Uninterrupted Fugue: Uprootedness in Kamal Boullata’s Work

By Gérard Xuriguera
Photograph of Kamal Boullata by Joanna Masel for The National.

Contemporary artists adhering to Constructivism were not solely content with respecting the orthodoxy of its ethic. From Malevitch to Mondrian through the Bauhaus and up to this day, the structural unfolding of this art of simplification and of exactitude has at times been refined, at other times made more complex; all along, it continued to explore different venues that retraced  the founding precepts without relinquishing its rigor.

Consequently, signs revisited in the grammar of construction have led a number of artists captivated by order and balance towards the absoluteness of form. Giving weight to the scrutiny of execution, to the meaning of sacrifice, artists' use of pure colors pursued reality with a precise materiality, the way Plato understood it, that is, a reality oriented towards the independent ideal of beauty. As visual codes of the neo-plasticists seem to dwell in and are determined by Euclidian geometry, these codes can tap despairing resources and continue to chart variegated directions that each painter weaves in accordance with one's own formation, psycho-sensitive range and geo- cultural sense of belonging.

Although we are in no way obliged to link up an artist's trajectory to the anchor of his identity, when it comes to an exile, we cannot discard this factor. The distant country reverberates more intensely for an exile and displacement condemns him to invent for himself a mythical homeland that embraces the lost paradise of childhood. In Kamal Boullata's work, there is no doubt that uprootedness has exerted a preponderant influence. His memory vividly retaining the sight of Jerusalem's Dome of the Holy Sepulchre, the minarets of adjacent mosques, flashbacks of Byzantine icons discovered when very young in his home environment and the eight-pointed star configurations that occupied the center of his later research in Arab Islamic art; all these elements have together generated links, provisions and progressions that indelibly marked the accomplishment of his trajectory.

Consciously, he writes that "since antiquity, the square and the circle had been fraught with symbolical and philosophical connotations. The earth was often symbolized by the square for its four axes of spatial orientation," the form of the circle referring to the celestial sphere. Upon his arrival in the United States, where he lived from 1968 to 1992, he decides to press his inquiry into the alphabet of geometry. The square thus turns into the mainspring around which all signs of his perception get organized.

During this period, unyielding to profusion, his approach traces densely coated surfaces that are vividly colored. We see strict quadrangular dissections, well-studied superposition of forms and intersections of angular bands that are articulated into diagonals, horizontals or verticals that interpenetrate in a succession of powerfully rhythmic proportions. Add to this brief inventory the intermittent resorting to expanses that are subdivided or punctuated by writing, or that incorporate graphic networks and clear-cut divisions comprising delicately squared patterns that recall the azulejos or Alhambra’s Arab mosaic motifs, all of which he sooner or later abandons along with other elements already  mentioned.

From this turning point on, he proposes a geometry that is made increasingly bare. He abandons the flat and bold chromatics for a pulverized matter, and replaces the radical segmentation of the parts by an internal architecture that is all the more airy. Here, painting refers only to its own components, even though a personal history and a specific cultural heritage are like a watermark ingrained within it. Today, Kamal Boullata’s syntax, the fruit of a patient and lucid investigation, has been levitated as it surged forth with further maturity and plenitude. Nothing is mechanical. Nothing submits to the vertigo of optical illusion, despite the sliding and overlapping, the shifting of forms and the dynamics of colored alternations. Everything is perfectly dosed, hemmed with muffled contrasts, soberly split at enhanced by a constant quest for color through light. Thus, woven by translucent panes, by the vibrations of redoubling forms and sliding shapes that filter in through the heart of a sharply defined perimeter, this work exudes a spatial dimension of light, its chords discretely swell to animate variations of a rare harmony.

In this balanced and modulated world, spared by its own means and fluttering with all these airy layers, reigns a refined state of order that is far from the "awesome literary spirit" that Cezanne spoke about. This state of order is not repelled by the soft blending of the brush's stroke where the controlled meandering of cloudy veiling hardly comes to rest when it is not wholly claimed within the visual field by triangles, squares or inverted rectangles, lightly disjointed, or occasionally interlaced by bands in whose slim margins zones of the void are inserted. Existing only one by the other, the formulations put in perspective widen up, draw ever closer to each other or converge into an out-of-breath quelled swell that evokes the intimate quivers through which life itself is expressed. Then, between monochromatic spaces and the clarity of the stabilizing geometry, and between transparencies and the shimmering that crystallizes every now and then, a subtle dialectic settles in; one that is not the reflection of a coincidence but the product of a vigilant discipline.

From these seemingly pacified assemblages, an emotion surges tempered by an analytical intelligence from which the suffering state of being cannot be abstracted. And yet, no dramatics black out the supple and hesitant breeze that coats these contemplative climates where the thwarting fate of the painter wears away before the rules commanding the powers of his practice. As to the role of his physical gesture in painting, here gushing out and flowing in the amplitude of chromatic undulations, but almost inoperative in the applied strategy of the classical Constructivists, he reminds us that one can adhere to the canons of geometry simultaneously with cultivating one's own autonomy.

A man of culture and master of his hand and style, Kamal Boullata, whose work crossed frontiers a long time ago, invites us to discover his itinerary: an itinerary marked with an insinuating spiritual asceticism that reverberates a tempered musicality, like an uninterrupted fugue.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 41, Fall 2002.

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