is how I like to paint,” AJ says. “I like to paint fast. I like to paint as if you’re going to catch me. I paint like I’m going to get caught. Even if it takes me a whole day to paint, I’ll be standing for 10 hours, I don’t like to sit and paint.”
Nothing is what it first appears to be in this show, and much lays in hiding, waiting to be discovered by the attentive viewer. An italian phrase over an M4 cannon gun on a red background greets the visitors as they enter; a spray-painted hello Kitty obscures a communist political figure; shreds of chinese script make up a face; even the artist’s self-portrait comes at the viewer at the end of a double-barreled shotgun.
Once the person in the mugshot is discovered, the foreign language translated, the figures distinguished, the viewer will find that far from hidden away, the drawings function to keep us honest. Introspective self-portraiture has no place here—the work demands to be stared at, and make no mistake, it will stare back.