Grids, Reflections, and Seeing Doubles: AJ Rombach at Fjord

by Joni Sullivan

Like the rough edges of AJ Rombach’s work, the architecture of Fjord’s new location in Olde Kensington is exposed, unpolished, and honest. In their solo exhibition, DOUBLES, AT LEAST, one of AJ’s sculptural wall pieces hangs on a wooden support beam stripped of green paint, reminding me of an old birdhouse posted to a telephone pole. Grey and red pipes line the ceiling and walls. The space begs for work that responds to its quirks. AJ, who is based in Western Massachusetts, lamented not being able to see the space in person before their installation. But that didn’t stop them from playing with its nooks, crannies, and oddities. They built bright red ceramic pieces to match its pipes and embraced its unfinished corners by installing low-hanging corner shelves to display their sculptures.

On the far back wall hangs Significant Location, a painting in hues of pink and green. This is where AJ initially started to experiment with ceramics, at first planning on adding ceramic pieces directly onto their paintings in an attempt to make them more sculptural. The thought occurred to them: What if there was a reflection of this painting? What if it was doubled? They made a shiny pink ceramic slab where they rendered the mirror image of the oil painting using glaze and hung it directly underneath the original.

Significant Location, oil paint, oil pastel on canvas,
slip, glazed earthenware, 2022. All photos courtesy of AJ Rombach.

In discussion about the work, AJ spoke about viewing an inverted stoplight in a puddle. The image in the puddle is based completely on the observer’s unique vantage point, no one else will see the same reflection at the same time. But what if there was no observer of this pink oil painting and ceramic slab, and the two were instead observing each other, and completing each other’s circuit? Thus, two paintings reflect each other—quite romantic.

During the opening of DOUBLES, AT LEAST, AJ spoke about their “birds”— rough-hewn, geometric forms made of wood, ceramic, plaster, or concrete—emerging as the first form in the room. The birds are installed around the gallery, high and low, surveilling the space.

Rombach’s “birds” installed in the gallery.

While the birds are a new element to AJ’s work, I was not surprised to see the presence of grids. AJ has been working with grids in their paintings for several years. By exposing the grid, they expose the structure and the support of a painting. We read the image as something that has been built, something made of pieces. Where many painters hesitate to reveal their methods of gridding out an image or tracing a projection, AJ has always embraced this process of their work. In DOUBLES, AT LEAST, this embrace of process is evident in the unselfconscious materiality of AJ’s paintings and sculptures. Nothing is quite clean, straight, or smooth. One form is born from another, each new form learning something from the last. When one iteration of an image will not suffice, doubles, at least, will.

Twin Ponds I + II + III are 3 versions of the same wooded lake scene. Two panels are gridded with yarn, rather than the traditional underdrawing. Paint covers the yarn, camouflaging the grid. Its furry texture starts to disrupt the image the longer we look, cutting it into distinct rectangles. Paint is applied in choppy, vibrating strokes atop swaths of intense, unnatural color: a patchwork of hues and marks. On the floor, below the two wall-mounted paintings, is the same wooded lake scene made from glazed earthenware and sitting on top of a wooden platform. The glaze is applied more loosely than the oil paint and the color is not quite as saturated. The piece is made of 12 separate rectangles, placed with an inch of space between each, so that this empty space forms the grid instead of yarn. The ceramic painting, with its low placement and its reflective glaze, acts as it were a body of water, reflecting the two panels above it.

Twin Ponds I + II + III, oil paint, yarn, oil pastel, glazed earthenware. 2022.

When we shift our focus from the wall works, we notice the abstract ceramic and wood bird forms perched above and below eye level. Some are on handmade shelves, others on the ceiling’s pipework. The birds were made by accident. After experimenting with different wooden forms, AJ looked at a pile of mistakes and castoffs, and declared, “That’s a pile of birds.” From there, they made ceramic imitations, and then cast cement and plaster copies. All around the Fjord space, slowly and quietly revealing themselves to the audience, huddled in groups just like the exhibition visitors, are the birds, surveilling.

The symbols in the room, installed on the wall and a number of unexpected locations, were arrived at through a similar, accidental process. The bottom ceramic half of Significant Location was built with hidden, structural triangular beams. The back of the piece is just as interesting as the front; it’s “a drawing in its own way. And that’s plenty of information as a character.” So AJ built multiple ceramic drawings, using the same system of triangular support beams as the “image.” They doubled the image within each sculpture, as a sort of shorthand for their more intensive and larger-scale reflection forms. The most obvious connection between the ceramic wall symbols and the illustrative reflection works happens in the large-scale purple piece, Trying to get to heaven on the end of a kite, where the grid takes on the same hourglass formation. The reference, a forest floor at the base of a tree trunk, is far more abstracted than in Twin Ponds I + II + III. Purples and blues lead us into a dreamscape where organic forms break down into unidentifiable shapes that fall through the painted space. The looseness of the piece is sharpened by the fractions of the triangular grid.

Trying to get to heaven on the end of a kite, oil paint, wax pastel, yarn, ceramic on panel, 40 x 58.25” + glazed earthenware, poplar, oak. 2022. 

DOUBLES, AT LEAST, establishes a throughline borne of trial and error, experimentation and observation. Perhaps the throughline isn’t incredibly apparent from the outside, but the longer the viewer sits with the work, the more transparent the process becomes, and the louder the birds get.

Jonah, my husband, finds 2 blue ceramic birds on a windowsill. One is larger than the other. A little couple. Both are bright blue like a New York Knicks away-jersey. We decide we should take them home and install them on their own tiny corner shelf, where they’ll watch our apartment while we’re away.

DOUBLES, AT LEAST is on view through January 6th at Fjord.

Joni Sullivan is a Philadelphia based artist, writer, and educator. When not working at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art as the Painting Studio Manager, she teaches at the Philly Art Center and works in her Italian Market studio. Joni received a Bachelor of Humanities and Arts in Psychology and Art from Carnegie Mellon University and an MFA in Painting from Boston University. Her work has been exhibited in group shows New England, New York, and Illinois.