Much is said these days in the world of visual art about “mark-marking.” Simply put, the term denotes a kind of tacit acknowledgement toward lines, textures, patterns, and even brushstrokes, on a surface. Whether the increasing proliferation of this term is a trendy, ephemeral hashtag, or a celebration of the very terra firma and fundamentals of painting remains to be seen. Regardless of the current “mark-making” craze, for the past few years, Thony Aiuppy has been known for exploring and emphasizing the power of deliberately scored lines and swirling thick waves of oils on a receptive surface.
Aiuppy paints portraiture, figurative, still life, and landscape settings. Yet a concentration on rigid form and a fidelity to subject matter is generally forgone, instead focusing on color qualities and dynamic energies that bind the actual contents together. Bucolic Floridian panoramas are viewed through a mirage-like haze. Minimally formed figures, in usually motionless positions, give a sense of languidness, even being frozen in place.
Aiuppy’s primary sources for his scenes are culled from regional and pop cultural streams. “The work that I make helps me understand the world around me, like most other artists. I’m heavily influenced by the history of the Deep South and the link to contemporary events locally and nationally,” Aiuppy tells Folio Weekly Magazine, of wellsprings that he attempts to gather, tether, and intertwine into something altogether new. “In tandem to this, I’m a forager of the classics, contemporary fiction, and comics. Painting slows me down so that I can digest what I’ve inhaled and then piece like and unlike things together to make something new.” Humans featured in Aiuppy’s pieces are in various states of placement, some in motion, others seemingly in contemplation. “The figure in my work provides me with a protagonist to build a visual story, or narrative, around, typically in a dystopic Southern landscape.”
Aiuppy’s new exhibit, Breath from the Sky opens this week at Florida State College of Jacksonville’s Kent Campus. For the past four years, artist-educators Dustin Harewood and Mark Creegan have been working together closely with a shared curatorial vision that brings both emerging and established artists to the campus gallery space. “It’s been thrilling to see, over the years, the way Thony moves paint and how he has developed his own language in whatever subject from still life, portraiture, or landscape,” Creegan explains, of the storytelling aspect of Aiuppy’s work. “I particularly like how his pieces draw you in through their materiality and provide a very intimate and subtle experience.”
From December to May, Aiuppy painted approximately 70 paintings; most of them small in size. He then narrowed that number down to 30 oil-on-wood pieces, half of which are 12 inches by 12 inches. The show’s title, Breath from the Sky, was taken from the Carson McCullers short story of the same name. “During my frenzied six-month season, I was filled with something from out of this world, a breath from the sky, and I couldn’t stop working,” explains Aiuppy. “It was an intoxicating experience. Once my summer work picked up, the sensation dissipated some; I’m expectantly waiting another breath of fresh air come fall.” The show is set into what Aiuppy describes as “sub groups,” which include “historic-esque portraits,” still life paintings, and The Workers series, which addresses labor and working conditions in the South.
In Aiuppy’s works, likeness takes a back seat to emotion. The people generally appear working-class, their expressions are emotionless, if not inscrutable, and existing in an environment that can appear flattened due to the almost forceful compression of the visual plane. If there are types of journeys that occur within the storylines, they seem to begin and end within the parameters of each composition. In this regard, Aiuppy’s work finds a kinship with the Expressionists of early 20th-century Germany, who believed the artist’s emotional translation of an object or experience wielded much greater impact than simply recreating real life on a canvas. And the reproduced images of Aiuppy’s work really do not do it justice, as the much-needed details of dense strokes, scrapes, and measured masses of paint are diminished.
There’s a kind of narrowing-down and honing that’s occurred in his work. Only three years ago, he was creating larger-scale paintings, some more than eight feet by five feet, swathed with vibrant, nearly neon-like colors. He acknowledges that this shift is as pragmatic as it is aesthetic.
“It goes back to the economy of means idea: How I can do more with less. When I had a big studio, I made gigantic paintings. Now that I have a small studio, I lean toward making smaller work. Limited palette, limited subjects,” he says, of an overall evolution that has resulted in even more diffusion and abstraction. “The smaller format also helps me to work out issues in a single figure painting that I can later use for a larger composition. How can I make the most impactful work, deliver the most precise message with the least amount of distraction? It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future I broke things down even further, removing color perhaps, or even form.”
As Aiuppy’s insight and commitment to his work have deepened, so has his resolve strengthened to creatively address social injustices. His content and process seem to have become increasingly minimalistic, but some of his sources for inspiration have become much more complex.
“Since 2011, I wanted to make work that helped me better understand my relationship with the Deep South. In 2012 and 2013, I noticed that the characters in the figurative work I made looked like me — white and male,” says Aiuppy. “The killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and then the subsequent tragedies over the last couple years in Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore — among others — started me on a path to depicting social and racial injustices in my body of work and incorporating people from different races, genders, ages, and socioeconomic classes.”
Aiuppy’s résumé and CV are as impressive as those of any of his local peers. Aiuppy earned a BFA in painting/drawing at University of North Florida. Three years later, he received an MFA in painting at Savannah College of Art & Design. Along with the Kent Campus exhibit, works of the 35-year-old Springfield resident have been featured in solo and group shows as far afield as Venice, Italy and Andalusia Farm, the former home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia. In addition to his gallery experience and educational background, Aiuppy’s an arts educator. He’s taught in public schools, teaches beginning drawing at Reddi-Arts and, since 2014, has been an adjunct professor at UNF, where he teaches traditional painting techniques. He’s also a regular contributor as an arts writer for the locally based politics and cultural site, MetroJacksonville.com.
Along with the Kent Campus show, Aiuppy is excited about his work hanging in the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. Featuring 10 local artists in all, the group show LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience, came from the concept of creating responses to Jacksonville’s rich artistic African-American heritage, with an emphasis on creating an artful platform to discuss issues around race, equity, and community. Aiuppy’s contributions were inspired by the emotional storms that swirl around racism and prejudice, and the hopeful, calming resolve of tolerance and peace. “I feel honored to take part in this show,” says Aiuppy. “And I think that the social impact it’s having is very important and has placed the Ritz Theatre, an important contributing partner, on the map as a destination location for a segment of the population that hasn’t given them [the Ritz] much thought in the past.”
While Aiuppy’s paintings can offer a sense of measured action, his creative discipline keeps him in motion. In late July, his solo landscape show, Nomad Exquisite, opens at Jewish Community Alliance’s Vandroff Art Gallery; early next year, he’ll exhibit another solo show at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. Current accomplishments aside, Aiuppy stays grounded in the momentary, and apparently needed, experience of being an artist.
“The joy is in the making, not in the keepsake. I have to paint or draw. If two or more days go by and I haven’t worked on something, anything, my hands shake and start to sweat.”