VaultArt Studio artist Darian Johnson turns beloved animation into grotesque paintings | Pittsburgh City Paper

VaultArt Studio artist Darian Johnson turns beloved animation into grotesque paintings

click to enlarge Darian Johnson’s SpongeBob SquarePants, part of In the Flesh at VaultArt Studio - PHOTO: DARIAN JOHNSON/COURTESY OF VAULTART STUDIO
Photo: Darian Johnson/Courtesy of VaultArt Studio
Darian Johnson’s SpongeBob SquarePants, part of In the Flesh at VaultArt Studio
For generations of kids who grew up on cable, Nickelodeon was it. The channel hit its creative peak in the 1990s but still draws audiences in, particularly with the long-running, mega-hit animated series SpongeBob SquarePants, which has managed to go beyond the small screen to social media in the form of countless memes.

One local artist has turned Nickelodeon nostalgia into a series of fascinatingly bizarre paintings, now on view at VaultArt Studio.

Darian Johnson, a local painter, sculptor, and illustrator, is part of In the Flesh, the studio’s annual Halloween group exhibition described as featuring "all the ghosts and goblins you know and loathe, along with a selection of avant-garde works that map the intersections of the supernatural, the weird, and the grotesque.”


The multi-artist show will feature the debut of Johnson's master series Gross Up Close Up. VaultArt states that the Halloween show takes inspiration from Gross Up Close Up, a collection of what’s described as “photoreal paintings of Nickelodeon characters,” serving as an ode to the infamous "Gross-Up Close-Up" animation technique.

What’s been dubbed the "Gross-Up Close-Up" became prominent on Nickelodeon shows, and refers to moments when an episode cuts suddenly to jarring close-ups of characters, during which the cartoony aesthetic is replaced with more realistic, body horror-esque details like throbbing veins, rotting teeth, or infected eyes. The effect was featured on Ren & Stimpy,and has been used on SpongeBob and other shows.

click to enlarge Darian Johnson’s Hey Arnold!, part of In the Flesh at VaultArt Studio - PHOTO: DARIAN JOHNSON/COURTESY OF VAULTART STUDIO
Photo: Darian Johnson/Courtesy of VaultArt Studio
Darian Johnson’s Hey Arnold!, part of In the Flesh at VaultArt Studio
The theme comes through in Johnson’s work, with acrylic paintings putting sometimes uncanny, sometimes captivatingly creepy spins on beloved Nickelodeon characters from the past few decades. Familiar smiles are warped into menacing grins, and eyes are bloodshot or lifeless. In one, SpongeBob brandishes the spatula from his job at the Krusty Krab. In another, Krumm, the comical Aaahh!!! Real Monsters creature defined by his stench and disembodied eyes, looks truly monstrous, his mouth bloody and full of jagged teeth.

Other animated series represented include Hey Arnold!, Rocko's Modern Life, The Wild Thornberrys, The Fairly OddParents, and others.


In the Flesh — which debuted during the October Penn Avenue First Friday gallery crawl — fits in with the mission of VaultArt. The Garfield-based space is a project of Achieva, a Southwestern Pennsylvania nonprofit organization that “advocates for, empowers, and supports people with disabilities and their families throughout their lives.”

In the Flesh curator Benjy Blanco, who, along with coworkers Sam Berner and Steph Neary, runs operations at VaultArt Studio, and says the space functions like an artist collective, where the “artists working at the studio determine our programming — in this case, we're big Halloween fans out here.”

Gross Up Close Up hangs along with works from other VaultArt artists, including animation by Kahyll Holyfield, drawings by Wendy Davis, and sculptures by Maggie Kambic. Similar to Johnson, fellow painter Lee Kennedy also draws on pop culture, including with a portrait of midnight movie icon Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Like other VaultArt artists, Johnson faces certain obstacles to getting his art into the community. Blanco says Johnson “expresses himself through atypical verbal communication, mostly nouns and titles,” but says the “shocking quality of his work often speaks for itself.” Even so, Blanco provided a statement from Johnson, which reads:

“Nick.
Gross.
Doug.
Wild.
Arnold.
Real Monster.
Real.
Ha!
Yeah!”


The services offered by VaultArt helps to empower and introduce to the scene artists who may otherwise be overlooked. The VaultArt website states that artists are given access to professional-level arts instruction, exhibition space, and career coaching in order to “transform their creativity into the calling of their choice.”

The support VaultArt offers goes beyond the creative. The studio website says 100% of any artwork purchases goes back to the artists. Currently, various works by VaultArt artists are available to buy on the studio’s website, with prices ranging anywhere from $15 up to $1,000.

It’s here that Johnson’s obvious penchant for reimagining pop culture becomes more clear, with paintings dedicated to Karate Kid, professional wrestler-turned-actor John Cena, and various comic book characters. Some even have a Pittsburgh bent, with images of late baseball great Roberto Clemente and the famous view of the Incline and Downtown’s Point State Park. One stand-out depicts local documentary filmmaker Rick Sebak meeting controversial rapper/producer Kanye West at Wholey’s Fish Market.

click to enlarge Darian Johnson’s Rocko’s Modern Life, part of In the Flesh at VaultArt Studio - PHOTO: DARIAN JOHNSON/COURTESY OF VAULTART STUDIO
Photo: Darian Johnson/Courtesy of VaultArt Studio
Darian Johnson’s Rocko’s Modern Life, part of In the Flesh at VaultArt Studio
Along with In the Flesh, which showcases all the artists working at VaultArt Studio, audiences can expect to see works from the show uploaded and made available for sale on the vaultartstudio.org online shop throughout October.

Blanco calls Johnson's new painting series “extraordinary,” adding, “We've been thrilled to build up to his showcase for several months.” He adds that Johnson is “one of the most skilled artists” he knows in the region, and speaks to the wide appeal of his art.

“His work, which often intersects pop culture and the grotesque, dazzles with its technical flourishes while finding room for personal connections,” says Blanco. “Why do we love this stuff? By devoting such remarkable talent to pop art, Johnson invites us to consider the discrepancies of artistic merit versus what we really value and deeply need."
Gross Up Close Up and In the Flesh. Through October. VaultArt Studio. 5100 Penn Ave., Garfield. Works will also be uploaded to the gallery website. vaultartstudio.org
UPDATE, Thu. Oct. 7: After publication, Pittsburgh City Paper was notified of similarities between Johnson’s artwork and other Gross-Up Close-Up artists, including an allegation that Johnson plagiarized California artist Miguel Vasquez's 3D artwork of Hey Arnold! when creating his own Arnold painting, which appears at the top of this article and on this week's City Paper cover. We reached out to VaultArt Studios who say they were not previously aware of these allegations. VaultArt further explained Johnson's process, saying that he paints by using reference materials he finds online, often using multiple images for a piece, similar to how the original Gross-Up Close-Up artists used reference material from the Nickelodeon characters for their artwork.