Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery March 21 - April 20, 2008
Vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, chairs, guns. These are just a few of the objects I envisioned while looking at Laurent Ajina’s works in his recent solo show at Dam, Stuhltrager. I also saw transformers and large factories. I even thought I glimpsed an entire city.
Ajina’s works possess an immense power of evocation. Abstract line drawings in paint marker on canvas or paper, they forever suggest the trappings of everyday life, but consistently refuse to concede to them. They engage with the viewer’s imagination but refuse to be bounded by it. They are formations of lines that feel frenetic and yet carefully executed.
Ajina’s show, his first in the United States, is an exciting three-room endeavor. The artist flew in himself to install it, resulting in an exhibition that, at its best, enhances the dynamism of the works through an innovative set-up. This is most apparent in the gallery’s front room, where Ajina’s unframed canvases hang randomly around the space, some butting against top corners and others situated more classically in the middle of walls.
In this room, the artist’s lines are not confined to the canvases but instead trail off onto the walls and windows. The whole space becomes a work of art, toying with the idea of absence versus presence—are the walls the primary focus, with a few smaller works serving as interruptions, or are the canvases pieces of a larger whole that is hidden behind the wall? Where are we meant to focus our attention? Foreground and background exchange places, leaving the viewer to consider the shifting nature of reality, which for Ajina, is rooted in perception. In much the same way that the drawings themselves suggest forms and objects but never actualize them, the room suggests possible set-ups and realities but never commits to one.
The second room features one unframed work and four framed ones. Their display still departs from a typical gallery presentation but doesn’t quite maintain the dynamism of the front room. The frames around the drawings here inhibit the works, containing their energy rather than liberating it. The works are strong enough to stand on their own, but the frames impose a distance between the lines and the viewer. We can envision the objects encapsulated in the drawings and sense their energy, but we can’t quite get lost in them.
In the final room, Ajina displays another variation on his characteristic form—modules. The modules are made from folded canvas, upon which Ajina has drawn lines that are thicker, darker, and less frequent than in his other works. Mid-sized and pill-shaped, they are arranged on the wall so that they form two trajectories, either raining down from the ceiling or floating up from the floor, depending on the viewer’s interpretation.
The modules are three-dimensional realizations of Ajina’s drawings. They retain the abstraction but also give it a tangible form. In this respect, they are less inviting for the imagination; it’s difficult to see cars and arms and cities in objects that already have their own forms. The three dimensionality, the thing-ness of the sculptures, imposes itself on the lines, rather than the lines projecting their myriad possibilities onto flat, blank canvas or paper. What’s more, the viewer cannot see all of the lines and intersections on a module at once—looking at an object, we can see only one side at a time—causing the lines to lose their suggestive power and become decorative.
As a whole, the show examines the way different contexts infuse similar lines with completely different visual connotations. It questions how much of that difference is Ajina’s doing, how much of it is ours, and whether either scenario engenders a more perfect state for the line. Perhaps that’s why the title of the show contains a question mark. What is the perfect line? the artist asks us to consider. What are the conditions necessary to create it, and more than that, is such a thing even possible (or desirable)? We walk away from the gallery wondering whether Ajina knows more than he lets on, leaving us to reconsider this touchstone of all artistic process and solve the puzzle ourselves. Only one thing is certain: By inserting that question mark, Ajina assures us that there are no answers to be found in his exhibit—only question after question after question.