MU Fine Arts student debuts 'Anti-Heroic Painting' exhibition

The artist pulls influence from classic works of art and his childhood love of comics.

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Fine arts graduate student Jake Johnson explores the idea of combining Baroque and Renaissance art with pop culture and comic book characters for his thesis exhibition, “Anti-Heroic Painting.”

Large paintings of fallen-from-grace superheroes cover the walls of the George Caleb Bingham Gallery -- a drunk, shoeless Superman relying on the support of two girls and a sad, lonely Batman in costume -- painted in a way that models great artists of the 17th century such as Velazquez and Peter Paul Rubens.

In his abstract, Johnson explained his use of “contradicting, counterintuitive sources” to “capture the other side to the hero, the darker side.”

Matthew Ballou, one of Johnson’s art professors, said Johnson’s ability to replicate the narrative and structure of the classic artists is an interesting part of his work.

“For me the most interesting aspect of Jake's work is his very personal interest in the subjects,” he said. “Jake's thesis is all about making sense of his deeply felt connection to the heroes and heroic painting of the past.”

Next to some of the paintings was background information on the artwork’s mix of classic and contemporary. In “The Drunken Superman,” Johnson explained that he wanted to depict “a hero who does not always do the right thing.” He creates a parallel between Superman and Hercules, the subject of the original painting from which he drew influence, who was the son of a god but still made a lot of mistakes.

“I collected a lot of comic books as a kid,” Johnson said. “And then I got into art classes in college and they taught me about this rich art history and I learned from these paintings too. In that process I meshed those two things together: my childhood love and my college career.”

Many of his paintings also deal with mythology, including references to gods and other holy beings such as Eros, the Greek equivalent of the Roman Cupid.

“I’ve always kind of been interested in (mythology) as well, so I guess that’s a third venture that stemmed from these as well,” Johnson said. “In these old history paintings that I was learning traditional painting from, all of their subject matter was this mythology, so you learned not only about the artists that were interesting and their techniques that were interesting, but their subject matter.”

But Johnson isn’t just ripping off old masterpieces and adding goofy details to make them his own.

“Art has this mysteriousness about it sometimes and these old art masters did too, and so I kind of wanted to make fun of that,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s works include several dichotomies. Besides the visual contradictions of contemporary characters in scenes from 400 years ago, Johnson combines light and dark commentary and heroic versus anti-heroic depictions of famous characters.

“There’s two sides to this,” he said. “I think they do show some humility and also some seriousness. At the same time I wanted to make fun of myself too.”

Ballou said Johnson’s strength lies in his painting skills.

“Jake's facility with paint is his greatest strength,” Ballou said. “He came in with an amazing ability to move paint and to invent with the color, density and layering inherent in oil paint. He's certainly done some of the most technically masterful painting I've seen in the last five years.”

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