Trine Møller Madsen
MA in Art History
Cracks in Reality
In the pre-cinema days of the early twentieth century, numerous ingenious attempts were made to illustrate movement, using either special photographic techniques or elaborate devices capable of animating still images. Now, a century later, Troels Aagaard takes the diametrically opposite approach. In an age in which media messages flash past, he arrests reality by giving visual permanence to the infinitesimal building blocks underlying the media flow. His paintings zoom in elements that are normally imperceptible – from flickering pixels to pulsating sound waves. One press of the button and the image is frozen in time. And yet curiously, Aagaard’s paintings manage to evoke a strong sense of transience.
Brightly coloured, and in an abstract idiom that ranges from taut geometry to flowing, organic lines, the depictions of digital information are immediately recognizable. No attempt is made to interpret the world in classical literary terms: the works contain no single determinate meaning or codes needing deciphering. In other words, in Aagaard’s paintings, the creation of meaning occurs not within the frame but in a dialectic with the context – both the physical setting and the art-theoretical context into which the works are inscribed.
Initially, viewed frontally, many of the works appear as flat surfaces. But if the viewer happens to move a fraction the result, in some cases, is an optical illusion – as though Aagaard had invested individual bands of colour with light and shade and hence the appearance of three-dimensionality. The next moment it becomes clear to the viewer that the colours actually meander: we are confronted not with a flat canvas but with a slotted MDF or plywood relief. In contrast to classic modernist paintings, the apprehension of Aagaard’s works is not achievable from a single ideal position or by using the eyes alone: the whole body must be brought into play. The paintings call for movement and shifts in position. All depending on viewer perspective, relations between surface and depth fluctuate, and the work disengages itself from the interpretive framework in which the viewer is instinctively prompted to place it.
Troels Aagaard is a conceptual painter. Woven into his practice are threads that reach back to the avantgarde movements of the 1960s with their challenge to modernism’s specific genre categories and, concomitantly, to the conventions, which, in art-historical terms, accompanied them – a challenge that, albeit with varying degrees of intensity, continues today. Painting saw the subversion of conventional genre features and the transcendence of boundaries – even the most literal, the painting’s frame – or the transmutation of the painting process into a new medium. This latter strategy Aagaard pursued in his practice in the artists’ group PAINT OVER. By combining painting with, inter alia, electronic music and computer games, he created digital crossovers, in which the work, set in motion, mutates across a timesequence.
In Aagaard’s solo practice, the conceptual approach is reflected in the transgression of the actual physical frame, as when an oversize brushstroke sweeps across the picture plane and out beyond the frame’s edge. The rhythmic structure in the extended pictorial field results from the tension that emerges between the various displaced layers – between form, colour, surface and depth. Rather than organizing the pictorial space perceptively, with the work closing in on itself, Aagaard unfurls space, allowing his painting to constitute itself as a reality somewhere between the surface and the physical setting.
Breaking the Fourth Wall – the title of Aagaard’s solo show at Henningsen Contemporary in 2007 – refers to the invisible wall located between the front of the stage in a proscenium theatre and the audience. This ‘wall’ dissolves if the actors address the audience, revealing that what goes on on stage is pure fiction. In the visual arts, the invisible boundary that secures the distance between work and viewer is delivered by the frame, which separates the content of the work from the environing space. The frame’s delimiting function is reinforced by the modernist exhibition setting – the white cube – whose pristine surfaces allow art to present itself as something rarefied, separate from the wider world and firmly ensconced in the realm of high culture.
Expansive and Elastic
When the edge of the picture frame separating the painting from the wider physical sphere is breached, it has implications for the work. Once down from its pedestal, the painting is exposed to us as a construction. Through its ‘demoted’ status the work becomes part of quotidian reality on equal terms with other occupants of space, and in this new role the painting acquires mobility. In Aagaard’s case the paintings meander, twist and lunge – off the surface, across the frame, diagonally onto the wall and occasionally even round corners.
The digital building blocks, auditory and visual, that are Aagaard’s primary subjects are intrinsically intangible entities. But in his art, they morph into something utterly physical. Not only are they depicted as sine curves, in some cases the auditory phenomena are rendered lying on their sides, and, in the form of sinuous MDF bands, are ‘pulled’ out of the wall. In other pictures, oversize pixels detach themselves from the surface and float freely over the painting’s boundary edge. When marks and brushstrokes plunge into space, or bands of colour meander, it is as though colour and surfaces are energized – are invested with a kind of expressive power – making the work an active presence in the space, on a par with the viewer.
Aagaard’s spatially informed paintings raise question marks over not only art’s autonomous status, but also over the narrative thrust and constitution of the architectural setting. When Aagaard installs a work around a corner at roughly knee height, the effect presents as a kind of bulge in space. Even though mounted on the wall, the painting becomes a palpably physical presence – is transformed into an object that impinges upon our reading of the space and our passage through it.
A series of paintings installed in the psychiatric unit at Aalborg Hospital appear to stretch towards the outside world. The lines that stream out from the painted plywood boards to the windows set high in the walls might seem to suggest a mental reaching out to life beyond the building’s confines. A site-specific installation that as well as entering into dialogue with the physical setting subtly reflects on the nature of the location, and the life lived there, cut off from wider society.
In Aagaard’s works the sensuous and the exuberant blend with the structures and order that are the basis of all science. For all the flickeringness of both digital images and sound, electronic effects depend on the operation of underlying natural laws, grids and geometries. In common with all other natural phenomena, they reflect a hidden order – the rational order that informs the endless, self-generating patterns that Aagaard makes his subject matter and depicts in his paintings. At the same time, these effects are a reminder that even the smallest digital atoms are in motion. Not even art can freeze the image.
When parts of the picture are pixellated, or when strands of colour are wrenched away from the surface, the paintings take on an air of ephemerality and of something uncohering. They become provisional statements, soon to dissolve and disappear. The same effect is produced when the painting is split into two with the intervening stretch of wall brought into play. Or when the holes in a ruptured MDF board offer glimpses of the bare exhibition wall – often specifically painted for the purpose. The setting forms part of the work, and the moment the ‘outermost layer’ is peeled away, the work ceases to be. It is reconstituted only when reinstalled – against a new coloured backdrop – enabling further interactions between surface and depth.
Troels Aagaard’s paintings create, quite literally, cracks in reality, destabilizing the viewer’s perceptual horizons. The painting’s environing space expands, open-endedly and dialectically.