Review: Aujla, Harlan, and Pittman at Martos Gallery

by Pac Pobric

Group exhibitions are tremendously difficult territory for curators. Their success or failure depends not only on whether or not the individual artworks are any good, but also on how they engage one another. The included artists should have as much in common with one another as they don’t, meaning that, ideally, the art asks similar questions without arriving at the same answer. Whether Aaron Aujla, Charles Harlan, and John Pittman are in fact on the same path is not immediately clear, yet it nevertheless stands that all three have exhibited some strong work in their group show at the Martos Gallery.

Aaron Aujla. Doorway, 2012. Wood, steel, nails, wood fill, latex paint. 86 x 34 x 4 inches. Courtesy Martos Gallery and the artist.

As far as Aujla is concerned, his art is abstract because it attempts to make everyday experiences unfamiliar. His closet, shelf, and doorframe all take on a peculiar character in the gallery when abstracted from their conventional domestic context. But the point of work like this is to maintain and deepen that strange feeling of unfamiliarity, and the shame with Aujla’s work is how quickly it becomes ordinary again. In particular, his lone white and grey doorframe moves too quickly from intriguing to benign. Aujla’s impulse is in an interesting place, but the work itself doesn’t live up to its ideals.

Harlan’s art also borrows freely from a familiar world, but it’s less about abstraction than it is about establishing a certain theme. Construction materials make up the entirety of the work’s vocabulary, which ultimately addresses the motif of building. Insofar as Harlan’s art relies on that, his work is somewhat more successful than Aujla’s. But questions remain, mostly to do with editing. It isn’t clear why, for example, Harlan had to exhibit three nearly identical concrete casts of house-siding. It’s possible that one or the other example was more interesting than the rest, and Harlan would do good to be more discerning when it comes to what’s worth showing.

John Pittman. #202 – Grid Memory, Two Pinks, 2011. Alkyd on wood relief. 18 x 15 x 1.5 inches. Courtesy Martos Gallery and the artist.

Pittman’s work, on the other hand, has very little with do with anything that is  happening with either Aujla or Harlan. Wile the latter two essentially provoke the problem of the readymade, Pittman is more interested in debates that stem from the history of abstract painting. The clearest precedents, as Pittman himself pointed out to me, are Mondrian, Albers, and David Smith. But the specific question his relief painting tackles is what it means to establish figure/ground oppositions in abstract painting today. The strength of his art is that Pittman has figured out a successful way to ask exactly this question, especially in the wake of monochrome painting, which proved once and for all that painting did not need figuration in order to be good.

More generally, there’s no doubt that Aujla and Harlan have some potentially fruitful approaches, but their work is still searching for something solid. Pittman’s paintings, on the other hand, have had more time to develop, and have a more secure foundation. It’s tempting to say that Aujla and Harlan should look to Pittman for guidance, but it isn’t clear what they would draw from his work. Their art is interested in very different questions than Pittman’s, which raises the problem of what it means to curate the three together. What’s emerging in the “formalist return” of Aujla, Harlan and countless other young artists is a separate phenomenon, which proves how little it relies on any immediate precedent.

 

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