Janis Avotins

Johnen + Schöttle

What does the show’s title, “I write to you at 20:02 as you wrote to me at 18:08,” have to do with Janis Avotins’s pictures? At first glance, not much. Perhaps it makes us think of the e-mails that mercilessly follow us everywhere at all times—but as for the pictures themselves, their strength lies in their ability to transcend chronological and locational specificity. Gigantic, for the most part more than ten feet high and sixteen feet across, they seem to resist analysis, and their titles aren’t of any more help than that of the show, either. In Nothing from Nothing, 2008, a black cloud spreads from the upper right corner of the canvas—or is it a splotch of color run amok? It spreads toward the center in picturesquely overlapping circles, floating upon a light background. At the upper left edge, the background brightens—or is it a cloudy sky allowing a bit of blue to shine through?—while at the left edge, a gray patch has been hastily applied with rapid brushstrokes. Between it and the black part, a light-flooded chasm opens like a stage set, with a brown shape resembling a bluff poking up into it from the picture’s lower edge. A tiny figure in a black, windblown coat is standing on a rock. Only later does one notice a second figure, hands raised and bending toward the back of the image, as if trying to hold back the surging black mass. But is this really a figure at all, or just some brushstrokes that happen to resemble a human shape? Careful scrutiny fails to resolve the question.

Figuring out anything at all about the pictures—subject matter, intention, what they have to say—is difficult, because the work’s painterly quality distracts us from its semantic content. One might be looking at blended, overlapping areas of color made of flowing and layered paint, but then the work starts to look like a landscape, a romantically fraught stage set that offers itself as a backdrop for strange appearances by even stranger figures. There Is a Gap Where We Meet, 2007, is another teasing title. Where is this gap? And who is meeting there? What one sees are fluid paint and expanding patches of pigment, shimmering brightness and ominous darks. And then four figures in the midst of it all, wanderers in single file, come from some other world. And then one’s gaze goes skimming off again across the surface of the picture, following the twists and oscillations of color; the figures have vanished, leaving only traces of vague apparitions without definition.

From Sum, 2008, the lone sculpture in the show, is equally ambiguous: a scrap of boat bearing two passengers, all made of the same material, dark charcoal. The sculpture becomes a silhouette, a shadow of itself. And this is what is so striking about Avotins’s work, even his paintings: The acrylic colors are in plain sight, but nonetheless seem immaterial. This gives the paintings a sort of fleetingness that makes the images feel both timeless and liberated from place. They well up out of nothingness for a brief moment, not without producing reactions, and then are gone again—just as e-mails flash across our screens for a moment and then vanish, sometimes forever. Like Avotins’s pictures, they remain—their evanescence notwithstanding—imprinted on our memories.

Noemi Smolik