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AJ Fries: Artistic Genius

Let’s say right off the bat that the term “artistic genius” is thrown about a bit much. But in the case of AJ Fries, the word genius is more than an admission on his business card. Sure, it’s a laugh, and Fries is good for plenty of those. But then you see one of his paintings, and the levity dwindles to total silence. He’s a dead-on realist with camera-like precision. His paintings are awesomely three dimensional, and one sees all at once that the genius bit is no joke.
When you realize that you’re looking at a painted image, not a photograph, something fires in your brain; you’re head cantors to the side, and there’s an almost uncomfortable sense of trying to right yourself in front of something that you know is a painting while another part of you thinks, No. No way. No one can paint a pile of clear bubbles like that. Or, No way in hell is that not a photograph of water droplets on stainless steel. You can almost smell the bubble soap, almost feel the wetness of the drops of water on cold metal that are reflecting a thousand different images at you through their mirrored, convex surfaces.
Fries’ paintings make you stop and stare and struggle with dimensional reality. And it’s a good thing, too because if there’s anything that pisses this artist off, it’s when a person doesn’t really stop and look at a painting. It wasn’t even on his own behalf that he adopted this particular pet peeve. “I want people to look at art the way I do and think it’s the coolest s—t on earth,” Fries says. This is why when the James Rosenquist retrospective was up at the Albright-Knox back in 1986, Fries haunted it, making friends with the guards and staying late. It is also why he would throw pencils at people who merely glanced and moved on—in Fries’ estimation—far too quickly.
“I never had such an amazing time, anywhere,” Fries said. “I was 13 and doing bad knock-offs of Lichtenstein and Warhol at the time–that, and biblical-styled calligraphy. I taught myself how to do it and then did band names. The girls were really impressed.”
It wasn’t in Catholic school that Fries got his art training or exposure though. It was simply his will to seek it out, and it was his older sister’s task to help him do it because she had the wheels to get him to the Knox.
You can’t get him to say much more about his art. “Art talks are painful,” Fries moans. “It’s smearing colored goo on fabric. I can paint anywhere and get inspiration from anything including my dirty window. I can’t rely on musey, poetic bulls—t. I need to get it anywhere.” As for his work style, Fries said, “I spend most of my time in my chair, looking. When I get up and go at it, I work right through.”
Back to inspiration. Fries’ early work revolved around Warholesque images of food items such as a package of Twinkies, pies, still-life with cheese and stuffed animals, pies…It wasn’t until someone was introduced to him and said, “Oh! You’re the pie guy!” that Fries decided to move on. In the New York City phase of his career then, Fries went to the subject of desire, not for dessert this time, but rather for carnal pleasures…and toys. He painted a series of “adult” toys, set in eerie reality against the backdrop of coloring book pages, perhaps to offset the difference in young, innocent desire juxtaposed with a later, jaded yearning. Or maybe he simply liked the dark comedy of the irony of toy vs. toy. Pithy. In character as well as in his paintings, Fries is a one-liner wonder.
Whether Fries went to the toy series as a defiant gesture to throw off the pie reputation, only he knows. But it is this next phase that shows off the depth of his talent without the punch line. So from pop-ish, to degenerate, to something more consistent, Fries has been driving around the I-190 with a camera propped on his steering wheel, taking reference photos. “The camera gets stuff you can’t catch out of the corner of your eye while you’re driving,” he explains. He has landscapes he’s done from reference photos taken through his studio windows on the 7th floor of the Seneca Industrial Center at 701 Seneca Street.
The images are moody in their quality of light and heavy use of field, with the fringe of the tops of buildings taking up the lower quarter of the canvas, if that, possibly stemming from his predilection for object on ground compositions. Fries’ dream these days is to get to the top of the LCo Building for reference photographs for more landscapes. He’s planning a mural that will be a 360° view measuring 120 to 130 feet, if only he can gain access.
Fries is red/green color blind and does most of his new series in black and white, though he’ll use a blue or slightly warm glaze on top. “I took the color out to take out the emotion that people attach to color,” Fries said. “Some people have an emotional attraction to color that I would have to fight against. I’m too lazy for that. It’s hard enough to get a person to stand still in front.” The entire under-painting of the bubbles was done in red, and then Fries says, he put very little paint on top of that. He points out where subtle edges of red are visible. Then he pulls out a reference photo of snowflakes on his window and says he’s going to paint them too. There is no doubt.
Though Fries spends a lot of time in his studio, he does have another job, one that is opposite to solitary studio life. You may have met him at Dan Campieri’s at 888 Main Street, where he tends bar. Enjoy your pizza, but don’t be so quick to leave. Fries’ wit surfaces on more than his canvases, and you may want to take the time to enjoy it.
AJ has little temporary tattoos of above image, a self-portrait. If you’re lucky, he’ll hand one across the bar to you at Campieri’s, telling you that depending on where you put it, the smile gets bigger.

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