Aaron Li-Hill is a Canadian visual artist currently based in Brooklyn, who employs painting, illustration, stenciling, and sculptural elements within his works. With a background in graffiti and mural painting and a degree in Fine Arts, his works range from smaller multiples to enormous murals that explore industrialization, scientific breakthrough, man versus nature and information saturation. He incorporates found objects and unconventional materials to structure complex multi-layered pieces that are as aesthetic as they are thought provoking. Li-Hill possesses a BFA from OCADU and has travelled and shown in countries such as Australia, USA, Germany, Iceland and China. He has had works shown in such national institutions as the National Gallery of Victoria, The Art Gallery of Ontario, the Portsmouth Museum of Art in New Hampshire and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Hi Aaron! Could you start off with telling us a little bit about your background? At what point did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. My father was from Vienna, but as a child had to flee to England due to WW2, while my mother was from California, first generation born outside of China. My grandmother on my mother’s side came to America for university, but because of the Cultural Revolution and American – Chinese relations, was forced to stay in America. All this to say that I come from a very mixed background. I always drew as a child but stopped to pursue skateboarding when I was about 12. Through skateboarding I got into graffiti, that became my main passion for many years. Graffiti gradually transitioned into something of a hybrid with fine arts. At one point in high school, I would say maybe Grade 11, I was 16 years old, I realized I didn’t care enough about any subjects or career options as much as I did art. I was quite unskilled, I wasn’t one of those kids who was born with it and really pushed myself to become better. Back then I knew that if I was going to spend my life doing something, I better care enough about it to put my all into it. Art was that passion.
Your installations are really unique, we love the way you create these spaces with 2D and 3D elements. How did you come up with this idea, and what was the inspiration behind it?
I was doing these drawings at the time. Line work and geometric shapes that are actually still within the work I do today. They were these small pencil pieces, like organisms that were manifestations around this pattern I kept seeing. I think the first time I had this idea was flying over city at night, and seeing this chaotic grid form in the darkness. You see it when you look at flight connection maps, internet-hub connections, city infrastructure and scaffolding systems. I saw this pattern as the bones of civilization. A rational thought in a chaotic world, but when multiplied, it takes on a chaotic form itself. After a while, a friend suggested I try making one out of string and nails that the line work might be more interesting layered. After a few attempts they became more 3-D. Eventually I thought about blowing the line up and creating it in response to an environment, which was closer to the mural and graffiti work I was doing at the time. I like to use recycled materials, and a frame shop I knew was throwing out off-cuts, which reminded me of a painted line. That was how I made that bridge. I really like the idea of creating my own canvas, or environment, something that fits into a space instead of being submissive or dominant to it. A more symbiotic relation between the work and the surroundings.
“I had this idea was flying over city at night, and seeing this chaotic grid form in the darkness…I saw this pattern as the bones of civilization. A rational thought in a chaotic world”
How long does it take for you to install a piece? What is your creative process?
I mean that is a tough question to answer. I spent my whole life honing my skills to get to the point where I can create any given artwork in that amount of time. I usually don’t like thinking of artworks in terms of hours spent, because in so many ways it took me decades to be able to do it. The process begins with immersing myself into a space and figuring out a flow of the work, where is it going, why and how. Then I create the bones of it by attaching lengths of wood. If the sculpture involves painted wood then that is a whole pre-process. Once the structure is up, I figure out where and how the imagery will work into it. Lately I have been breaking apart pieces of thin plywood to create a canvas to paint on. It reminds me of discarded materials, like torn paper, but also adds to the explosive quality a lot of my work embodies. It becomes something of a puzzle, breaking pieces apart and seeing what works compositionally where and next to what shape. Then I paint onto the forms I have attached, usually in spray paint, and finish off with building thinner layers overtop, or a reflective pool of water on occasion.
What are the central themes you explore in your work?
This really depends on the situation. A lot of the time I try to connect my work to something local if it is a project in a different space, city or scenario. I tend to pull from stories, issues, and tensions from what is in the surroundings. Usually my themes, however specific, also embody broader ones that remain fairly constant. My work usually weaves between themes and tries to build connections between them. In a broader context I employ a sense of movement, which is usually the most consistent “theme” if you can call it that. This movement could be seen as exploring ephemerality. Issues of aggression, climate change, information saturation and global political tensions are just a few that arise in my work. However, in many ways I see the main question these fall within is how contemporary capital driven society affects both the inner and outer worlds, psychologically and ecologically.
What are your artistic influences?
I was very struck by the Faulkner quote and it still resonates with me today, “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life.”
Early 20th century artists such as Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Julies Marey, who were at the forefront of cinematic and scientific photography. Capturing early stages of motion are two very large influences for me. But I draw a lot from books and music. Authors such as Rebecca Solnit and Siri Hustvet, Murakami, Jared Diamond and many more have inspired a lot of ideas and thoughts surrounding my work.
What are the challenges you encounter creatively and technically?
Well there is a constant self-doubt, which I think every creative person battles with. The nagging thoughts that your ideas, your work aren’t worth it, or that your work doesn’t matter. It’s a hard thing to combat, and some days it’s easier than others. I find it’s helpful to realize that it can fuel you to constantly, try harder and dive deeper into your ideas and your work. If I were always satisfied, I would become stagnant and not explore as much.
You’re originally from Toronto and you now live in Brooklyn? What made you move? What is life like as an artist in New York these days?
I moved for love actually. My then girlfriend/ now wife was accepted to do her masters at the New School here in New York. I have a dual citizenship thanks to my mother and though it was a hard move to make, it was more than worth it. I knew long distance would end in tears and heartache so I pulled up my bootstraps and moved.
It’s good, it’s tough obviously but I find it infinitely rewarding. I think if I didn’t do murals and more site-specific work, I would be finding it much more challenging. I think there are thousands of studio painters in New York so trying to “make it” in that regard is very difficult. The fact I create work in the public realm helps put me in a different space then the studio painters, which has made my experience here very different to most I believe.
If you hadn’t pursued visual art as a career, what would you have done instead?
I am very interested in various fields of science and my grandfather was a famous scientist. I most likely would have perused something in that field. But to bring it back to my first answer I really wasn’t passionate about anything else, art is my thing and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Early on when I first started painting, a friend of my fathers heard I wanted to pursue art. He told me about Picasso and the reason he was taken so seriously is that he knew the rules before he began to break them. He could paint like an adult before he could paint like a child and that gave him the credibility he needed. That helped really push me to learn how to paint and draw. I think it’s a very late 90’s concept of art but it worked for me. I think craft has gone down a lot but lately is back in people’s graces. I really valued that and the work ethic it instilled. Speaking of work ethic, the Chuck Close quote really helped me as well. “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Are you working on any new projects? What are your plans for the future?
Always working on new projects J! A few too many to put down but just a few are various large projects, some mural and some installation work around the world such as Denmark and Belarus. Beyond that just keep exploring. I have some exciting things on the horizon but I don’t want to count any eggs before they hatch. So in the meantime I’m happy to just keep creating.