Asad Faulwell: ReInventing History Painting
Asad Faulwell, like fewer and fewer artists of his generation, has an axe to grind. Having acquired a facility and technique for creating seductively patterned and textured paintings he has more recently built narratives directly into the surfaces of his pictures. And, the diversity of his approach is evident in the selection of paintings in this, his first solo museum project. In this ongoing series, since 2010, Les Femmes D’Algers, Faulwell has created paintings to consecrate his women of Algeria. In so doing he has sought to explore territory with a long art historical legacy. And, while he isn’t painting nudes the story of the naked unclothed female body as painter’s subject is worth noting.
In the history of western painting the female nude has held interest for countless painters since the 16th century. Renaissance artists like Giorgione and Titian found the nude to be the perfect focal point for their pictures. By the 19th century, travel, trade and empire building led to a different type of nude female painting. French colonialism prodded visual testimony to ideas of the exotic and erotic other in the 19th century. Here we enter the ways in which a young contemporary artist can find similar territory of utter necessity to explore further.
Born in Idaho to an Iranian family, Faulwell’s interest in Algeria has roots in his own existence but it is one that is detached, sober and lacking in romanticism. He has learned and continues to practice the essence of his trade. Color, line composition are the tropes of his work and he sets about working through those tried and true elements as have great painters before him.
In the era of colonialism, though the woman still reclined in a languorous pose, she became darker, at least around the eyes, and the scene of the pastoral landscape that had already evolved from the Renaissance into darker more sensual, Baroque interiors became the site of the harem. Painted from travel accounts, Ingres’s Grand Odalisque of 1814 as its name implies focuses on a slave or concubine. Though Ingres never traveled outside Europe he read travel accounts, particularly those from Turkey and made many pictures of odalisques from his imagination. Delacroix, who did study abroad as a documentarian for a political mission, in particular six months spent in Morocco with a spell in Algiers, painted Les Femmes d’Algers in 1834 and another version in 1849. And, no matter how Romantic the painting is, its power as a document of imperialist intent is remarkable in the 21st century. Picasso studied both Ingres and Delacroix at the Louvre before creating 15 variations on the scene in 1954-1955. Picasso experimented deeply with variations painted in grissaile, extinguishing the cultural import of lavish colors.
For the younger artist, such a fraught history might be problematic. In order to get at a variation on the scene in the contemporary, the young artist, beatifies, rather than distorts. De Kooning has already performed a less than glorious distortion of the abstracted female body. In his paintings Faulwell celebrates the warrior women who fought for independence. Rather than employ an everywoman throughout the paintings, he has looked closely at the individuals to recount their stories. Like Picasso, he looks at the women from all angles. In some of the paintings, a grissaile visage of the heroic woman looms large as in Les Femmes d’Algers #8. Or, in #12, the figure is almost obscured, reclining at the bottom of the painting under billowing sashes of geometric color and floral motifs perhaps inspired by Islamic textiles.
In Djamila Bouhired #2 and Mujahidat #9, Faulwell builds surfaces that appear abstract from a distance yet upon closer inspection, he has collaged heads of the women into the surface. The influence of Fred Tomaselli is evident in these paintings, as the background surfaces are indebted to artists like Robert Kushner a proponent of the Pattern and Decoration movement since the 1970s. Faulwell’s usage of the collaged representational image as a device for creating lines and contours is also reminiscent of the early work of Ellen Gallagher who took miniaturized stereotypical images of blackface characters and embedded them into her paintings as formal devices to move the eye across the expanse of large paintings. Only a viewer’s close inspection would yield something of a realist or representational manner. Likewise, Faulwell constantly seeks new ways to mix his concerns for formal innovation with conceptual weight. Some years ago the young artist was prompted by such a proposal.
MG: Can you see a time when you would just make a pretty picture for its own sake or is some content inevitable with your approach?
AF: I think that the content is inevitable. The formal qualities are really tied up in and are reliant on the content.[i]