Interview with L'Atlas by Manon Lutanie, for Éditions Lutanie, Paris, April 2011
Manon Lutanie : You recently moved into a new studio that you share with Tanc, in the Parisian suburb of Les Lilas. How does this new location change your outlook?
L'Atlas : My previous studio was located at street level, at the back of a construction site on rue Ramponeau in Paris' 20th arrondissement. I was constantly connected with the outside world, and that really helped me to develop my studio work as a continuation of my work in the street. Our new studio is on the third floor of a glass building. We have access to the roof and can look out over the city from there. It's given us some perspective on ourselves and on the work we've done over the past ten years. The new studio inspires me to further my exploration of calligraphy by moving towards geometric abstraction, to abandon the written word and focus more on form, and to apply principles of isolation, repetition and superimposition to writing, making it lose its readability in favour of form.
In January, you presented two joint exhibitions with Tanc, in Paris and in New Delhi. Has this had any influence on the evolution of your respective works?
The proximity of Tanc’s work has led me to purify form and to move away from the depiction of letters. For our joint exhibition in Paris, "Gradations", the idea was the following: to use only black, white, chrome and greys. Gradation in English means a graduated shading; in French, it’s a stylistic device that consists of enumerating things—adjectives for example—with a progression or degression of intensity. The idea of a visual crescendo fit well with the series we’d started working on, and we decide to explore it further. The studio became a kind of laboratory devoid of colour where we applied layers of grey one on top of another, creating a gradation between the white of the walls and the black of our clothing. We produced a whole series of four-hand works this way. Even for people very familiar with our work, it was difficult to recognize which one of us had created certain pieces. Our exhibition at the Alliance Française of New Delhi was more about contrasting than about superimposing. It was a series of diptychs in which each of us worked on round or square forms with the aim of interpreting the other’s work through our own individual techniques.
It’s one of the first times that grey has appeared in your pictures, between the black and the white. Why hasn’t this occurred before?
Grey isn’t exactly a colour. It’s a kind of degree of light intensity that we position between black and white. The contrast of pure black and pure white creates a very powerful visual effect. The presence of grey soothes this retinal vibration; this compels me to complicate the form, in order to keep the contemplation of the work enjoyable. What's important to me, when I look at one of my pictures, is the trembling effect prompted in the retina. In that sense, my work follows on from optical art. I've also long used chrome, deeming it to contain all the variations of grey. In Oriental symbolism, the colour grey is sacred, it's considered an equivalent of silver. I try to achieve the gleaming quality of chrome by placing various greys side by side.
During your residency at Al Maqam in Morocco last October, you created a series of woven works using gaffer tape on canvas. Did the introduction of the weaving technique in this context have any particular meaning for you?
I was introduced to classic Arabic calligraphy by a Moroccan master, Smaïl Bour Quaïba. He lived in Beni-Mellal at the foot of the Middle Atlas, and he was the last son in a family that had had only boys. His mother had raised him like a girl and taught him the art of weaving. He later became a calligrapher and artist. It’s possible that this story influenced me. More consciously, these works are city maps, geometrical ground plans that describe the strata of the construction of a city. It’s a way to draw the earth, to draw the city, through an abstract geometrical writing system.
One of your latest works, exhibited in January at the Lebenson Gallery, also uses the technique of weaving, but without basing it on words: the pattern is purely geometrical. Is your work heading towards abstraction, towards a progressive disappearance of words?
It's true, that was almost the first time I've worked on canvas without forming letters. I’m slowly starting to use simple geometric forms in lieu of letters. This picture can be seen as a series of buildings superimposed onto various planes, with no respect for the laws of perspective. There's no decrease in the size of the motif as it moves up the canvas, and this creates a disturbing visual effect. The eye searches for a horizon line or a vanishing point, but the forms are firmly fixed in the foreground. The inspiration for this work is actually what I see out the window: when you look at two buildings in the distance, the one furthest away appears lower. This painting is an isolation of that particular effect, flattened and repeated.
You've recently begun working on projects with architect Philippe Rizzotti. Can you tell us about them?
They're three dimensional projects based on my cryptograms and destined to be built in a public space— not necessarily as sculptures but ideally, as an integral part of the urban landscape, in a space where people can move around—on the scale of a city square, for example. It’s a way for me to return to the street, but differently. The performances that I create once in a while, like the one in Genoa or in front of the Centre Pompidou, are like models for these more sweeping projects I have planned.
Translated from the French by Anne Appathurai