Los Angeles

Aram Saroyan, Untitled (7), 2019, permanent marker on paper, 18 × 24".

Aram Saroyan, Untitled (7), 2019, permanent marker on paper, 18 × 24".

Aram Saroyan

Seventeen drawings hung level, a rectangle of fluorescent lights suspended from the ceiling, two doorways, in and out. In such a sparse show, one couldn’t help but tally the components. Along the walls of the gallery, the framed works on paper were installed snugly, flirting with the room’s corners, stressing the space’s rectangularity. The drawings, however, were colorful portals abiding by their own physics. Squiggly pathways drawn with markers in combinations of bright colors boldly traversed the pages. While childlike in their medium, the works suggested profound meditations, as if they had been channeled more than made. One striking common feature was that the lines, even as they ended, met but barely overlapped. As a rule, it seemed, a new line indicated the dead end of another; any intersections forced an unnatural pause in one of the strokes, which would be picked up again on the other side of the crossing line.

While cohesive as a family, the drawings ranged wildly in their palettes and moods. Some traced webby labyrinths or board-game-like grids. In others, the lines anthropomorphized into characters, animated into scenes, or traced barren landscapes. Figuration was wrested from abstraction in a Paul Klee–esque fashion; the drawings appeared to have been influenced by Cubism, invested in color theory, and infused with humor.

“New Drawings,” by Aram Saroyan, was the artist’s first solo show. Visitors might have expected to see poems. Indeed, Saroyan is best known as a minimalist poet, though he is equally a novelist, a memoirist, a playwright, and an essayist—in short, a writer, though one distinctly invested in visual art, always concerned with the sculptural quality of language on the page. (Consider his notorious one-word poem, “lighght,” or his delicate use of punctuation in “morni,ng,” both published in 1965.) Michael Ned Holte, a fellow writer, curated this show; their common task inflected the exhibition with literary qualities. In this light, the drawings read as calligraphic lines untwisted from a typographic state into speechless strokes—“wordless,” as Holte writes, which is an important distinction, because wordless does not mean without language but simply without the alignment required to signify a vocabulary beyond themselves.

The drawings, then, constitute their own system of writing. Like Saroyan’s minimalist poems, they are about the page and their relationships within its two dimensions, or, at the very least, negotiations of its edges. As Holte notes, the poems are about “the space between and around the word as much as the words themselves.” Here, the edges and the frame seemed to act as a viewfinder, cropping the drawings like the lens of a microscope, beyond which the patterns and symbols could continue ad infinitum, co-opting all of the invisible space around them as well as the negative space within the page.

Another biographical tidbit: In 1964, Saroyan founded a literary magazine that he titled Lines, suggesting kinship between his approaches to writing and drawing. Many critics have noted that Saroyan’s concise wordplay is inherently visual, since it forces readers to look at the anatomy of a word, sometimes stressing an inaudible syllable or a silent consonant to make the word visual rather than understandable. A one-word poem, I hear, is about getting it instantly; is that the case for the drawings, too? Despite their comparable economy of gestures, with their vivid hues and evocative arrangements, Saroyan’s noncommunicative lines, composed for the reader/viewer within the intimate space of the gallery, seem intended, like a silent and sculptural addition of consonants, to highlight the ineffable.