View of the exhibition Folklore planétaire, galerie frank elbaz, Paris, 2016
Marshall McLuhan had not even coined the term “global village”, when Victor Vasarely already gave it its own style. Vasarely’s “plastic alphabet”, which he developed in the late sixties during the boom of communication and transmission technology, was intended to provide the globalised planet with a visual language, whose permutational potential would make it easily adjustable to all possible adaptations or translations. This demiurgic project was also designed to accommodate the diversity of traditional visual idioms, with the aim of creating a “planetary folklore” (Vasarely), anchored in the transnational language of modernism, while at the same time remaining open to cultural peculiarities. In a spirit of exploration that could lead to further developments – from architecture to economics to geopolitics- the exhibition “Folklore planétaire” brings together works that attempt, in different ways, to combine the universal language of geometric abstraction, which emerged from the important artistic centres of modernity, with the diversity of more idiomatic expressions, which appeared on the periphery, in more local environments.
The Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-García provided an early example of this “glocalization” avant la lettre, by combining the neoplasticism of Mondrian with influences derived from pre-Hispanic cultures. He thereby created what might be called a “dialect” of neoplasticism that subsequently became common currency in the cities of Montevideo and Buenos-Aires, places the artist called the “School of the South”.
This “dialect” is also embraced by Bolivar (born 1932 in Salto, Uruguay). In his case it takes the form of a vernacular constructivism that employs cheap materials and waste, as well as a wide range of worn-out and darkened colours, and that adopts- most notably by using non-rectangular formats- traits of the MADI group, of which the artist was a prominent member.
The paintings of Mexican artist Eduardo Terrazas (born 1936 in Guadalajara), who is also an architect, a graphic artist and a designer, merge the systematic approach of geometric abstraction, developed by Max Bill and concrete art, with a technique borrowed entirely from Huichol Indians, in which the paint is replaced by strings of wool glued to the surface. Terrezas thus creates a synthesis between the cutting edge of modernity and the ancient artistic and ethnographic history of Mexico, a strategy, which might be compared to the influence of pre-Columbian art on the textiles of Anni Albers, one of the great members of the Bauhaus movement.
This hybrid modernism, which is opposed all fantasies of “purity”, inevitably raises the question of the decorative value inherent in the vernacular idioms it is trying to revive. With a background in interior design that influenced his moulded frames, the Lebanese artist Gebran Tarazi (1944-2010) was well versed in the codes of Arab Muslim décor. By using a Western approach to painting, his variations on geometric arabesques and polygonal traceries bring together the exquisite craft of the artisans of the Arab world, masters at systematically lining the surface, and concrete art, as it was developed during the postwar years by François Morellet, Vera Molnar or Karl Gerstner, who had the same influences as Tarazi.
Jim Isermann (born 1955 in Wisconsin), on the other hand, reveals and pushes to the limit the decorative logic of modernism, often rejected by the latter’s inventors, as well as its ambition to insert art into daily life. His geometric patterns, clearly indebted to Op-Art and sixties design, continually break free from the paintings and the objects in order to create an architectural décor, which in many ways seems to follow the Vasarelian dream of a “polychromatic city of happiness”.
Farah Atassi (born 1981 in Brussels), finally, creates a complex and skilful art, which bears witness to a vast visual culture by gathering together all the threads of historical modernity. The artist masterfully controls the different threads on this “loom” to weave the outline of a style of painting unencumbered by modernism’s supposed prohibition on decoration: here the language of the avant-garde becomes the source of a consciously affirmed modern folklore.
The eclecticism displayed by all of the works should not come as a surprise, as it is without doubt the inevitable consequence of all the compromises that modernism had to make in order to pursue its logic of dissemination and expansion. Each in their own way, the works reveal an amazing capacity for acclimatization and the potential of the most enduring particularisms (in contrast to those trapped in a search for a stable identity) to broaden to a general level, reminding us of the contribution that the periphery always makes to the centre and the constant influence the vernacular has on universal culture.