‘It's funny that you mentioned the cube shape,’ Ajani says, ‘because that's what I thought – I put it down and I was like, well, beds are not really that shape – and then at some point, you can let go of all those things and just work with what you've got.’ Even so, letting go is easier said than done. Fortunately for the viewer, it is a response the paintings themselves, with their easy ambiguities, cultivate. ‘When you spend time with a painting and you're enjoying a painting, you're enjoying yourself, really – it's just something that you're interacting with. It's opening space in your head and your body, to just be with yourself. And I think that's- I don’t want to say a goal, but definitely something I find really important in making.’
Room to Breathe
A bed painted on a canvas the size of a luxuriously big TV. Remi Ajani’s an appropriate moment to point out the fantasy (2023). The bed is light pink and cut-through-able as a slab of fudge. It is blocky and immovable and, contradictorily, its translucent pillows give the impression the whole scene could at any moment drift off on a current. The laws of perspective are obeyed and they, in turn, submit, the bed appearing to get chunkier as one of its orthogonal lines veers away from the vanishing point. The painting is simple and beguiling and befitting an exhibition titled (lower case) it’s not what you look at... it’s what you see. This sentiment invites another antimony – is the viewer really observing a bed so much as some fun had with a cuboid shape in space? I’m a painting, the work says. Don’t stress.
"It's opening space in your head and your body, to just be with yourself."
"Having made space in your head, Remi Ajani’s images stick around"
Having made space in your head, Remi Ajani’s images stick around. It is not clear why, best guess being that their subtle shapeshifting leaves you with the nagging feeling there is more to be got. For instance, take a step back in Sid Motion Gallery (where Ajani’s work featured last year in curator and artist Rose Davey’s Same Same), and an appropriate moment to point out the fantasy can be viewed with a path (2023): the two works collude with one another, becoming sparser and more morose than they really are. The latter painting sees a female figure clutching fabric, perhaps even smelling it and mourning the loss of someone. Then again, looked at on its own terms, the fabric’s mulberry stain and chalky neon blue colour lifts a lot of the heartache out.
A similar thing happens when you view an appropriate moment to point out the fantasy with time, the work hanging opposite. Rather than bed in an empty room, the painting becomes far more about its paint: meanwhile, time picks up the bed’s pink colour, heats it up and the walls flush peachily while two anonymous figures hang out. Ajani began with a photograph, ‘But in my head I asked myself, if I made this piece of art as an abstract painting, what would it be about? And it would be about the space. So, most of the time, most of the energy went into creating layers and layers and layers, to create a kind of depth and space on a flat surface,’ she says. ‘Those figures, if you think about the perspective, are quite close to the viewer, but I feel like there is also a lot of breathing room for someone to look at and enjoy the space.’
"most of the energy went into creating layers and layers and layers, to create a kind of depth and space on a flat surface"
More enjoyable and stranger still is the feeling that, on screen, I am looking up at this couple, while IRL, as if through a fish-eye lens, I could be above them looking down at a pleasant remove – perhaps because of where my eyeline is in relation to the tops of their heads? Scientists? Art historians? Remi? ‘I often think about where the eye lands and being able to enjoy a painting wherever they land. And that's why I decided not to put faces in. Because I find that as soon as you do that, it's a very normal human reaction to look at the face, to try to figure out if they're happy, if they're sad, who they are. When you take that out, there's a whole bunch of new questions that come up.’ Sure are, like what kind of architect would place those two ‘doorways’ like that and why do they divide up the canvas so satisfyingly? Why is there a white, sheetlike form flowing out of nowhere and catching the light through Sid Motion Gallery’s window?
While the two figures in time have some to themselves and the balance between abstraction and figuration gives the viewer ‘breathing room’ as well, the exhibition is curated in the same spirit. One of the smallest works (at 35 × 27 cm) a walk between has an entire wall to itself. ‘This is one of my favourite pieces. Mainly because it's small, and it's quite quiet. When I read into it, I read a quiet, hidden figure – or something you can't make out – looking out into a light a space. And I just find it quite- emotional, and maybe even cinematic.’ For sure, the silhouetted figures could even be in the cinema, and the painting recalls film noir with its play with light and shadows and mystery. Having recently traded in her Netflix subscription for a film service, ‘there’s so much slowness and so much nuance that you have to pick up on, and I quite like that, maybe subconsciously, I might bring that into the work. Not trying to shout, but trying to see if I can connect in a different way.’
"‘I often think about where the eye lands and being able to enjoy a painting wherever they land"
Mentioning Walter Sickert and Marlene Dumas as influences in the same breath, Ajani’s reference points are as abundant as the connections she makes with them. Dumas’ howlingly beautiful lines are especially evident in Ajani’s charcoal on paper works included here – yet another way of seeing. Attending a residency in Tuscany earlier this year, Ajani ‘decided that I wasn’t going to bring any paints. I had charcoal and pencils and I was forced to look and draw, and I got back to the fun.’
Speaking of fun, the intellectual (2023) is a real riot in maroons and Miami-ish light. An open top car slides by and, to my guttery mind, people are making out in the back. ‘I really hope that each individual work conveys a mood. And this is also a mood and emotion, right? I found this idea to be quite fun, and again, something that was quite challenging, in a different way – to be very particular, what's the light? How we're going to start, how we're going to build up and when do you get to that feeling of- Yeah, I get it. There's emotion. There are figures in there. I'm not sure what I'm seeing. But I think this is the energy of it.’
"Not trying to shout, but trying to see if I can connect in a different way"
More commonly, however, the energy is slow-release. Novelistic à la Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (to whom Ajani’s beside-the-point representation of black figures and focus on the language of paint itself, I expect, will draw comparisons). ‘I hope there's a lot of quietness,’ Ajani says, ‘because that's been my process this year.’ Having previously been working in the fast-paced commercial side of journalism, ‘working to deadlines, working to brief and having to meet these demands– actually, in these paintings, there are no demands. The demand is to slow down, to be quiet, to really give yourself the space to learn.’ In these moments, I can’t help but hear the influence of Ajani’s personal tutor during her MFA at the Slade, Lisa Milroy, who spoke to Plinth recently about the ‘disruptive energy in painting’. As Ajani puts it, ‘You're not making an essay, you're not taking photos; there has to be something unknown, there has to be some release of self.
‘If you remove the ego from the painting process,’ Ajani continues, ‘then, actually, what happens is that the painting starts to teach you and let you know what it is. So, you get a lot more from that work.’ As a viewer entering Ajani’s work, the lesson continues. And it’s a whole mood.
By Sammi Gale
Cover image: Installation view of Remi Ajani, 'nothing left to say'(2023) from 'it's not what you look at... it's what you see'. Courtesy of Sid Motion Gallery. Photo: Tim Bowditch