PhD, Postdoc at Arts and Cultural Studies, Copenhagen University and freelance writer
Watching a conventional play at the theatre, the audience is a fly on the fourth wall. We are voyeurs of what happens on stage and the auditorium forms no part of the drama. All the aesthetic and dramatic dynamics take place on the stage, within that arena. If an actor addresses the audience directly, or if part of the action is played out among or around the audience, the fourth wall is broken and the dramatic effects radically altered. With this rejigging of relations and definitions of space, the audience has to forfeit its fly-on-the-wall status, irrespective of whether its members become involved in the performance. They frequently need to be much more perceptually aware of where the action is, sometimes even having to move and shift position to follow it, with each spectator viewing it from an individual visual angle. The audience space is no longer external to the work but intrinsic to it.
The Painting’s Fourth Wall
Just as in the traditional theatre, the traditional painting suggests a “stage set” that fills the canvas with its own imaginary space, marked off by the picture frame from the specific setting in which it hangs. This is most clearly the case with figurative paintings with perspective, where a scene quite literally unfolds before our eyes. But it is also true of abstract paintings where the imaginary space, while often appearing as a surface itself, is sharply delimited from the surrounding space. The simpler the abstract painting, the more it seems to gesture towards the concrete, contextual space, the “fourth wall” gradually dissolving away in consequence. Troels Aagaard pursues this approach to the point where the painting becomes an object in space.
His pictures break with the painting’s “fourth wall” convention in at least four respects:
- By departing from flat planes and introducing bulging contours.
- By featuring holes in the painting surface and thereby drawing attention to the wall.
- By transgressing the frame.
- By featuring so few internal relations that the focus on exterior relations is heightened.
The first three features relate to the physical properties of the work while the fourth has to do with our perception of individual objects.
Bulges, Holes and Transgression of the Frame
It is as if many of Aagaard’s pictures are not content to be flat planes, for they insist on bulging out into space, highlighting the third dimension. This is the case in As You Approach Town, where, having detached themselves from the surface, the stripes meander to the point of revealing their purple reverse sides. Consequently, we have not really viewed these works until we have wandered round them a bit, looking at them from the sides too. Ideally, we need to touch them and feel the smoothness of the curves, except that we must refrain from doing so – they mark easily. Fortunately, our senses are so integrated that we are able to “touch them” visually – we can see, as it were, how they would feel, our fingers almost registering the sensation.
The wall behind a painting is traditionally a neutral backdrop that draws as little attention to itself as possible. But in Aagaard’s pictures, there are holes into the wall behind, or the wall itself has been painted so as to function as an extension of the painting’s frame. This is sometimes only noticed at close quarters – revealing a playful dialectic going on between foreground and background space, the work and its surroundings. This is also the case when the rectangular form is breached, with the painting’s content streaming out along the wall.
The bulges create a relief effect, which, in conjunction with the other frame-transgressive features, results in the works’ hovering between a painting surface, a relief and a concrete object. Aagaard’s painted wooden objects inscribe themselves into the tradition known as “the extension of the painting”, where, as in both minimalist objects and installation art, the space informs the work. But they do so on painting’s terms.
Whenever we view a painting – whether figurative or abstract – replete with interrelating elements, we find that these interconnections more than suffice to absorb our attention. We try to be oblivious of our surroundings and the specific features of the space itself in order to be drawn deeper into the picture. The simpler the painting, however, the fewer the internal relations there are to engage with, and the more it will come across as a single element. Then, instead of internal relations, the relation of the work to its setting will come to play a crucial role: the painting will be viewed as an element in its contextual interrelationships with the wall, other objects, the entire space.
Aagaard’s paintings are not as simple as the minimalist objects that originally explored this idea, but often simple enough to produce something of the same effect. Their smoothness and clarity of form underpin the sense of a gesturing out towards the space triggered by the transgression of the painting’s frame. The works are meticulously installed, with the space as the stage in which they figure as elements in a spatial installation with the viewer at the centre.
Graphs, Designs, Pop
The visual idiom adopted by Aagaard is neither gestural-expressive nor purist. Rather, it might be thought of as a kind of stylized Pop Art. With its simple forms, smooth finish and crisp boundaries, his work recalls graphs, computer graphics and other forms of visual design. Instead of a closed pictorial universe we observe an interaction with contemporary graphic styles. Moreover, we encounter a cool aesthetics, evocative not of myths of spontaneity and existential interiority but, if anything, a ludic matter-of-factness.
Bright, well-defined fields characterize graph aesthetics, with no modification of shades within the individual field. Since graphs are used to illustrate data, the more easily legible they are the better. Troels Aagaard’s pictures are rarely graphs as such but they bear the mark of graph aesthetics – recalling curve graphs in particular. Read as graphs they are devoid of meaning since we have no knowledge of what they supposedly show. Now and again the title offers a hint, but it remains difficult to pinpoint a connection. They are free-floating graphs, unconstrained by the function of communicating quantitative data. What remains are the aesthetic features.
Sound, Music and Glitches
The primary focus of many of the works seems to be the visualization of sound phenomena. Many of the titles evoke sound effects and defects: Wow and Flutter, Reverb, Flanger. Sound can only be imperfectly visualized – it cannot be shown – but there are a variety of devices that highlight specific aspects of sound. It began with musical notation, with its focus on the pure tones and regular metre that are still used when classical music is performed. In the case of modern electronic music, however, visualization takes the form of a graphic image of the specific sound and, rather than serving as a cue to the musician, it is primarily a tool for the composer. Every music-editing program has its integrated visualization features and the sight of a frequency/soundwave graph is familiar to most as a common convention – even to those who have no experience of working with sound or music themselves.
The graphical visualization of sound is also quantification – a visual representation of sound’s measurable properties, enabling phenomena to be seen that cannot be heard. For instance, a millisecond of sound can be blown up to full-screen mode, revealing a wealth of detail: a complexity encompassed by sound that can only be registered by electronics. Aagaard exploits these devices in a work like Lichtenstein Reconstructed.
Sound hovers between being an object (an existent thing) and an event (an occurrence at a particular moment in time). Live music is primarily an event while recorded music is primarily an object that can be preserved, repeated and modified. For the most part, Aagaard’s pictures involve allusions to sound as an object, expressed in the form of graphs.
Oval Systemisch is an ambiguous work title that refers to both the oval form depicted in the painting, the notion of system and an influential album by the trio Oval, who in 1994 created music based on the deliberate mutilation of a CD – causing it to skip – and then combining the resulting sound fragments into a new musical whole. This album marked the birth of the glitch genre and the whole idea of using defects creatively was an inspiration for Aagaard; the introduction of small “blips” or “gaps” into systems – flaws in what is otherwise flawless – and thereby exposing the material in a different, off-kilter way. A case in point is the work Wow and Flutter, where a graph is abruptly shattered by computer pixels that flow out over the frame, as though the result of some digital processing error.
Troels Aagaard gives his works arresting and imaginative titles. There are no instances of Untitled or Composition to be found here. We find, instead, evocative titles such as Surface of Sound, Attack of the Ghostriders and Hunted by a Freak. These titles are not explanations of what is going on in the pictures and the pictures are not illustrations of the titles. There is, of course, a connection, but no real match. The amorphous lump in Hunted by a Freak is conceivably construable as a “freak” on the trail of its quarry, but the picture itself resists too literal a reading. The dialectical relationship between picture and title calls for an open-ended interpretive response.
Instead of signing up to the ideology of a strictly visual idiom, bereft of all reference to language, Aagaard explores the interplay between visual and linguistic signs. For the fact of the matter is that language and sensory experience are closely intermeshed, and the titles add something to our perceptual experience of the paintings without limiting interpretation to a single meaning.
Experiencing the Work
To step into Troels Aagaard’s pictorial world is to step into a space featuring painted objects that interact with the walls, the setting, each other and their titles. They speak not only to our visual but also to our tactile and auditory senses, creating a sense of cool, style-conscious play. They call for a willingness to shift perspective, both physically and in our thinking, rather than a fixed gaze. Then the works will open up to the viewer, resonating into a dynamic experience.