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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Djamel Tatah: Solitary Figures

Installation view: <em>Djamel Tatah: Solitary Figures,</em> Bienvenu Steinberg, New York, 2023. Courtesy Bienvenu Steinberg.
Installation view: Djamel Tatah: Solitary Figures, Bienvenu Steinberg, New York, 2023. Courtesy Bienvenu Steinberg.

On View
Bienvenu Steinberg & J
Solitary Figures
June 8–July 15, 2023
New York

The artist Djamel Tatah is the son of Algerian immigrant parents, and, for a major part of his life, he has lived and worked in Montpellier, France. Over the years, Tatah has found success in showing his paintings to worldwide audiences who reside both north and south of the equator. While, as a painter, his aesthetic and political positions are relatively well-known throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, he has yet to find an accurate footing in the United States; hence the importance of the current exhibition.

In Djamel Tatah: Solitary Figures, the artist has finally been given his first exposure in the New York art scene, with the aid of Richard Vine’s curatorial prowess. In addition, the superlative and insightfully conceived catalogue essays on Tatah’s work by Vine and art historian Barbara Stehle possess an exactitude and incisiveness that are difficult to argue against.

Djamel Tatah, <em>Untitled</em>, 2012. Oil and wax on canvas, 78.74 x 165.35 inches, each panel 78.74 x 82.68 inches. Courtesy the artist and Bienvenu Steinberg.
Djamel Tatah, Untitled, 2012. Oil and wax on canvas, 78.74 x 165.35 inches, each panel 78.74 x 82.68 inches. Courtesy the artist and Bienvenu Steinberg.

Tatah’s paintings are rather unusual: we seem to encounter the relatively stark presence of what might be considered portraiture, but in fact these images are not portraiture at all. Many of the figures pictured—both singular or in groups—are taken from family snapshots or anonymous news clippings that suggest unknown or lesser-known personages. In each case, they are painted in poses such as sitting, standing, leaning, lying, or hugging. In each work, there is a painted backdrop that works relative to the pose(s), consisting of rectilinear monochromes in mixed colors or hues painted within large painterly fields. For the most part, and with few exceptions, Tatah’s paintings are “Untitled.” The men or women painted on these canvases have facial expressions that may or may not correspond to the physical appearance of the model’s body.

Much has been said by the artist himself and his followers regarding the white mask-like faces of the various figures in Tatah’s paintings. The point that Tatah’s paintings are striving to make is directly political, relative to the human rights that are removed once the individual face is replaced by a relatively systematic way of living. In essence, the mask invites the viewer’s interpretive point of view. There are other meanings that can be brought to the fore emanating from various historical and present-day sources ranging from Byzantine icons to Fayum portraits, from Persian, Indian, and Arabic sources as well. Clothing replicates culture as well as its absence. As for Tatah’s paintings, they are delivering a message that goes beyond the obvious, moving inward toward other ways of thought that both open up and close off our right to live in the way we choose. He works from the inside out as well as the outside in.

As I understand it, the eight full-size canvases that make up this exhibition were produced between 2011 and 2021. They are relatively large, a scale that has been linked to the work of Michelangelo Pistoletto, which Tatah saw during his early days of painting. One of the most intense works in this exhibition is that seated woman seen on the cover of the catalogue. The intensity of the woman’s face combines with her seated position to produce a distinct sense of isolation. She is definitively alone.

Djamel Tatah, <em>Untitled</em>, 2018. Oil and wax on canvas, 78.74 x 78.74 inches. Courtesy the artist and Bienvenu Steinberg.
Djamel Tatah, Untitled, 2018. Oil and wax on canvas, 78.74 x 78.74 inches. Courtesy the artist and Bienvenu Steinberg.

A very different painting would be a work showing a line of people. The intensity of this work reaches from one figure to another, as if each person were magnifying the emotions of the next in line. Finally in a work from 2018, there is a paired man and woman—together yet fully removed from any sign of abundance. They are outside the realm of wealth or material goods, yet are keenly aware of themselves as being alive. As Vine’s comparison to Gauguin’s oil painting, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1898) makes clear, there is something more to life than what we see on the surface. To come to terms with Djamel Tatah’s Solitary Figures, we might consider entering another world—a world purposely ignored, even as it haunts our lives and the lives of others. The solution requires knowing and caring when help is needed, and finding the dignity to take a step down and take away the pain of others.


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an artist, critic, curator, and art historian who paints, writes, curates exhibitions, and lectures on art history. Over the course of his career, he has traveled widely engaging in many aspects of his career. He has several books published by major publishers, i.e., Cambridge University Press, McFarland & Company, London, Allworth Press, New York, University of Minneapolis Press, The Johns Hopkins University Press, among others. His most recent exhibition was held at the Scully Tomasko Foundation, New York City (2022).


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