Words by Tiara Sharma
Photography by Pat Martin
In one of Aaron Elvis Jupin’s paintings, a lone tissue box floats in front of a fire-ravaged house. Each panel of the box contains a different image: a green, wrinkly witch, a yellow butterfly against lush foliage, a spiderweb encircling the box’s opening where a stark white tissue emerges. A celestial-calendar-turned-portal, the tissue box takes inventory of past, present, and (doomed) future.
“You look at a picture of a wildfire and they all look the same,” Jupin tells me over Zoom, as we discuss the painting, titled A Tissue for Your Issue, 2021. For him, environmental collapse moves through a singular visual language—the way every city looks the same underwater and sidewalks cave at one speed.
I spoke to Jupin for the first time in the middle of January, just after the opening weekend of ‘Layman’s Terms, Tongue Tied,’ his exhibition of ink drawings and airbrushed paintings at Moskowitz Bayse in Los Angeles. Though his art has been displayed at solo gallery exhibitions in New York and Finland, the weekend marked his first-ever solo exhibition in the city he calls home.
My ears perk up as Jupin tells me about Fairy Land, one of many river washes in the suburb-presenting city of Fullerton, California, where he was born and raised. Christened by local teenagers who graffitied the name across its walls, Fairy Land was both a gathering space and a path to other gathering spaces. As a kid, Jupin would convene with friends after school to explore these narrow channels, which were built across Fullerton to manage water overflow from floods. He soon learned how to walk along them to get to his friends’ houses, composing an alternative map of his neighborhood, not from scenic routes or skilled shortcuts, but rather the ordinary magic of boredom.
Jupin’s work quietly unspools the fictions of suburbia—what he calls a “cartoon reality” of idealism and Fairy Lands. He describes Disneyland, Hollywood, and Knotts Berry Farm (a local theme park) as sites of roleplaying and false truths, symbolizing “the city acting like everything is fine” despite ongoing conditions of ecological precarity. “A sinkhole can open up in suburbia and eat the street. These things do happen,” he says. “Man has manipulated nature, in a way, to function for him. But it’s not gonna work forever. And that’s what interests me.”
Jupin’s artistic process emerges from rough sketches, which he gradually renders into a collage in Photoshop, merging his own photographs with other imagery sourced from books and the Internet. Before they land in Jupin’s hands, these sourced images have often been heavily compressed and widely circulated across networks of physical and digital distribution. The green witch figure in many of his works, for example, was inspired by a pixelated thumbnail he found on Google Images. Like some of Jupin’s other sourced imagery, this witch’s genealogy is embedded in the degraded composition of her image. Echoing media theorist Hito Steyerl’s seminal text, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” we might ask whether her distorted, cyber-trafficked image resembles an image at all.
Jupin’s creative process feeds off of this ethic of reduction and simplification. After diluting and filtering his paints, and stretching and sanding his canvas, he projects the Photoshopped collage across his studio and onto the canvas, drawing the images with pencil. He then proceeds to airbrush. “There’s a lot of ways to simplify this process, but I really enjoy the information that’s lost when projecting,” Jupin says. His work is the distillation of ideas into symbols, past into memory, celestial calendar into the tissue box. By the time a painting is finished, “The [original] reference…is kind of faded away,” he says. “It’s become a singular image.”
As a child, Jupin had trouble differentiating reality from cartoons. “I had so much trouble not being able to understand that they were drawn, that the cartoon was made,” Jupin says. He began drawing in his free time after school, influenced in part by his uncle, an animator who worked at Klasky-Csupo, the production company behind Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys, and The Simpsons. Jupin cites his uncle as a big influence on his work; they would convene regularly to watch cartoons that his uncle himself had helped bring to life. Time spent with him was exposure to an alternative, imaginative type of thinking.
“There’s a lot of ways to simplify this process, but I really enjoy the information that’s lost when projecting.” – Aaron Elvis Jupin
Jupin’s Catholic school did not encourage his burgeoning artistic tendencies, and from time to time, he got in trouble for doodling during class and bringing his drawings from home. He soon began to find levity in skateboarding instead, crediting its visual language as the inspiration for his own imagery. The skate park, for Jupin, was “where you went to see something you had never seen before.” A cool sticker on someone’s board was a rare artifact—the skate shop, a museum.
Inspired by our conversation about cartoons and skatecraft, I looked up the title sequence of one of Jupin’s favorite childhood cartoons, Animaniacs, a variety show of sorts that aired on the now-defunct network The WB. At the center of the show are three 1930s cartoon characters named Yakko, Wakko, and Dot who are locked in the Warner Bros. water tower, located on the studio lot of the same name in Burbank, California. Their crime: being “totally out of control.” Jupin describes his profound fascination with the show: “I was like, ‘The Animaniacs, they live inside this water tower!’ I thought the water tower existed in the town I lived in.” Like Jupin’s own work, The Animaniacs superimposes fictional characters and motifs onto real, embodied landscapes.
Wait Outside, Everything Seemed Different, 2021, an airbrushed painting that was on display at Jupin’s recent exhibition, depicts a witch’s hat floating in front of a two-story house. Yellow flowers sprout two-dimensionally across the hat’s surface, encased within its outline. Fans of Midwestern emo might look at the house’s single, lit window and think American Football. Others may just see a house. Regardless, Jupin’s symbols of sorcery and suburbia appear to be preoccupied. Like the glow of the television in an empty bedroom or a spiderweb swelling in the wind, they seem entirely indifferent to our looking.
Like all of Jupin’s recent paintings, Wait Outside, Everything Seemed Different, 2021 is completely matte. He diverges from the slick, glossy surfaces popularized by L.A.’s Finish Fetish artists in the ‘60s—a group whose influence nevertheless appears in his immaculate, meticulously prepped canvases. Jupin’s work generates what he describes as a “void of light,” absorbing but never reflecting. “Maybe [if my work] were shiny, it wouldn’t read the same. It wouldn’t have the sense of being uncomfortable,” he wonders. If the reflectivity is interactivity, his paintings refuse the viewer on every level but the psychic, acting as a repository for the gazes, associations, and expectations projected onto them.
Jupin describes his drawings in ‘Layman’s Terms, Tongue Tied’ as more intimate than his airbrushed paintings. Up close, you see the mark of his hand, the individuality of his line. His drawings feel much more like meditations, constellations of loose ideas. Arms drape out of windows, flowers wilt over fingers, shapes bleed past their constitutive limits. One of Jupin’s ink drawings, Before You Know It, 2021, self-consciously depicts a cartoon figure drawn on a sheet of paper. Most viewers will have trouble deciphering who the figure is. Judging from its bucktooth and rounded nose, it could be a certain charismatic cartoon bunny—or maybe the anhedonic purple donkey known to be friends with a pantless yellow bear. The longer you look, the figure begins to lose its familiar shape.
“We’re so overwhelmed with imagery constantly—since we were kids,” Jupin says. “Now it’s confusing, what is and what isn’t. What has happened to us and what hasn’t.” One could say Jupin’s paintings are staged in the interstices between remembering and forgetting. Just like the tip of your tongue, this is a place where memory cannot serve, where history turns into fabulation. He says the titles of his works are pulled from words that have been said a million times, intentionally sparking a moment of misrecognition for the viewer. Without missing a beat, he re-enacts this for me: “I know this. It’s the lyric to a song or something. Maybe? I don’t know…maybe it’s two songs put together?” The deja-vu encased in Jupin’s work lives through this repetition of maybe. Not only the misremembrance of an experience, image, or feeling but also the insistence that it happened. It must have… It could have…Could it have?
In An Organic Murmur, Leave Your Lungs Hurting, 2021, Jupin contains the wildfire from his other works to just a single flame. The painting features a long, white, lit candle positioned in front of a crowd of muddled faces and bodies. As soon as we step closer to one face, the surrounding faces seem to duplicate endlessly, swelling and swaying past the edge of Jupin’s own canvas. Darkness pools in certain audience members’ hair and clothing, lending the work a singed quality—or perhaps just animating the blur and vibration of bodies in motion. Jupin notes how our eyes want to focus on the painting, but cannot.
The painting asks us to look, even when looking is no longer useful. Unlike other works, in which Jupin merges unreality with reality, An Organic Murmur, Leave Your Lungs Hurting showcases his blending of the visual with the haptic. Looking becomes searching, sifting. Stare at your loved one’s face long enough and, eventually, they resemble no one you know, and thus anyone. As Jupin reminds us, this is the theater of flame—a crowd, like a wildfire, looks the same everywhere.