aaron coleman | the devine comic
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 22 may 2019
I first saw Aaron Coleman’s work at a Southern Graphic Council International Conference open portfolio session. As some of you may know, dear readers, those are marathon events. They can be four or five hours long and involve hundreds of tables set out under the lights of a conference hall in a hotel. Undergraduates and master printers pack in side-by-side with their prints spread out on the table in front of them. Attendees zig zag through the din and buzz of earnest conversations, egos, welcome and unwelcome critical feedback, hangovers, and flirtations lying thick in the air. You can’t talk with everyone, you can’t see everything and by the final hour most everyone has reached saturation. Even some of the best work out there can be missed at this stage, one’s eyes can glaze over and you can just walk on by, but this is impossible to do with Coleman’s work, that is if you even get a chance to see it. You can usually find his table pretty easily in the mass. It’ll be surrounded by students and professionals alike, packing in shoulder to shoulder and you might have to wait your turn to make it to the front to see what all the fuss is about. Spoiler alert: it’s worth the hype. Coleman’s prints are ambitious in scale, content, and technical process. For one, it can be difficult to determine what (or how many) techniques he’s used even when you’re seeing the work in person, a very conscious and intentional part of his practice. In terms of their content, one might get the impression that someone has put a copy of E.H. Gombrich’s “The Story of Art” in a Vitamix with someone’s vintage comic collection and hit “liquify”, maybe with a Molotov cocktail thrown in.
This mixing and remixing of culture, politics, and printmaking media makes Coleman’s practice as intriguing as it is engaging but when you chat with him, he’s one of the most easy going printmakers out there. As he described himself in the forthcoming podcast, when I asked if he had settled into his relatively new position as professor of art at the University of Arizona, “I think my permanent state is ‘settled in’ no matter where I’m at.” This ease of manner may lead one (read: me) to assume on some level that his distinctive and beautiful style came to him with an equal ease, but of course this is not the case.
Coleman was born in Washington, D.C. but grew up in Waldorf, Maryland with a twin sister and four older brothers. He doesn’t remember art having too much of an influence on his early life, but he was from a young age already repurposing objects, ‘borrowing’ the wheels from a neighbor’s lawnmower to make a go cart or taking apart his mother’s watches with no idea how to put them back together again.
When he was thirteen the family moved to Indianapolis, which was where Coleman’s interest in hip hop culture started to flourish. While his older brothers had long been into the movement, but it was in this period that Coleman, in the great and venerated tradition of younger siblings everywhere, started stealing his brother’s CDs to listen to the music. Not long after that, he found himself in love with hip hop culture: the dancing, the music, and of course graffiti. “Before I knew it I was I writing my name of stuff that didn’t belong to me,” he recalls. He and his friends would put glass etching liquid into refillable pens and write on store windows. They found out that the lava rocks standard to McDonald’s drive thrus could write on just about anything and took full advantage of this. Graffiti was his first deep dive into visual culture, and the remixing of imagery, pulling from what exists to create something that is entirely new, is directly reflected in his practice to this day. The hip hop scene was also the first place Coleman felt comfortable.
“I am bi-racial, I have a black father and white mother, so I grew up feeling out of place: in both worlds but belonging to neither. Hip hop ignores all that. You can mix a sitar with Clyde Stubblefield drums and put a Doris Day vocal sample over it all. You have all these cultures blending together, and seeing that was when I felt like I could exist between worlds confidently, and not like I didn’t belong somewhere. Instead, I might belong wherever I wanted to belong. [This outlook] still influences the way I see the world, process it, and it affects what I put into it. Pulling from the world around you is what I do in my visual work.”
While the visual culture of graffiti was something Coleman still feels a connection to, the logistics started to wear thin. To be a good a graffiti writer you have to not give a fuck about anything. You need to be okay with running from cops, being out all hours of the night when no one is around, and not really being attached to any kind of normal life. Coleman actually gives a lot of fucks, and wanted to make his art under circumstances where he didn’t have to constantly worry about being arrested. With his experience using the words and graphic nature of graffiti, it seemed like graphic design would be a way for him to continue to make work, and rather than worrying about paying a fine, worry about how much to charge the people paying him.
So Coleman when off to art school. It didn’t take too long before he figured out graphic design was not going to be a long term love affair. He didn’t mind being told how to make a design better by the client, it was being told ten different times in a row that got old. It was the back and forth to the point where the design is not your own anymore that he knew he couldn’t do for the rest of his life. He switched his major to painting, but while he has tremendous patience for printmaking, this did not apply to the canvas. He would just put all the colors on at once and then end up with a brown, swampy blob to show for it. It seemed that the faculty agreed with him, as one professor memorably told him, “I’m going to give you a D, I should fail you, but I don’t ever want to see you again.”
Luckily for all of us in the printmaking scene, Coleman was eventually introduced to printmaking, and he found the sense of community contagious. He was at the Herron School of Art and Design at the time and still speaks quite fondly of his mentors there: David Morrison, Meredith Setser, and Andrew Winship. One of the ironies of Coleman’s story is that while he is now, and for good reason, often thought of as a lithographer, it wasn’t until his final semester of undergrad that he picked up a crayon. The act of which caused Professor Morrison to comment while walking past him, “My goodness Aaron, look at you! We might make a printmaker out of you yet.”
After Herron, Coleman attended Northern Illinois University where he worked with living litho legend Michael Barnes, who was extremely formative for Coleman during this time. During his first grad school critique Coleman recalls that he was talking for about five minutes before Barnes called out from the back of the room, “This is boring!” Which was to be the beginning of many rough crits to come. While he says that they were hard, and at times pissed him off, his response to them was just to make work, make a lot of work, and keep making more work, and anyone who knows Aaron’s work ethic would describe him as something of a Superman.
At one point, one of the professors pointed out that Coleman seemed absent from his imagery, “Where are you in this work?” he was asked. This was when he started to think about what he was interested in before art school. Up until this point Coleman hadn’t allowed any of his time in the graffiti scene into his academic work, thinking it wasn’t valid for grad school and assuming it wouldn’t be taken seriously. He didn’t think it would fit the mould of fine art but this is when those early influences began to creep in: text, low brow culture, graffiti, and comics.
When Coleman was a kid his older brother would cut the heroes from comic book pages and stick them on his bedroom wall, the end result of which was that Coleman inherited the books with heroes missing and he thinks that this must have planted some kind of seed for him. The very first comic book image he used was from The Death of Superman in which Doomsday defeats Superman, but then Superman is resurrected to save the world once again. The imagery and narrative have undeniable parallels to that of Christ, but they are on opposite ends of the spectrum: one is a belief system that, while it has brought many people joy and comfort, it is also used in the name of atrocities, while the other is pure entertainment. “No one has ever killed in the name of Superman, you don’t see the LGBTQ+ community being prosecuted over Superman,” Coleman points out. This connection between deities, legends and comic book heroes was something that fascinated him and he continues to explore throughout his practice. A thematic aesthetic in his series Heroes and Hypocrites is the use of stained glass. Coleman grew up going to church and believes that stained glass windows are the comics of Christianity. He draws parallels between their graphic quality, the narratives, the clear division between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. “If comics were around in the fourteenth century, people would be believing in Superman,” he says.
Coleman borrows freely and skilfully from Christianity and comic books, remixing the imagery to create something that is entirely new and entirely his own. The choice of printmaking, but particularly lithography, as a medium with which to do it is also no accident. It is the versatility of lithography that draws Coleman to the medium: it can be reductive or additive, you can use photo-based or transfer methods, and all of this means that you can disguise your medium in a way that is almost impossible to replicate with other media.
“I make work that is political in nature, it borrows from things that already exist to talk about history and social political current events, so for me, being able to hide the fact that something is a lithograph or a screenprint or a mezzotint takes it away from just this art thing that I made, and makes people question what it is they’re looking at. Is this an artefact? Is this something new? Is it propaganda posters? They can’t tell what they’re looking at.”
Coleman’s artist statement covers everything from police brutality to racial discrimination, religious extremism to the persecution of the LGBTQ+ communities, and species extinctions to economic unrest.
With all these atrocities of the world, why do we need artists? Shouldn’t we all become activists instead? Coleman believes that you need all kinds of minds to make a resistance. Some people are good at talking and you want them on the mic, some people are good at fundraising and you want them on the phones, and some people are good at making and you want them documenting what’s happening through visual culture. Coleman points to the art of Emory Douglas, and what it has done for the legacy of the Black Panther movement. Even people who have never heard the name Huey P. Newton can bring to mind the graphic black fist in the air. The creation of visual cultural around political movements is vital to the spread of information and the longevity of their legacy.
Coleman’s skill and practiced confidence in the mixing and remixing of culture to create something new is unmatched in its ability to confront the viewer with all that is around them but that which they have yet to see. His images are arresting, striking, and unapologetic. In one of his most recent series, Dogs of Doom, classical, be-togaed bodies with the heads of contorted minstrels and the gloved hands of Mickey Mouse proclaim speech bubbled phrases like “I have risen from the dead to continue the never-ending battle!” A never-ending battle against these villains it is, and it remains our duty to do our part, whatever that calling may be, and never give up. Thankfully, with Aaron Coleman, we have Superman on our side.
Aaron Coleman’s website: