Jen Aitken's Components speaks to the contemporary human condition

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Jen Aitken: Components
At Trench Contemporary Art until May 12

If you could mate the bronze sculptures of French surrealist Jean Arp with the soft sculptures of American pop artist Claes Oldenberg, you might come up with offspring resembling Jen Aitken’s fabric-covered abstract forms. Then again, maybe that marriage would be between Luanne Martineau’s wonderfully grotesque fabric art and Russian constructivism. Maybe.

Aitken, who graduated from Vancouver’s Emily Carr University in 2010 and is now based in Toronto, creates funny, provocative, three-dimensional work that grows out of the garden of biomorphic abstraction. Her organic and more recent geometric forms, squishy or firm, hand-held or self-supporting, are covered in a range of slick, synthetic materials and seem to derive from many different sources. In her exhibition statement, Aitken cites “furniture, machine parts, organs, cartoons, sea life, Minimalist sculpture, textile art”, and then adds that she hopes her work “remains too slippery to pin down”.

Although identifying any of these sculptures as one concrete thing or another would undermine that “slippery” quality to which Aitken aspires, their forms inevitably call up the human body in all its sexuality and viscerality, absurdity and vulnerability. Their shapes evoke nipples and breasts, sphincters and bums, phalluses, bladders, and great, looping lengths of intestine. These small, stuffed forms may be installed in casual huddles or in drooping tangles, inside wall-mounted boxes or on high shelves.

Aitken’s central work in this exhibition, Components, evolved out of her desire to find a way of displaying her hand-held sculptures. Her solution, she writes, has been to design and create “a modular network of interrelated sculptures that can either stand alone or fit together, making up a whole habitat.” In contrast to the intuitive way she develops her smaller organic forms, Aitken predicates the larger geometric aspects of Components on the Fibonacci sequence. (With applications in nature, art, and computer algorithms, this sequence starts with 0 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two.

The Fibonacci-determined sculptures are upholstered like furniture, but in an array of wonderfully sleazy materials, from gold lamé to fake snakeskin to burgundy vinyl with opalescent sparkles. The “habitat” they create includes a kind of tower and a few rounded and squared-off forms punctured with orifices, grooves, and indentations, into which smaller organic forms have been inserted. A long, shiny, gutlike, beige tube loops through the installation, which can be reconfigured in different ways, again like modular furniture. Components speaks to the contemporary human condition—hapless bits of being stranded in a series of social constructs and physical constructions. This installation calls to mind that memorable quote from French surrealist poet Raymond Queneau: “The world is not what it seems—but it isn’t anything else, either.”

Also on view are recent mixed-media works on paper, whose production Aitken has used as a respite from the “meticulous and labour-intensive” demands of making sculptures. Combining painting, drawing, and collage, these untitled abstractions deploy contrasting shapes, textures, and styles: thick wodges and thin washes of energetically applied paint, spidery black lines of ink, suggestive forms cut from magazines. The paper works aren’t studies for Aitken’s sculptures, but they certainly exist in a parallel realm, and the most successful of them juxtapose the organic and mechanistic, with wee beige knobs, shiny red protuberances, and a beautiful command of materials.

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