Darius Airo Is Absolutely Endowed in The Work of The Chicago Imagists

Introduce yourself

Hello everyone, my name is Darius Airo. I’m a painter and multimedia artist. I was born and raised in Chicago and I just turned 23 years old.

When did you first start getting into art?

My father is an artist and growing up he was doing comic work. I was so surrounded by it and realized art was the only thing I wanted to be doing.

With your dad being an artist, did you go to him for help? Or did you look to learn on your own?

Initially, I was very involved with what he wanted to teach me. I remember very clearly being six years old and talking to my Dad and telling him I wanted to draw a face and him laying down the basic structure. Later in life, we went different ways stylistically and I’ve been super involved with other ideas.

Was your dad proud you were going into the same career he was in?

Yeah and no. He was very adamant about making sure it was the only thing I could do. He would say, “if there’s anything else you can do that makes you happy, do it, because being an artist sucks, it’s hard, and trying to do it for a living is really rough.” As soon as I and as soon as he realized there was no alternative, that art was what I needed to be doing, he showed nothing but support.

If your work could be placed within a past art movement, which would it be?

I think I’m absolutely endowed in the work of the Chicago Imagists. It started with an interest in graffiti and that shifted towards interesting cartoon imagery and obscure pop and commercial imagery. The pictorial language the Imagists give/gave us is really comfortable to me. I mean it’s work that I’ve been looking at my whole life going to the Art Institute.


Why do you think painting has gotten this resurgence?

I think a resurgence of painting on a macro scale can be contributed to the Forever Now show. It was the first painting retrospect at the MoMA in over 30 years and it embraced a means of producing called Zombie Formalism. The show was about responding formally to abstract expressionism, and work that happened, to modernist work. The turnout, in my opinion, was kind of dry. A lot of the work was beautiful and a lot of the artists are hitters but I think everyone that had this investment in painting and understood its validity and power as a visual language was like fuck this dry ass upper east side apartment decorative paintings. Let’s make painting something else. Since then, I’ve seen painters fucking painting. Whether they’re invested in their work in some romantic way or they’re making fun of all of it, people are considering the medium. There’s a time and a place to apply pigment to a surface that lays flat and is interacted with as a painting.

For the people who view your artwork and want a deeper understanding behind your work, what would you tell them?

I’m absolutely invested in the Art History I geek out about all day. That’s always at the forefront in what’s driving me to make more. Being responsive to Art History and considering a lineage that I’m comfortable being involved with, which is the driven by the imagists right now. I love commercial imagery that’s a little dated and a little weird. I love cartoons and weird pop shit and trying to merge funky jokey imagery. Throwing that in an art historical lens and seeing what comes out of it. When my pieces become more figural or bodily, they’re more personal. They’re more involved with domesticity. I would describe the figures as degendered and deraced. I looked to merge experiences from different people and find this figure that fits in for three different people and fifteen different moments. While still engaged with these formal and image-based motifs that I adore.


Are you impressed with the modern day art?

Nobody really gives a shit if you make a beautiful gestural painting. It’s decorative. You know who’s going to buy it? Some asshole with a suite on the 20th floor on a place off of 5th avenue. I’m not involved in decorating and I think a lot of people are not. Going back to the show Forever Now, I thought there were a lot of bombs. Using the excuse that it’s responsive to Art History, but adding nothing new. You’re not responding, you’re regurgitating. It coined the term zombie formalism. Just bringing something back from the dead saying look, I like these things because I like painting.

I saw recently you put out some pants. Can we be expecting you getting into making more clothes?

Yeah. The pants were a pain in the ass. Hand printed with my dear friend Alex Kurkulis through Rowboat press. They showed so much love and were wonderful to work with. I’m thinking of creating prints next. I’ve been working with a printer named Chris Cunningham who just opened his own shop, Loupe Print. He does beautiful high-quality inkjet printing and I think I might do a small run. But yes, shirts, merch, you could expect something soon. I’m doing a pop-up installation in May and I’m going to release some things for that.

A few years back you talked about how you were releasing a trilogy book. You’ve dropped Vessels and American Manic, are we going to be expecting Just friends?

Yeah. Either a smaller edition or a bigger edition. I want to do something different with this book. It’s the last of this series. It needs to die here. But I think I’ll be making these kinds of books for the rest of my life because I love making them. I’ve been stewing on it, but I’m ready for it. I’m ready to start compiling imagery. So, fuck yeah I’m making just friends. I’m really excited about it, but I want it to be a really special thing.


What’s your take on people viewing your art on a digital platform?

I have to make that separation. The paintings are physical. The work that I’m making (paintings/drawings) they’re studio objects, ya know. I put pinholes in them as I’m working on them. They tear. They’ve got a really heavy physicality to them. recently I was going to post a few paintings, but before I posted them, I threw them in Photoshop and cleaned them up. I got rid of the body of them and presented them as a Jpeg, not as a painting. If you want to see it in person, it looks different. But this is the digital image and it has to be the digital image. painting in person is a really important thing. But I want to make sure I maintain that separation. My digital work has expanded a little bit over the years.

One person commented on your artwork before and said, “Beautiful movement. I’m curious as to what you are trying to say about the black experience as a white artist.” You are a witness to the subjects you paint, so what is your inspiration?

This goes back to the figural paintings that were so much about being deraced and degendered. It’s a fine line. I want to be an ally, but I know I’m not the one that needs to be saying this shit. The clearest and most familiar advice that I’ve gotten to maintain my role as an ally is to shut the fuck up and listen. Talk when there are people that need to be talked to. They were black bodies forsure. But, the eclectic quality of these figures and how they sit in for so many people and experiences…black culture and my friends and family and the people that I grew up with…all has helped form who I am. I fucking grew up on A Tribe Called Quest, ya know? At no point will I not acknowledge how much I am inspired by black culture. If a moment that comes from an experience with someone black in my life works it’s way into a painting, that’s what it’s doing. Those are the most personal paintings I make. They’re less about a larger response. They’re exclusively about my response to my immediate surroundings and the people and places that I’m surrounded with.


When it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?

As someone who made a thorough impact on the conversation that I find myself in as my practice grows. Having people like my artwork would be cool too. Haha.