Installation view of “Limit,” courtesy of Praxis
When I arrive at Praxis’s second floor space in New York’s Chelsea art district, I am told I have come not a minute too soon. The gallery is abuzz with art handlers and installers, who are tasked with making Agustin Sirai’s solo exhibition—his first outside Argentina—viewer-ready by the end of the day. This show of captivating acrylic-on-canvas paintings, succinctly titled “Limit,” has afforded the 36-year-old artist his very first visit to the United States.
“My first approach to art or to images was completely informal,” recalls Sirai, who grew up sketching in the margins of notebooks but did not visit a museum until he was 18, when he began a university degree in visual arts in his home city of La Plata, Argentina. While what started as a hobby has since become a career, Sirai’s artistic interests have remained constant over the years. (In fact, he says he’s suspicious of anyone who claims their own interests have truly changed.) He is compelled by the nature of painting, representation, time, borders, and limits—all of which play a role in the varied works he has created specifically for this exhibition—as well as in new “mechanical objects” he’ll resume work on when he returns home.
Flowers Find their Perfume Useful (2015), a nearly seven-foot-long painting that hangs on the wall behind us, explores three different approaches to image creation. Sirai started by gathering flowers on walks from his home to his small La Plata studio—where, he explains, his days are, “in a word, solitary.” When he realized working with live flowers would soon become unfeasible, he began to photograph them and paint from the images. Finally, Sirai ditched the real-life referents altogether and began to invent his blooms from pure imagination. When I ask him if his works, many of which depict nature, express any type of environmental interest, Sirai is quick to respond, “nature inspires me in the sense that I’m interested in the relationship that there is between the perception of the world and the image…between something that one can see is real and exists in nature and the mechanisms that one has for realizing those images.”
Time is perhaps best represented in the modest canvas (All of the Things Involved in the Production of) this Painting (2014). As its title indicates, the painting—similar to his 2013 “Studio Inventory” works—depicts all the items, including paper towels, scissors, and measuring devices, that went into its creation. The painting is thus a record of the many days and hours the artist spent in the studio with it.
An even more illustrative example of Sirai’s ongoing preoccupation with time is La Planta (2014), a three-hour-long video that documents a project in which he bought a plant and painted it on the same canvas every day (covering it over with white each time) for the better part of a month. “It’s the most boring video in the world,” he replies, grinning, when I ask if he kept the painting. (He did.) What interests him about the film, he explains, is that although the plant’s green leaves eventually shrivel and die, you can’t perceive the changes between each painting, or between each day in the plant’s life.
Limits and boundaries—what the artist describes as a “permanent preoccupation” of his—are present in every work here and come in at least two varieties: literal, depicted walls (and the physical delineations of the canvas), and figurative space between the viewer and the work. When I ask Sirai why he never includes people in his paintings, such as Untitled (2014), he notes that he is interested in removing the human figure as a point of identification for the viewer. Instead, he leaves only traces, creating “something mysterious that is more open or undefined,” which achieves a separation between spectator and image. “Painting itself is a trace,” he adds.
Agustin Sirai with Isla (2014) at “Limit,” courtesy of Praxis
Isla (2014)—a large, striking piece—explores physical and political boundaries between countries and territories, as an imposing brick wall blocks off two landscapes from each other. As Sirai notes, it is easy to focus on the scenery and the animals, and to imagine a narrative. The most literal walls are found in Landscape and Limit (both 2015), which the artist says are his favorite works in the show, precisely because they are “more inaccessible.”
Yet Sirai is less interested in frustrating viewers than he is in challenging them. His hope is that his exhibition will prompt questions—an “ambitious” goal, he knows.
Stefan Sagmeister: What is Happiness