Flags and Penises
Aaron Kent’s provocative art
By Saad Ghosn
“I do not see myself as special or different from anyone else” says Aaron Kent. “I am just an artist who enjoys what he does. My art makes me happy; it is my being.”
Kent’s art is also his voice as he uses it, instead of words, to express and affirm who he is, convey his views, question and confront political and social issues and challenge viewers to think critically about our government and the values of our society.
A versatile artist born in Springfield, Ohio, Kent now lives in Cincinnati. Encouraged by his nurturing mother, he has been drawing or involved in art classes since early childhood. In high school he studied commercial art, later switching to fine arts. He graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati with a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture and worked at Casting Arts and Technology for seven years, practicing mold making, bronze casting and metal fabrication. Kent also uses other media including printmaking, painting and performance art.
From the beginning his work has been unconventional, questioning the status quo, triggering thinking about controversial issues such as religion, sexuality, money, freedom of speech and some aspects of punk culture. It has also been provocative both in its imagery and the often taboo subjects it addresses.
His graphic series, America the Beautiful, recreated the American flag in various ways, associating it with money, religion and war, thus using it to address different issues that pertain to America, its politics and its culture. It served to artistically reaffirm the freedom of speech that Kent believed the U.S. Constitution provided, at the same time raising awareness and dialogue with the viewer. Hey Buddy Can You Spare a Dime, a piece from the series, consisted of an American flag made of $ bills. By incorporating money into the flag, Kent alluded to the important role money plays in U.S. politics, American wealth in the face of its coexisting poverty and the increasingly changing economic horizons locally and worldwide.
In New American Anthem, he used music bars as lines for a flag that he shot several times with a gun; he then had music written based on the shots-caused pattern. He thus associated firearms violence to the American flag, creating a new anthem with a new message, making an implicit statement about the direction of our country.
Another series, In God We Trust, challenges the thinking on who and what God is, religion, right vs. wrong and how people use God for money and make money their god. Raised Catholic, Kent disassociated himself early on from religion as it did not answer his questions and was often, in his eyes, misused to perpetuate control, repression and self-interests.
“I do not need God to have a good heart,” he says. “Without religion one can still be a good person.”
Although agnostic, Kent remains spiritual, connecting to people and helping others whenever he can – the poor, homeless, abandoned and less fortunate. This is his religion, being honest, kind and supportive – not the materialistic, empire-building values promoted by institutions, which detract from the essential.
His print, In God We Trust, consists of $1 bills forming a cross. It shows the front of the bills with “The United States of America” prominently printed on them and the image of George Washington in their center. It directly links money to politics to religion, an omnipresent, omnipotent, overlapping trinity in our society.
Kent’s sculpture, God Told Me It Was OK, represents a cross covered with Bible pages on which he silk-screened images pertaining to sexuality. His intention was to throw religion and the underworld of sex together, questioning what is right and who judges wrong and points to the fact that religion looks down on lifestyles not of its likeness instead of accepting people for whom they are, appreciating their goodness.
Other artworks address the hypocrisy of religious institutions, for instance their tacit approval of wars and violence contradictory to their peace teaching, just because they benefit from them materially and monetarily.
Kent’s latest series, Bones, consists of sculptures reflecting on death and its spiritual connection to the circle of life. Based on bones repeatedly casted in bronze and arranged into unique, somewhat abstract sculptural patterns, the pieces represent a shift from death to the beauty and power of the continuous creative process. They connect individuals in a serene and harmonious way to their questioning of life and death, their own death, their survival through giving back. His sculptures illustrate at the same time the fragility yet the strength of all living beings, neutralizing indirectly the fears imposed by religions.
Kent also makes a point of putting his art outside galleries, in public spaces, in order to impact passers-by and make his art and message part of their daily lives. For instance, he pastes his enlarged prints on blank, abandoned walls, installs his sculptures anonymously in the streets, sets spontaneous performance installations.
“I am an activist,” he says. “My art says something that I want to communicate. It reflects who I am, what I believe in. I want it to raise questions and trigger thinking, irrespective of the immediate reaction.”
To point to sexuality and its important role in life and fight its unhealthy obliteration by society, Kent displayed in many public places large plaster-casted penises, connecting them to each other as if leading the way. To call attention to the terror of wars we inflict on other people, he performed unannounced, dressed up in a hazmat suit, public acts in restaurants and coffee shops, leaving behind him, unattended, small black boxes and briefcases. Perceived as a threat, he would be asked to leave, but after having generated in those present the same uneasiness and fear others live on a daily basis because of the wars we have created for them.
“If I do not do art, I do not feel complete,” Kent says. “Art is my voice and my communication. It is also my share for a better world.”