Ekta Aggarwal: Time Travel
Five Car Garage, Santa Monica
Through July 9, 2022
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
In a seamless fusion of craft and high-end modern color theory that is actually full of seams, Ekta Aggarwal creates hand-sewn fabric compositions she insists are paintings. It’s not like she’s trying to hide it — everywhere across the works the stitches and counter-stitches and fuzzy edges of shorn fabrics are not only visible but central. And she has a point, the works behave in the practiced manner of all-over abstraction, a visual language Aggarwal borrows but in translating its precepts into hand-sewn textiles transforms into something entirely her own.
The works call out from a distance with a bright and deep palette of jewel tones and primary colors arrayed in detailed, shifting patterns of dots, dashes, squares, and circles. On approach those patterns open up, the marks (threads) become more distinct, the spaces between the shapes become more pronounced, as do their stubborn irregularities. When you get right up to them, that’s when they really go all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. That’s the moment when what presented as hard-edge brushwork, refusing to resolve its forms’ soft edges, fully reveals its material nature as cloth. This sudden understanding changes not only the physical relationship to the work and expands its narrative dimensions, it opens up the whole question of time as an element of content and composition.
The artist herself refers to these textile collages — paintings! — as “accumulators of time,” in the literal sense that they take forever to create. The mise-en-place of preparing many thousands of pieces of fabric measuring between a couple of inches and a few centimeters each, composing and labor-intensively enacting their arrangement, all takes a significant amount of time. The viewer reflexively imagines the artist at work, feeling the weight of the patience and concentration, evoking an almost performance-art dynamic in the work’s impact. Despite being non-figurative, somatic messages are infused into the work by the hands’ protagonist action, over time, so much time. In any case the works at every turn assert their significant materiality and process-orientation, suggesting that both are integral to its meaning.
For example, Aggarwal’s canvas isn’t just any canvas or linen — it’s Khadi, a sturdy cotton Gandhi championed as a traditional domestic production of the Indian subcontinent; and her fuchsia, jasmine, emerald, turquoise, rose water, turmeric, ruby, slate, eggshell, mustard, aubergine, and indigo swatches in their wayward grids are made from traditional hand-dyed cottons for the same reason. Those materials have an auric presence as well as an optical and physical one, they carry memory and history along with pigment.
The compositions tell a different story, along a Western branch of art history with a taste for optically ticklish painting and pantheon of color theorists. The way Aggarwal thinks about color has a lot to do with Josef Albers, who really dug into the ways hues, tones, tints, and grids affect perception. But maybe it’s really Anni Albers we should be thinking about — it was she who taught Design Theory to the Bauhaus weavers, she who produced timeless and original pictorial textiles with no sense of a hierarchy between art, craft, and design — and she who wrote, “Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.”