LOS ANGELES — Aaron Axelrod is a madman. And it’s not because he’s wearing eight-pound, crystal-encrusted pink bunny ears, or a nylon jacket zipped to his neck on a balmy, 82-degree night. He’s minutes from the climax of his first survey show — and the audio cable needed for the finale is on the fritz.
It’s the opening of “Dark Matter” at the Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood. No artist has ever taken over the 12-acre venue. No one has used Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House as a canvas.
The night before, engineers had set up a skein of wires in front of the landmark. But the gearheads forgot to shut off the sprinklers, and everything got soaked in a biblical-level ablution. With the sun dipping, Axelrod isn’t sure the cables will work. Then, a nod from the sound man, and six seconds of Animal Collective flow from massive speakers. The crowd of 500 sways rhythmically — until the music dies.
The artist’s head drops and his two clunky bunny ears dangle desperately. Static fills eardrums until, like magic, the music resumes.
Axelrod bolts in front of the house, refurbished last year to the tune of $4.3 million, a maestro ready to conduct.
Holding a MIDI controller, he selects hues from a laptop’s color palette and bathes the 5,000-square-foot facade in color. Sapphire, sea-green, radioactive pink, polka dots, quiggly lines, a warping kaleidoscope of 3D projection, all timed with the beat. The artist hops like a possessed bunny, and his audience oohs and ahhs behind pointed smartphones. It worked.
Ed Ruscha exhibited here. So did Jeff Koons. But no one has ever had a solo show at Barnsdall, or used the Hollyhock House as a venue. And that’s as much because the park is city property as that it is run by a discriminating board.
“I’m impressed that Aaron was able to get such unconditional access,” says Shamim Momin, the head of the Los Angeles Nomadic Division public arts project and a former curator at the Whitney Museum.
Axelrod knows how fortunate he was. “It’s like saying this unknown is the future of L.A.’s art scene,” he says, detailing his range. “Painting, sculpture, photography, video art, projection mapping, experimental crystal art, mixed media neon light art. I like to incorporate all these mediums.”
Forty pieces in total, with the centerpiece — beyond the 3D mapping — a painting filigreed with 700,000 Swarovski crystals, a glittering pointillist spectacle perfect for social media.
Many pieces seem tied to psychedelics. Titled “Ayahuasca Purge” or “Dimethyltryptamine,” splashed with aerosol and acrylic that looks wet — a technique he calls frozen paint — they are sculptures that appear to defy gravity with imagery that invites Internet appreciation. But it’s not drug-trip art, though it may appear so at first glance. Axelrod says early experiences with hallucinogens influenced him, but now he rarely touches drugs or drink.
Is it just art for art’s sake or a masquerade for loftier messaging? Scrambled images of CNN broadcasts, a squawking, staticky Vladimir Putin as part of his freedom of the press series, a portrait of a laughing Obama that manages to make the president look downright sinister. When you think you’ve nailed the intention, there are video pieces with Axelrod licking a camera lens provocatively in between splashing paint on himself.
“The meaning is whatever you want it to be. Sometimes it’s about feeling and emotion, sometimes it’s just creative expression. I just want to pose questions,” Axelrod says.
Trained at the California Institute of the Arts, he has designed sets for “The Tonight Show,” painted Madonna and Kanye West at Coachella, done installations and collaborations with Disney, Vans and TOMS, and DJ’ed on public radio. But he didn’t make a penny off Barnsdall. He did it for what sounds like a cliche: exposure. In-kind help poured in: Golden Artist Colors gave thousands in paint. The Cooper Design Studio provided 3,000 feet of studio space; there were sponsorships from the grooming brand Baxter of California, and Swarovski donated $40,000 in crystals for a piece scheduled to tour the country.
“All these little things are what made this possible,” he says with hands flowing.
Despite an impressive, if relatively low-key oeuvre, Axelrod is an unknown, and he admits it. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen his work. Or that some big names haven’t noticed.
The collector Beth Rudin Dewoody, who owns more than 10,000 pieces, says the 32-year-old’s manic approach “reminds me of Pollock. It’s as much about his movements as the finished product. I see Aaron that way.”
Axelrod may not fit the mold of a traditional gallery artist, she continues, but that may not matter as he merges technology and encourages audience participation, which could bring major success.
“I think Aaron is really a young Turk in that area,” says Dewoody, who first visited Axelrod’s studio in 2015 and plans to commission him for a takeover of her West Palm Beach warehouse. “I love the idea of art getting out there to the public and not just being on walls and museums, but interacting with established architectural sites. That’s an incredible piece at Hollyhock that you wouldn’t expect.”
Versatility is what marks this generation, says Catherine Taft, formerly the assistant curator at the Whitney and now deputy director of the nonprofit gallery LAXART. “With his 3-D scanning technology, Axelrod’s really seeing what can be done in an aesthetic context,” she says. “And he’s making such innovative use of technology, which is what I find so interesting about it.”
It’s an approach that forces audiences to contribute their own perception instead of responding to overt explanation, Taft adds.
Axelrod is no silver-spooner, no wannabe with an Instagram following. His mom, a first-grade teacher in Beverly Hills, enrolled him in the tony district until his penchant for clownish behavior and desk drawing got him booted. He switched high schools and fell in with Latino gang culture in the San Fernando Valley, an experience that taught him how to navigate the streets.
A decade and a half later — no tattoos, kids, felonies or affectations — as normal as this mad city allows. Still, it’s that same piercingly direct take that can typecast him. And Axelrod knows what he needs now that he’s built a buzz. “If it’s the right gallery, I’ll do it. Most artists are willing if any gallery comes along. I want to make sure they share the same views on art and life as I do.”
Still, his outsider ascent isn’t lost on him. “The normal route to get to a public institution is group shows, then a gallery show. A lot of times, you never get a survey show. I got a survey show at 32. That doesn’t happen until you’re mid-career, if it happens at all. And I didn’t go the normal route. I went my own way.”
Ambitious enough to see himself as a rock star of sorts, even if he doesn’t have the sales to back it, he dreams of collaborating with Thom Yorke of Radiohead and director David Lynch, building a controversial international public piece, maybe a sculpture on the moon. Then, sensing his grandiosity, the madman pulls back.
“A lot of artists think it’s all about them,” Axelrod says, his voice an octave lower. “I know I couldn’t do this without the help and support of a lot of people. I know that. It took years to put it together and win people’s trust. It wasn’t overnight by a long shot.”