Self Portrait of Artist Justin Aerni

Outsider artist Justin Aerni has made a career of shaking things up. Jarring, raucus and frenzied, his paintings are hallucinatory fever dreams with a social message.

His work can be challenging, but not compared to the challenges society faces to regain its humanity. Through his ongoing series of destroyed analog photographs to his ridicule of institutions, Justin tears cultural constructs apart in the hopes that we can build a better future.

Freely created by unschooled artists whose goal is more about expressing raw emotion than conforming to established artistic constructs, outsider art has long been a tool for creatives to confront the most unpleasant and brutal aspects of life. So it’s no wonder that the waking nightmare we’re all living through is ripe fodder for Justin’s work.

While many of the artists I’ve spoken to for this interview series are uncomfortable or unsure of how the pandemic may influence their art, Justin is not afraid to get real about how it has affected him in some surprising and positive ways.

You live in Portland, Oregon. How has your daily life changed since the spread of Covid-19?

Nothing above the usual shit that people have to do now to stay away and not kill each other.

Most artists are unique to other career groups this situation. A lot are thriving in the chaos including myself.

Happy Grave IX Series II by Justin Aerni

If I were to guess at your personality strictly from looking at your riotous paintings, I’d assume you were abrasive and antisocial. Is this a remotely fair assessment? Do you like social distancing or are you finding it difficult?

Heh, Not anymore antisocial and abrasive than a Francis Bacon or a Burroughs. I think it would be easy to arrive at that conclusion with just a quick glance at my recent work.

There’s also thousands and thousands of humorous and just playful/joyful paintings I’ve created over the years too. There cannot be darkness without the light bla bla bla you get it.

As far as social distancing and staying at home, I got lucky enough to be quarantined with someone who grounds me and helps me though the daily loneliness.

It’s very hard for me to think of how incredibly hard it would be to be trapped in quarantine with my abusive and psychopathic ex but that’s a very long story for another time maybe. Ether way I’m grateful to be free from that person’s grasp and I hope they finally get the mental help they need.

You are a prolific creator. Are you still creating at your usual pace? Has your creative process been affected during this time?

Right now I’m averaging around a couple of paintings a week which is just decent for me but nothing compared to my old average.

I think at one point I wasn’t really sleeping/eating just making art from the second I woke up in the morning to falling asleep on my art table at night. I think my own personal record was over 70 paintings in a month.

I tend to be way more of a perfectionist now. The Covid-1984 hasn’t really affected the amount of work being created as as much as turning 36 this year.

Sickness Ride by Justin Aerni, 2020

Several of your newest pieces: Sickness Ride, Virus Face, American Lonely and Mr. Spooky likes Face Degloving seem to directly reference the current events. How have you been inspired by the pandemic? What aspects of what’s happening translate particularly well to your visual expression?

It sounds horrible but yes I have been very inspired by the pandemic. It’s a very historic time. It’s frightening and uncertain. It’s the apocalypse we’ve all been waiting for… I’m only halfway kidding though.

I think some wires got crossed somewhere around my 100th virus/pandemic end of the world movie. Is anything real anyway?

It’s sad but I think people are so tired by the norm. The rat race… more like American capitalistic slave race that even their own collective demise sounds more promising and dare I say entertaining & fulfilling than the alternative.

Here’s something else that’s probably going to stir up some shit and will undoubtedly put me in a vulnerable position but I was very depressed around December / January. I wanted it all to end. I remember actually thinking how nice it would be if the earth got hit by a meteor or zombie virus. etc, etc. At that dark time nothing would have made me happier.

When shit actually hit the fan though and lots and lots of people were dying/still are dying everyday and everyone was trapped inside freaking out I started to regret my own thoughts and what I had wished for. I don’t want the world to end now because I’ve had a little taste of it and it tastes like shit.

At the same time I have to toss in that I don’t want things to go back to normal the way they always have been ether. Something has to change on this planet or collectively we all will die.

Mr. Spooky Likes Face Degloving by Justin Aerni, 2020

Will you create more work that reflects on the pandemic?

I’m not sure, ask me again in September/October when the second wave hits.

What role (if any) does art and the artist have at a time of crisis?

I think the average artist would probably say to entertain or cheer up the people, which I admit is a noble pursuit, but maybe if we’re being perfectly honest the role of the artist in times of crisis or in times of great change is to keep the light of creativity and human culture alive.

We’ve never had a global crisis d-day event like this in modern history. Who really knows if there is going to be an art world when this is all over.

I can’t imagine 90 percent of galleries/museum surviving this, they were already hurting and on their last legs before the virus. Could this be the final nail in the collective art world coffin? Maybe.

To expand on that last question, how does the role of outsider art shift during historic moments? Do you feel that you have greater responsibility to go after the establishment when freedoms and common sense are threatened?

To answer your question I think it would be a movement in art history comparable to the 60-70 anti-war protest art that was so popular during that time. Not just outsider but all artists if they care about personal freedoms should be constantly pushing back against the system with their art because the people trying to enslave you/us certainly aren’t stopping.

Yeah I don’t care if I sound crazy anymore.. It’s time to wake up artists! Personally I’ve always tried to push back with my art. Civil liberties are important to me.

The trick is to not sound preachy. I hate preachy art. Do it in a fun/new/interesting way.

War Crimes President by Justin Aerni

Your work pushes boundaries and undoubtedly makes some people uncomfortable. Is there room for more discomfort in such an uncomfortable time?

Yes, the answer is always yes. People who disagree can send the hate-mail, I don’t care anymore.

I feel like even uncomfortable/shocking/offensive art which is completely subjective by the way has a place in these dark times.

Who else out there has ever been saved by a really dark/depressing song or something fucked up they saw that made them feel better about their own lives? Personally the darkest things have saved me and have carried me through.

What’s the role of humor in your art? Do you rethink incorporating humor when it gets real tough or do you double down?

A lot of humor in my art comes out in the form of satire. I would say a solid 45 percent of people get it, the rest just keep scrolling.

People who know me in person know that I’m kind of like a surreal performance artist. I’m ether trying to make you think or laugh uncontrollably about how much of a circus it all is.

Ravenous Robot by Justin Aerni

Is Robo Boy the hero we need right now? Why or why not?

Robo Boy is kind of an anti-hero. His personality has changed over the years since I first created him back in 2005 with the first paintings and Robo Boy mini comics.

He’s now just trying to save his fellow robots from the scourge of mankind and he’s not opposed to smashing a city as mega robo boy to survive ether.

I would love to eventually see a cartoon or movie adaptation.

Is Robo Boy the hero we need right now? No, we need to collectively be our own hero right now and step up and realize their is nobody coming to save us but ourselves.

Mickey Mouse Mouse Mouse Mouse Mouse Mouse Mouse Mouse Mouse by Justin Aerni

You’ve made a particular target of Disney over the years. What does Disney represent to you? Have you taken joy from big corporations like Disney being cut off at the knees by the pandemic?

Disney is an easy target I think for a lot of artists now a days. Artistically it’s low hanging fruit as far as I’m concerned.

A simple google search will reveal to you the evils of Walt & the corporation over the years.

A little mostly unknown fact about me is my daughter Amelie has direct Disney blood on her mother’s side going back from Walt’s brother Ray.

Am I happy about Disney being cut off at the knees? Yes, and if you knew what I knew you would say yes too. Btw awesome visual picture from that.

Am I happy about all the hourly workers losing their jobs/livelihoods. No! I am for the working class people not the CEO’s. All these people need to be paid.

What kind of changes would you like to see society adapt as a result of the pandemic? Do you think American society will change. Or will this be like a weird fever dream we all wake up from and scramble to get back in line?

The only way I see society progressing / changing for the better is if all the free energy tech is released to the public. Tesla had the answer back in the early part of the last century.

Numerous scientists/inventors and whistle blowers have been silenced over the years for trying to change things. There is a hidden energy/oil war going on right now in 2020 that will decide the direction we take as a species.

I feel slightly hopeful though. The younger generation is not down with the current power structure/order. The kids are ready to break old paradigms.

If we all collectively survive the next couple of years I can see us being a multi planetary species within 30 years. I for one would like to be the first artist painting on Mars.

How is your mental health? Do you feel that you have been doing things to take care of yourself and if you do what are those things?

It’s a constant roller coaster. I have real bad ADD/OCD/seasonal depression. The doctors booted me off of the ADD meds because my high blood pressure. It was critical the last time I checked it. They were like;”how are you still alive?!?”

I refuse to be on high blood pressure medicine though.. So many side affects and I don’t like what it did to my mom.. Long story.

Like I said in the beginning of the interview Dahlia, I got extremely lucky being stuck in quarantine with my best friend. I really think that’s what is saving me right now.

Are there any supplies or tools that you rely on or would like to have but are currently struggling to get?

No, I have the Michaels hook up. I’m pretty lucky in that regard.

Head in a Jar by Justin Aerni

Did you have any planned showcases that have been postponed or cancelled? Or were there any shows that you were looking forward to attending?

Yes, there have been several cancelled group shows. Cancelled maybe forever?

I really miss going to concerts but who knows if that’s even going to be a thing anymore after this.

You’re also involved in the publication of at least ten books. Are you working on a new book now?

Right now I’m working on “Destroyed” – Director’s Cut which is a collection of all my personal best and most interesting destroyed photography works from the past 10 years & a lot of behind the scenes stuff.

There may be a new poetry book deep inside me somewhere but that’s on the back burner until the Destroyed book is released in a couple of months.

With ADD I tend to overwhelm myself by trying to juggle 10 to 20 projects all at once.

You mostly sell original pieces through Ebay. What made you choose that platform? Would you recommend putting art on Ebay to other artists? Are you seeing a difference in sales volume during this period?

Everything nowadays that doesn’t get sent directly to a gallery or a private collector commission piece gets put up in my Ebay store called; The Dead Things Gallery.

Which, up until this whole virus business I was planning on making the Dead Things Gallery into a real brick and mortar gallery space. That dream is currently up in the air though. We’ll see.

I personally love Ebay and the opportunities it’s given me over the years. It’s a great way to build a fan base when you are starting out and advertise your art basically for free.

Sales have surprisingly been growing for me during this time. The rich still seem to have extra money for art apparently.

Intuitively I feel like people are more able to connect to the energy that is my art now than before the pandemic. Maybe someone in the comments can help to explain this. I don’t know how that works.

What can we do to support your work at this time?

Just keep buying art. Keep falling in love with new art. Obsess about it. Share it with your friends. Celebrate artists that are alive now.

P.S. I love my collectors and fans. They are all bosses and pioneers in their own realms of reality. So thank you to everyone who has bought art from me and kept me going this year.

Also Dahlia, thank you for your great blog and helping to keeps the arts alive in everything you do. Stay safe everyone.

Thank you Justin for participating in this interview series.

To see more of Justin’s work follow him on Instagram or check out his ArtStation page. You can purchase his artwork through his Ebay store.

Many of Justin’s books including Destroyed, Justin Aerni Sucks, and American Trash are available through Amazon.

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate Links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Dahlia Jane

Dahlia Jane is a wicked writer living in Los Angeles.  She writes about the dark arts scene, goth life and fascinations with the macabre.  Dahlia spends her free time obsessing about skulls, devouring true crime and occult books, sewing and making messes.

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