Thony Aiuppy makes 21st century visual mashups of the sacred, the profane and things in betweenThony Aiuppy creates pieces that address everything from earthly terrorism to divine grace, sometimes within the same picture frame. Utilizing things like “found” or clip art of combat imagery and landscapes, Aiuppy makes oil canvases that address concepts such as ongoing social injustices as they are fueled by sources as disparate as the polymath spirituality of 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to the gritty, paranoiac-fueled visions of contemporary NYC-bred author Don DeLillo.
The 32 year old Springfield-based artist has only been painting for a handful of years, yet locally Aiuppy has been featured in venues including the Vault Gallery, represented in campus galleries at both UNF and FSCJ, participated in Christina Foard’s always interesting group shows and his work has also been seen in shows in Savannah, Georgia and as far afield as Venice, Italy. Aiuppy is also a product of the local art education scene, earning a BFA from University of North Florida. He is presently working on attaining his MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design.
Starehouse spoke to Aiuppy at his studio located at CoRK during the early morning of Saturday, Jan. 26. Below is a transcription of our conversation.
Starehouse: Well, you told me that you’ve read the blog so you’re aware of my mad ranting I try to disguise as art writing. There are no refunds.
Thony Aiuppy: Yeah (laughs) there’s coffee over there if you want some.
S: No thanks, I’m already speaking in tongues now while just on my third cup. What do you pay here a month?
T.A.: With all of the utilities it’s about $245 (laughs)
S: Pretty good!
S: I’d say that Dolf James’ little art experiment is arguably a success (laughs)
T.A.: Yeah (laughs) definitely for me. I needed space and … (waves hand around in the air)
S: How long have you been here?
T.A.: Almost a year. The first part opened – maybe two summers ago? And this part opened last January or February? So yeah, I’ve been here a year.
S: And now you’ve been immortalized in a [photographer] Jensen Hande portrait.
T.A.: Yeah! (laughs)
S: How was that? A cool experience?
T.A.: Yeah, we had a lot of fun. He’s a crazy dude.
S: It’s so weird for me since I wind up getting so much of my background and biographical info from Facebook; me and every twelve year old on the planet. So you graduated from high school in St. Louis – are you from St. Louis?
T.A.: Uh, I grew up in St. Louis but I actually graduated here at First Coast [High]. I just spent a year there, though.
S: Is that right? So you’re from St. Louis though, the Midwest?
T.A.: Oh yeah.
S: So how did you wind up here? Just a family a move or…
T.A.: Yeah. My family moved. My mom met a guy and they wanted to get married, he was from here, but they met up there (…) so we all moved.
S: How old were you?
T.A.: 16. It was a very rough, very rough transition.
S: Yeah? Were you already kind of (…) you know you can reveal as much or as little as you want to reveal about this personal stuff. Just because I can be so self-disclosing doesn’t mean that –
T.A.: Yeah! No, it’s fine. I’m cool.
S: So was it as much the “familial” transition or just being 16 and moving across the country?
T.A.: Well, you know, being 16, moving (…) I had all of these friendships established and you get uprooted and then knowing nobody and then coming to a city that (…) in the mid to late nineties, it was not very pretty. There were very few things going on. I grew up in St. Louis where it’s a lot like D.C. — almost everything is paid with tax dollars so it’s either free or really, really cheap. Art museums are free (…) I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts so I’d go to Busch Stadium for free to see the Cardinals, you know? At that time they had two major sports teams, history, and art museums.S: And culturally you have the birthplace of T.S. Eliot, William Burroughs (laughs), some good free jazz roots out of there, their opera, you have the full range …
T.A.: Yeah, there was tons of blues. There’s so much heritage and they thrive on it.
S: Before I actually started trying to formally interview artists, I had this presumption that everyone started out making art when they were children, drawing or making sculpture – but I’ve discovered that isn’t always true. Were you attracted to creating art when you were a kid?
T.A.: Well, I think every kid in some way expresses that and it’s a form of communication.
S: Yeah, sure but I guess I’m wondering if you were an (laughs) “intense” communicator?
T.A.: Sure, sure, I drew a lot. Some of the things like, I loved reading comic books.
S: What comic books?
T.A.: My uncle introduced me to “The Avengers” so things like that, “The Incredible Hulk,” early “X-Men” … mainly the Marvel Comics universe of stuff.
S: In hindsight, for some artists that has become almost like the art school of the 20th century.
T.A.: Totally, yeah. I grew up in the eighties, so I was exposed to some of the best cartoons ever, so I would translate those, draw those …
S: I know Liz Gibson’s fate was forever determined by “Jem and the Holograms”…
T.A.: (laughs) I watched “Transformers,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” those types of things. But I would watch that and draw those characters and try to make scenes of my own, or create my own representation of “If I did this, this is what they would look like” and I would literally copy comic strips. And being an elementary school, you would have to go to the library for English and I would always pick up art books and monster movie books.
S: Sure, what about [legendary horror fan magazine] “Famous Monsters of Hollywood”?
T.A.: Oh yeah. So, like the Universal [Film] monsters or the really creepy, like “Attack of the Ant People” (laughs) kinds of things (…) I would take those images and draw them, but over time though I got really bad advice that said “Well, if you want to be an artist …” and I thought that I could already do this; I felt like I could. But I guess I was told “If you really want to draw, you have to do it out of your head.” The idea that everything has to come directly from your head and you can’t have any outsider information. I guess I was confused about the idea of inspiration, but now I guess all of that is arbitrary. So I just kind of stopped (laughs).
S: Now how old were you when you stopped?
T.A.: Well, I took some [art] classes in high school but I quit thinking “I should do this.”
S: But what did you then shift to? Was that also as much moving to Jacksonville? (laughs) “This is an art killing place.”
T.A.: Well by that time I was skateboarding a lot and discovering girls so I just shifted to that (…) trying to get out of my house (laughs).
S: Sure. And with skateboarding you didn’t stray too far, since it is such a visually charged scene.
T.A.: Right. And I was really drawn to graphics. So I guess to tie this in to why I wasn’t drawing as much, I took graphic design classes in high school and ended up deciding I was going to do graphic design or become a commercial artist in these sense that (mockingly) “If you’re going to do art, it needs to pay.”
S: Sure, sure; pragmatic albeit non-romantic advice to the young artist.T.A.: I know that people were just (pauses) looking out for me and making me think broader and not have these pipe dreams.
S: Well, it can be an eternally radical move trying to be an artist, whether or not it is even your true nature.
S: When you went to University of North Florida, did you go right out of high school or did you just kind of live and drift? How old are you now, like 30?
T.A.: I’m 32.
S: So you got your BFA in 2010?
T.A.: I didn’t go to college, seriously, until I was 25. So between the time I graduated from high school at 17 and turned 25, I had moved from Jacksonville to Olympia, Washington …
S: Right on — home of (legendary indie rock label) “K Records”! Why there? Did you go there to try and get signed to “K Records” (laughs)?
T.A.: A girl. No, you know it was like, I turned 21 and that week I moved away. This girl I was dating graduated from FCCJ [now FSCJ] (…) she was a softball player (…) horrible, horrible choice for me.
S: So you followed your ball playing muse (laughs)?
T.A.: Yeah, yeah (…) so basically I used it as an excuse to get away. So from 17 I was thinking, “I’m getting out of here (emphatically) I am getting out of here.” And at 21, I had the opportunity. I had taken a few college classes, but nothing really stuck. I was working a factory job. It was nurtured that college was a good idea, but really in my house it was “you get a job, so you can get a car, so you can get out of my house.” So I ended up landing a factory job. Just imagine “The Simpsons” episode where they go to the box factory; that is what I did. I made boxes. And it was horrible. After we move, my girlfriend got an offer for a full ride at this school. I tell her she should take it and I move to Chicago since I have family in Chicago. So for two or three years, I was in Chicago, then I ran out of money.
S: You were bopping around.
S: That all sounds like healthy disenchantment for anybody (laughs).
T.A.: Yeah, but I did no art.
T.A.: Nope; nothing.
S: So what made you return? I mean, you went to UNF as an “art major,” right? That was kind of a bold gesture. What made you get back into this? Did you have some defining moment when you said, “I am going to pursue this?”
T.A.: So, I got married on New Year’s Eve 2005 and we didn’t even do pre-marriage counseling, we were doing that “pre-marital” (laughs) because we were so like, “this is either going to work or it isn’t” …
S: Yeah, but I’d argue who ever really knows? It’s probably as much just effort.
T.A.: I met Melissa and within nine months we were married. Within three weeks of dating her, I’m like “I am marrying this girl. This is the one. Bam!” So in our counseling, we talked about our expectations, I told her that I wanted to go to college and that I wanted to do graphic design. And at that time you probably only need a two year graphic design degree. So the plan was, go to FCCJ and two years – done. Get a job. So we do that and I graduate the summer before the crash …
S: What crash (laughs)?
T.A.: – and I can’t find a job. So we’re talking and we’re like “What are we gonna do?” And I thought that since I can’t even find work, maybe I should go for my four year [degree] and then maybe after that maybe we can have kids.
S: Spending your poverty wisely.
T.A.: Yeah, so Melissa tells me to take painting. I do not want to take painting because probably of this past baggage. I wanted to take printmaking.
S: So you have never painted prior to this moment?
T.A.: I had never painted. My first painting experience was in 2009.
S: Is that right? So you are really fairly recent to the basic “trade level” of painting?
T.A.: Yes, yes.
S: So who do you think were some of the more influential or notable instructors that you had while there?
T.A.: Larry Davis. He was the guy that I took my first painting class with. I got exposed to him and just kind of went from there. I had him for drawing classes as well, figure drawing …
S: Well how was he as a teacher? What did you like about him? Was he generally encouraging? Was he really blunt in the sense that he wouldn’t cosign any bullshit?
T.A.: He’s really encouraging but yeah, (laughs) he will tell you how it is!
S: Sometimes, hopefully in hindsight, I could see how a blunt observation from a more experienced person was ultimately helpful. I guess it is developing “a thick skin and a softer heart” kind of thing.
T.A.: I was really lucky in my undergrad years that I had him, Paul Ladnier – and he’s legit, he will just tell you what he thinks and also a better way to do it.
S: They were encouraging.
T.A.: Yes, encouraging and they pushed me.
S: Lemme ask you this, because it seems when I have interviewed certain artists who have taken formal art classes, regardless of whether they even graduated or not, it seems like it was an almost Zen-like lesson that they received, something really encapsulated (…) like Chip Southworth had described how his formal education in Tallahassee was reduced to something like “form and the quality of line,” or texture. Is that true of you? Did you get a sense of that?
T.A.: No, I actually think I got most of that from studying graphic design. So my two year degree – I still get all of that (…)
S: So what did you get from that? Can you articulate what it is?
T.A.: Well, I had never painted so the process of oil paints, so how it actually works. And in the more advance classes, more like (…) a little more of the illusionism as far as how to make things appear a certain way. So there was more of that idea of form and line and volume from graphic design courses.
S: So you had to really get used to the tactile experience of paint first?
T.A.: Yes, absolutely.
S: Do you do mostly oil or oil and acrylic?
T.A.: Mostly oil.
S: I want to shift to the work. Your statement reads the following: “A major question that I ask in my work is: How is my identity shaped by current culture and trends in relationship to the historical past?” I guess it’s kind of a “big” question, but I am wondering how that question came to be. Do you think this same inquiry is what originally compelled you to get deeper into art? I guess I am wondering if this philosophy preceded your journey as an artist or was kind of triggered from delving deeper and deeper into visual arts.
T.A.: It’s twofold: it is that, kind of what you’re talking about (…) a lot of that came from the shift from undergrad to graduate school. Undergrad seems like it is more how to paint and grad school is all about the “why” so you’re switching your mindset and taking the tools and techniques that you’ve learned and start asking more of these “why” questions. Why am I painting? Why is this relevant? Is this even important?
S: I know it can be hard to pinpoint memories, but were there specific things in your life that happened that preceded these questions original? Was this an event-based thing, like even loss or trauma, or just a gradually developing worldview?
T.A.: Well part of it is I moved from St. Louis to Jacksonville and we land in Springfield. And living in Springfield, you have these amazing pockets of remodeled homes and blocks of manicured lawns next to crack houses and people who’ve lived in their homes for three generations but they don’t have the money to remodel or do those kinds of things (…) gentrification, Springfield used to be one of the oldest and greatest neighborhoods along with LaVilla and Brooklyn (…) there are some historical things going in Jacksonville, from Axe Handle Saturday and White Flight (…) those are some of things I think about in my work. In some way Springfield, is this post-apocalyptic mess of, how do we survive?
S: So do you think some of your questions are politically based? Is it about injustice, or what?
T.A.: Well, there’s a lot of gentrification going on there and just how people deal with it, getting kicked out of their homes, people’s homes getting destroyed. If you look at the LaVilla neighborhood, they just wiped it out and put up a new courthouse. There are so many things going on, especially in a conservative town, where they will destroy these things that have historical integrity just to put something new up.
S: Well, sure but Florida has been on the cutting-edge of that kind of thing for a long time. It’s like the Disney Paradigm where you just wipe shit out and cover it with plastic. Granted, I do love Mickey Mouse (laughs). We have always been on the vanguard of making things temporary (…) Condominium Consciousness.
S: On the same statement, you go on to say (…) so now I know you use politics and injustice and you also use a recurring idea of war imagery, which is seemingly an overt political commentary. But you go on to say that you “investigate systems that humans live within in an attempt to unveil those things that the human spirit seeks.” What do you personally think we are collective seeking? How does your work touch on this? Are we collectively seeking something? Does that make sense? I personally believe that we are all honing in on something; I think that when we kind of ignore the “homing signal” is when we get into trouble.
T.A.: Well, it’s kind of like (…) in part of that statement I describe how people are shaped by theological ideologies or political ideologies and I think that (…) there are some theological questions that need to be addressed. And some people are open to that.
S: Are you open to that? Do you have a spiritual component to your life?
T.A.: Oh yeah. Like (lowers voice) I’m a Christian.
S: (laughing) Sorry, but I like how you whispered that, like it’s the dirty word for artists! Besides, we all know it’s those fucking Tibetan Buddhists you gotta watch out for.
T.A.: Well, the thing is (…) for a guy who is a Christian, stepping into the art world, it can be hard to say (…)
S: I understand.
T.A.: (…) because people might say, “Well, he just makes religious paintings” or whatever. I’ve had people say to me “you paintings are like sermons” and I’m just like, “well (laughs) okay.” So I kind of want to run with that idea more.
S: This is good, I’d like to address this, because one of the things I found interesting is that you have a series called “Doxology” paintings. I’m familiar with that idea of a Doxology as an almost abbreviated prayer, like “Lord, God have mercy on me.” It’s like the Prayer of the Heart of Greek or Russian Orthodoxy (…) it’s really like a mantra. But in your paintings you use combat imagery, which looks like found imagery.
T.A.: All of those earlier paintings, were all done my first year of grad school, and I only wanted to use found imagery. So all of that came from “open source” places, like I would Google them (…)
S: Public domain.
T.A.: All public domain and some of them came from photos from the United States National Archives.
S: Then what is the narrative in those pieces?
T.A.: A lot of those have to do with dichotomies and juxtapositions of things; so the juxtaposition of religious acts and war acts, the ideas of sacrifice, ideas of ritual.
S: So they’re all kind of imbued with your religious ideals?
T.A.: I think so, I think so.
S: Overtly so?
T.A.: No, I wouldn’t say overtly.
S: Well, just the words you use.
T.A.: Those titles are just there so you opened up to interpreting them in such a way and think about them (…) not necessarily where you have to think about religious things, there’s just evidence of it there. So when you see a baptism scene, I think in that same painting there are dead bodies lying there.
S: So is that idea so direct where you are toggling these ideas of death/rebirth?
T.A.: Yes. So there’s resurrection elements going on there and temptation elements going on. These are things people deal with every day. Now the language might seem taboo or dated but there’s something about those words in the way they roll off the tongue and the way they affect your brain and the way that you would perceive the painting. You’re either going to enter into this experience or be offended. And offense is ok with me.
S: So you do feel like your same spirituality is permeating your actual process of painting?
T.A.: Yes. I read a lot (points to shelf in corner) I’ve got Kierkegaard over there, [John Milton’s] “Paradise Lost,” art theory and criticism … so I’m learning a lot of these things in grad school but by read things by all of those old, dead people (laughs) it’s almost like an ad hoc seminary.
S: I want to address this as well: you’re a pretty young guy and you have a family. You’ve been married for how long?
T.A.: Seven years.
S: And you now have started a family.
T.A.: I’ve got a little boy, Blaise.
S: And how old is he?
T.A.: He’s almost two and now we have one on the way. So any day now (…) so if I get a phone call and have to suddenly leave (laughs) you know why.
S: So I guess I’m wondering if this shift to being a husband and parent is affecting how you perceive your art. I don’t mean in the sense in trying to find the time to paint when it’s your turn to watch your son. I mean more in a way that you are no longer 17 and wanting to flee the city. Now you are 32 and have a family. Does that make sense?
T.A.: (pause) I don’t know. When I come here and I’m painting, it’s just work. I am here and I have stuff to get done. Part of it is I’m in grad school and this is my job. I think some of that could probably shift as my kids get older and my relationship with my wife continues to grow and gets better. I’m sure there are things there. I haven’t really painted my wife and kid yet and I think part of the reason I haven’t done that is (…) I don’t think it is objective but I don’t really get emotionally involved in my work. I’ve known some painters who get emotionally involved to the point where they couldn’t sell a certain piece. But for me it is work, for me it’s problem solving. I don’t think my personal life affects “the painting” but if I am just having a bad day it might affect how I approach it or my actual process of the work.
S: I want to get back to the work. It seems like many of your paintings feature figures in motion and there’s also the recurring war imagery, which we kind of touched on. It seems like the mood is tense or in the case of “Dylarama,” even violent. What is the story behind that piece?
T.A.: Well, I don’t think that we are necessarily peaceful as a race. There’s actually three paintings that are like that: there’s “Dylarama,” the “Airborne Toxic Event” and then “Panasonic,” or “White Noise.”
S: It’s a series?
T.A.: Yes, it’s a series. I was reading “White Noise” by Don DeLillo —
S: Excellent book.
T.A.: Yeah, one of my favorite books (…) and so, I was dealing with reading that book, I listen to a lot of NPR, I read a lot of books (…) and am just thinking about how I am personally and how I can act out in again, how I can be completely oblivious to the world around me, how I can be judgmental (…) so those paintings really deal with those kinds of topics.
S.: They explore shortcomings.
T.A.: Correct and they also point to people that, “hey – you do this too.” It can just be part of the human condition to be oblivious. Whether on purpose or not; sometimes you just can’t deal with things, sometimes you just choose not to look, sometimes you act out in anger (…) those are a lot of the things going on in [the novel] “White Noise” – the way that people deal with this airborne toxic event.
S.: So obviously books play a big part in your life. You’ve already mentioned Kierkegaard, DeLillo, theology and art theory (…) those are all pretty good well-springs of knowledge and information. But I also know that you are an arts writer and have written for Metro Jacksonville. That Cindy Sherman piece that you wrote was pretty nice.
S.: Are you mindful of any obvious interplay or energy between making your own art and writing about the work of others?
T.A.: Yeah, they do affect one another because hopefully I’m thinking critically and the work that I’m creating will be informed by the discourse of the art world that is occurring right now (…) granted, I don’t think I will ever be an upper-level artist like a Cindy Sherman (…)
S.: Hey man, why cut yourself short? Dream big, man.
T.A.: (laughs) well, I don’t have to be but even if I was, the way the art world works now, it seems like I could live here and ship my work wherever. I shouldn’t that it would never happen, but that isn’t necessarily even part of my goal. Part of the allure for me in even going to graduate school was so that I could think in a more critical way and have a historical sense of it all. In a lot of my paintings, I’m referencing other works. Like the guy lying on the ground in that “White Noise” painting, I’m really borrowing that from a Manet painting. Even in “Airborne Toxic Event,” the mother pointing is like “Doubting Thomas.”
S.: Like the Caravaggio painting – of Thomas pointing into Christ’s wound?
T.A.: Yeah. So there’s a lot of that stuff going on as well. I’m just trying to learn from artists who came before me. Someone like Cindy Sherman, she’s still active today and she is featured in this amazing retrospective in New York that I got to see.
S.: Tell me about your involvement in this upcoming installation, “The Apartment” ( a collaboration between Aiuppy, Staci Bu Shea, Lily Kuonen, Edison William and Sterling Cox). Do you have a sense of how you will personally approach this or what you intend to do?
T.A.: We’ve been talking about. Things are slowly coming together in that sense that you have four artists, Staci is curating it and in many ways her artwork is in bringing us together.
S.: Right. She seems like she is a strong catalyst for things.
T.A.: She is (…) and she’s amazing. So we have one guy out at sea [Cox] and we are waiting for him to come back. We all work in different mediums, so I’m thinking about the physical space and what it’s like. How does that space look when no one’s there? So some of the things I’ll be dealing with are time, light and how all of those things work. We have some other things in our collective pocket that we want to do in that venue.
S.: So you’re all kind of picking your weapon of choice (laughs) right now?
T.A.: Yeah, which is really cool because I do painting and drawing and Lily makes these amazing objects that kind of blur between paintings and sculpture (…) I imagine that Edison will do photography but who knows?
S.: And let’s hope that Sterling is thinking about something to do with this while he’s out at sea.
T.A.: (laughs) Yeah, I’m sure that he is.
S.: So looking ahead, how far in are you with this Masters at SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design]?
T.A.: I’ll be done in July.
S.: So you’re commuting, doing a long distance thing?
T.A.: Yep. I live up there during the summers.
S.: How is that working out with the family?
T.A.: Amazingly well and this is the only I could do grad school at this point. Melissa has a fulltime job, but when I was at UNF I never did have a fulltime job but I did a lot of side work. So we are working on transitioning again after I graduate.
S.: You have to forgive my ignorance of academics, but what is your degree going to encompass? What are you honing in on?
T.A.: I’ll be able to teach college and workshops, things like that, on the “professional artist” level, it’s slightly like a pedigree thing that it seems like that art world is moving towards that could help me possibly get the attention of another level of galleries.
S.: Sounds like you have a lot going on.
T.A.: (laughs) You have no idea!
S.: There’s a lot going on here in Jax. Could you now see the guy who wanted to leave so badly at 16 coming back here as an adult and not only paint but, God forbid, teach?
T.A.: (laughs) Probably. We’d probably try and be established here. I don’t see myself leaving. It would have to be a really amazing opportunity. Melissa and I have talked about it, and this might sound totally pompous to say, but we want to be agents of culture in this city. If even if it was just adjunct teaching, I feel like we are supposed to be here and give back. So I guess practicing what I preach. We need people not to leave. We need people who will encourage to stick around and not leave – especially now when it is getting so good.
Daniel A. Brown
Great interview Thony! It gave me new insight into your background and continuing joy at your ongoing efforts. You will succeed.