Manuel Aja Espil: Eleven Paths to Planetary Exiles by Gabriela Rangel

I may confess that I never read Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels and short stories, which fascinated the best minds of my generation.  A few commentaries shared by fervent readers conferred Le Guin’s dystopic narrative with a subtle aim for challenging the patriarchal machinery of science fiction. Her stories unleash the repressed demons of our current world.  But my narrow understanding of the author’s contribution to the genre, which confronts rational thinking and defies some cognitive certainties, distills eerie images kept in my memory from Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, such as Solaris and Stalker.  Like in Le Guin’s fictions, the old Soviet-Era films typically featured a male protagonist who undertook a dangerous journey that allowed him to complete a psychological or existential self-analysis. Only recently, encouraged by the literary yearning of Argentine artist Manuel Aja Espil, I began to read about Le Guin’s interrogation of what defines the human status in order to interpret the narrative layers of his new series of paintings completed in a post-pandemic world. The idea of redefining the human is timely: when AI is taking over the open ends of the creative fields and science preserves the promethean dream after Freud. These undeterred realities bring a paradoxical principle to the present, one that has shaped the origins of painting as both absence and presence, the very evidence of light and the projection of unfathomable shadows. Is painting essentially human?

Presumably, Aja Espil’s thematic inclination towards Le Guin’s blend of science fiction and gender trouble prompted the division of the paintings in two classical categories: landscape and portraiture. He often merges the two through a fictional alibi, which transforms the pictorial space as a theatrical setting where the chance encounter of things, nature, and people take place. Conceding that Aja Espil is a painter who avidly read Ursula K. Le Guin, his interest aroused when he was about to leave his country shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.  During his move from the South to the North, he composed a series of eleven middle and large-sized oil on canvases, featuring extraordinary scenes representing a series of animals with human qualities, or simply depicting natural environments of seemingly exoplanetary worlds composed with a chromatic palette reminiscent of the tempered light and rapid yet precise strokes of artists from the turn of the century in the Rio de la Plata who chronicled wars and gauchos. Invasion of Wilkes Land, the only collective scene from the series, represents a group of extravagant characters who congregate for no apparent purpose other than chatting in the middle of the wilderness, evoking a carnivalesque ritual conceived by James Ensor. The scene furnishes little information about the gathering, which creates a wacky illusion of a catastrophe. Some paintings surreptitiously depict the unstated colors of the physiognomy of nature advanced by Johann Moritz Rugendas, a German traveler-painter who created an outstanding scientific fiction after Alexander von Humboldt.  Rugendas ventured to paint in plein air before the term was coined in France. In parallel, Aja Espil’s paintings interrogate the present with crucial questions posited in a world in permanent transit:

What about those canvases that adorn the in-between spaces? The room at an Airbnb, the shelves in a hotel room. There was a painting hanging on the bed side of the wall, and I thought that it should represent the process of resting and its connection to dreaming and reality.

Or what about the paintings that represent primary pleasures: to look at the glare of fire at home. To read until falling asleep under the shade of a tree. To sleep with cats. A glass of wine at dusk. To look at a landscape encouraged by the birds and breeze.

Except for the land of Patagonia seen from a satellite, the remote spheres of the Moon and the Earth as well as some fantastic landscapes that evoke surrealism, a few paintings presented at Hutchinson Modern & Contemporary by Aja Espil propose a hypothetical space, which is signaled by almost imperceptible yellow curtains. The artist created different scenes: the soliloquy at the gas station, the stubborn act of painting in the barren southern plains, and the gender inversion of Goya’s Maja at a motel room, which demand their own place to develop a particular type of narrative imagination that combines different temporalities and their local groundings, often symbolized through technological outdated artifacts (ATMs, jog sticks, boxy video monitors) or simply declared through the presentation of a natural environment that does not make sense. These paintings offer a renovated storytelling for dystopic fables, embracing deadpan humor and drama, showing us art as a map of our own failures and exiles.

Gabriela Rangel