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When I initially discovered Aram Saroyan’s minimalist poems more than a decade ago, I was immediately bowled over by how easy he makes such tough work look. William Carlos Williams was an obvious antecedent—Saroyan shares an analogous interest in being present in any mundane moment, but with a little more improvisatory, introspective looseness. Sometimes his observations read as incomplete, until you look back at your own days and discover how many are filled with similar fragmented experiences.
For years, Saroyan has produced visual art in addition to his writing practice. His current solo exhibition at as-is.la, curated by Michael Ned Holte, is replete with stark line drawings, all of which were made last year and most of which consist of only a few colors on white paper in white frames. These drawings, like his poems, are also a bit like fragments. Some have the appearance of abstracted shattered glass, while others resemble a bird’s-eye view of landscapes piled on top of each other. Some are more playful, looking like a Coogi sweater or one of those roller coaster toys in the waiting room of a pediatrician’s office. Others are more puzzling—literally, like puzzle pieces amounting to nothing clearly legible. While some of Saroyan’s marker-drawn lines are confidently crisp, others come off slightly nervous or neurotic, making it difficult to discern whether or when marks are deliberate or intuitive. Likewise, many readers have found his poems confounding over the years—Ronald Reagan notoriously cited Saroyan’s one-word poem, in which he purposely misspelled the word light (“lighght”) and for which he received a cash award from the National Endowment for the Arts, as a reason to shut down the federal agency.
In one untitled work on view at the gallery, Saroyan used some white liquid to edit a line that had apparently gone astray. I wondered why this drawing deserved this sort of revisionist treatment, while most others did not. What was wrong with this drawawing? Maybe it’s not about assigning wrongness to something and fixing it, but simply about pinpointing something that’s fine as is, yet could still be different? Do we always need to have a “good” reason or excuse to change our hairstyle or residence? Saroyan seems to accept the premise that things in life evolve, as do the ways we describe them.
Aram Saroyan: New Drawings, runs from January 5–February 22, 2020 at as-is.la (1133 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90015).