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Artists have pushed and pulled at the perimeter of the canvas for decades to take it out of the conventional rectangular format and transform it into something completely different. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented in 1964 one of the earliest exhibitions on this subject, The Shaped Canvas, that included Richard Smith, Frank Stella, Neil Williams, Sven Lukin and Paul Feeley.
Around the same time, David Novros, Ed Ruda and Leo Valledor of the artist collective, Park Place Gallery in New York, explored the shaped canvas in response to architecture with extreme corners and grand scale. In his later work, Valledor created illusions of torqued and bent planes floating in space that used the shaped canvas and reductive palettes to push the extremes of perspective. Leon Polk Smith frequently worked in the optical and illusory realm and his compositions often had elliptical shapes and multiple canvases that created the sense of volume. In Washington, D.C., a couple of the Color School artists, Thomas Downing and Paul Reed, also used extreme shapes and reductive palettes to create the illusion of volume and very large planar “objects” floating in space.
Mokha Laget’s work with shaped canvases originates from her involvement with the formal approaches of members of the Washington Color School. Her shapes are informed by and evolve out of her compositions. This newest body of work incorporates a wider range of both saturated as well as muted colors to create the illusion of objects in front of or behind others. “My shaped canvases play with perceptual ambiguity and illusionism, where the canvas edges become part of the internal structure,” she writes. “I like to involve the viewer in playful unreliability.” Laget has layered these elements and color values and incorporated assertive shapes, giving the works depth and perspective as though the structures are three-dimensional and emerge out of the picture plane. Since Laget confines her work to a two-dimensional picture plane, the shapes of the canvas and the interplay and layers of color are an integral and necessary aspect of her creation of illusory space.
By David Eichholtz
MOKHA LAGET: TECTONIC TORQUE
I first encountered the paintings of Mokha Laget in a hangar at the Santa Fe airport. Arranged salon-style in the back, and with her partner’s trim little light aircraft (Mooney – 1964 turbo) tethered in the foreground, her colorful abstractions appeared airborne, kite-like, on the white wall of the spacious, sky-lit hangar.
It felt appropriate to view Laget’s work in a place poised for take-off. She is a citizen of the world, and travel has been an important component of her life. Born to French parents in Algeria, her earliest memories are of the landscape and light of the North African desert, a vastness contrasted with the congested street life in the dust-and-exhaust-choked cities. Like Delacroix and Matisse and Paul Klee, she responded to the colors and patterns favored by desert nomads, the cool of Islamic tiles, the white-hot sun in the market square, and the long black shadows that cut through the dazzle of light like a knife.
“I have traveled all my life,” Laget admitted. “Travel is lifeblood; it connects the planet.” Her father was in the French foreign service and the family followed his work. Although she was schooled in France, there were stints in Brazil and Japan, and then further schooling in New York and Washington, DC. In Washington in the 1980s, she attended the Corcoran School of Art. There she came in contact with the legacy of the renowned Washington Color School of painters, whose members had included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring, Paul Reed, and Gene Davis. She studied with Reed and became a trusted friend and studio assistant of Davis, whose broad horizontal paintings with their unpredictable rhythms of ravishingly hued vertical stripes provided her with an immersion in the possibilities of color.
While in Washington, Laget also trained as an interpreter at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and she now travels the world as a simultaneous translator between French and English. (Our meeting at the airport hangar was torn from a busy schedule serving as interpreter for a group of women entrepreneurs from French-speaking African nations, invited to meet with counterparts throughout the US, with whom she was traveling and had brought to visit the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.) She is accustomed to juggling two languages at once, a trait that has carried over into her paintings.
A student of linguistics, words are important to her. Attention given to her titles when viewing her work will always be rewarded with fresh insights. She is a poet and a published art critic, and has worked as a Performance artist and in many other aspects of the theater, including acting and scene design. In Washington, shortly after Gene Davis died unexpectedly, she was asked to create a piece to highlight the 1987 memorial exhibition for her former mentor at the National Museum of American Art. She supervised the painting of the street leading to the museum with an homage to Davis’s signature stripes. Exactly twenty years later, in 2007, she returned to participate in ColorField:remix, a city-wide celebration of the Washington Color School. Invited to revisit her earlier idea, she supervised the creation of Gene’s Jubilee, a street painting with 450 feet of colorful stripes stretched in front of the National Portrait Gallery.
She moved to Santa Fe in 1996, and in addition to the airplane hangar, she maintains a studio off the grid in the New Mexico countryside, where the long vistas of dry landforms and intense light recall her childhood experience of North Africa. In some unspoken way, the paradoxical interplay of clarity and distance in the New Mexico landscape—Georgia O’Keeffe’s “The Faraway Nearby”—has infiltrated the spatial order of Laget’s shaped compositions.
Travel provides Laget with a rich and constantly changing source of inspiration and materials. She gathers not only color ideas, but also actual pigments from all over the world. Blending these pigments with a unique clay formula, she has been able to achieve a sumptuous array of hues with a rich, matte effect. On a recent trip to Morocco, she encountered an ancient floor mosaic in the ruins of an old Roman town. Intrigued by its use of small square tesserae and by the way an illusion of three-dimensional depth was applied both to figures and to the geometric “Greek-key” design of its border, she drew on its inspiration to create a series of cube-based lithographs, Off the Grid, at Santa Fe’s Landfall Press.
Laget is an artist of broad painting culture and a gifted colorist, well-versed in the tradition of geometric abstraction that developed during the twentieth century. She sees a precedent in the Russian Constructivists, especially their architectural relief sculptures featuring interacting planes. Malevich’s Suprematist Black Square, his bid to purify the iconic aspect of art, also made an impression; and she is fond of his remark that, “Art is not only art but also a thought. It is the materialization of an idea.” Her embrace of the diagonal would put her closer to van Doesburg than to Mondrian’s formula of primal opposition. “The diagonal always sets the eye in motion,” she says. Nevertheless, a sense of vital opposition is central to her artistic concern.
She has exhibited with the MADI group of international geometric abstractionists that was founded in Buenos Aires in 1946. Playful and mechanical, the MADI artists quote Huizinga’s 1938 essay Homo Ludens: “The terms we use to designate the elements of play are, for the most part, the same as those utilized in the aesthetic realm. Like art, play engages and delivers.” While well-received in Europe, the art of the MADI artists has never had much traction with American critics, who fault it for remaining “merely play.” Although there is much wit and delight in deceiving the eye in Laget’s work, it does not fall into the category of mere play.
The geometric artist she is probably closest to is Josef Albers, who said that art should “present, not represent.” Albers took a lab-coat approach to exploring visual language and the perceptual possibilities of various rectilinear configurations, overlappings, and ambiguous spaces, some examples of which resemble aspects of Laget’s work. His long-running Homage to the Square series features purely retinal effects of depth, which, like Laget’s, are generated by interactions of color alone. Aside from their sumptuous color, the salient feature of Laget’s paintings is their planar vocabulary of broad, flat, rectilinear shapes that interact optically.
In a way, however, it’s a mistake to dwell on linking Laget’s work with the tradition of twentieth-century geometric abstraction, to which it relates only tangentially. There are much broader issues at stake. What needs to be understood is what it means to be a principled artist in the twenty-first century, to uphold high critical standards and to maintain a commitment to the art of painting in an era fraught with increasing distractions, and which has repeatedly pointed to painting’s exhaustion.
When the art of painting began to turn away from its long history of attempting to represent reality (or was it that reality had withdrawn from the feasibility of representation?), it turned back to itself, seeking self-definition. Painters initiated a critical self-inquiry and analysis of their own practice. This led to a questioning of the longstanding conventions of easel painting. Certain norms were taken to be the essential givens of the easel picture—the flat plane of its surface and the rectangle of its frame. Originally, the rectangle was associated with the framing of a view through a window, which a painting was thought to resemble. But painters recognized that the ultimate reality has to be the object at hand—the painting—and the painter’s desire to make a painting, a visual expression of sense and meaning.
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Although she uses an abstract vocabulary, Mokha Laget has been able to tap into the power of one of the great mysteries at the heart of the art of painting: our ability to look at a flat surface and to mentally re-conceive it as open space, a space we might be able to penetrate imaginatively and to enter.
Painting was born in a critical—or we might say, magical—moment when perception and conception sharply coincided, when some solid, probably stone, surface suddenly dropped away and became open space surrounding some loose marks as they coalesced into, say, the figure of an animal. Losing its solidity, the hard surface became a fluid medium for the mind’s projections. Being vertical, frontally oriented creatures, we are capable of taking a flat, upright surface for an analogy to the actual space we walk in, the space that opens before us, a world’s space as it presents itself to us and we to it.
Before that moment when it was discovered that images could be externalized and embellished and created at will, images had existed in our world only fleetingly—as cast shadows or reflections in still water or on the shiny surfaces of other eyes as we looked into them. On another day, we might have picked out a face in the profile of a rock outcropping, or the body of a sleeping woman in the contour of distant hills, a lion in a mounting cloud, a rabbit in the dark spots on the moon. These are examples not just of seeing, but of “seeing as”—of seeing one thing as another, of making associations based on past experience. Images, of course, are a part of mental life and the stuff of dreams, that internal realm of the mind’s reprocessing of our sensory experience, of trying out alternative possibilities for this acquired information, an activity that we call “imagination” and which the mind can conduct automatically, even when we are asleep.
Philosophy was very much a part of Laget’s French schooling. She credits the writings of Gaston Bachelard and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for contributing to her understanding of relationships between imagination and space perception. Merleau-Ponty’s thought, in particular, delves into the mysteries of perception and its relationship to bodily experience, into how we relate as incarnate individuals—psychologically and physiologically—to this world that we move around in. Much of his writing concerns the activities of painters.
In abstract painting, according to Merleau-Ponty, “What replaces the object is not the subject, but the allusive logic of the perceived world.”
This is an important key to Mokha Laget’s art. Her handling of illusion, whereby perception is solicited and then thwarted, approaches the essence of her enterprise. She understands the fallibility of vision, how much it depends on contextual clues, and ultimately, how it relies on the entire physiological conditioning of lived experience.
In the presence of a painting,…as in the perception of things themselves, it is a matter of contemplating, of perceiving the painting by way of the silent signals which come at me from its every part, which emanate from the traces of paint set down on the canvas, until such time as all, in the absence of reason and discourse, come to form a tightly structured arrangement in which one has the distinct feeling that nothing is arbitrary.
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Through her association with the painters of the Washington Color School in the 1980s, Laget was party to studio talk about the principles of a self-disciplined commitment to painting, largely as they had been articulated by Clement Greenberg in his formalist account of the philosophy of Modernism. By that time a “postmodernist” backlash had developed, and Greenberg’s influence was waning. Concern for the intensifying strain in the relationship between art and society, a crisis of identity, and the undermining imperatives of late-capitalism had sent artists in a variety of directions, seeking new purpose. Laget, too, found Greenberg limiting.
But no serious artist could be unaffected by the great period of mid twentieth-century American painting and art criticism. That generation’s ambition to match the best art of the tradition, together with a determined drive to discover and define the essential basis of each artistic discipline, had been centered in high moral standards of critical self-analysis. Talk of “Where do we go from here?” would have been a vital topic of discussion in the Washington studios while Laget was there. It’s interesting to note that in recent works, she has found solutions that have strong parallels with Greenberg’s formalist analysis, delving into issues with deep roots in perception and in the basic conditions of the art of painting.
Greenberg famously declared: “Under the testing of modernism more and more of the conventions of the art of painting have shown themselves to be dispensable, unessential. By now it has been established that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness.” But in “Modernist Painting” he pointed out:
The flatness toward which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an utter flatness. The heightened sensitivity of the picture plane may no longer permit sculptural illusion, but it does and must permit optical illusion. The first mark made on a surface destroys its virtual flatness…. Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye.
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Color is a key component of Mokha Laget’s shaped paintings. Each painting is built on an assembly of broad rectilinear shapes that tend to read as planes in space. Each component shape has been identified with a single hue, which fills it corner-to-corner without shading or change and establishes it as a flat form. Working on his famous cut-outs, Matisse spoke of using his scissors to carve color directly like a sculptor. Color attains a similar physical quality in Laget’s paintings, and she arranges her shaped units in such a way that they “carve” the space around them, including the outside framing-edge. In recent works she has been using either clay-based paints of her own formula or flasche, a commercial paint having a thick matte finish and vibrant intensity similar to tempera or gouache. These paints soak into the canvas fabric and fuse with it uniformly. The result is a richly saturated, velvety, and sensuously matte surface, filled with light.
Color takes on substance as shape and color become completely identified. Sometimes the color-plane will seem as thin as a sheet of colored celluloid, overlapping transparently or translucently when it joins a similar planar sheet (Pinfire; Earthbound). Occasionally, the interacting shapes will appear to be the result of folding a single sheet of paper, an effect like an elaborate Origami (Hatchway; Pliage; Somewhere; Upwind). In other works, a greater thickness and rigidity is implied, and the configurations appear to be constructed of enameled sheet metal (Aperture; Cantilever; Moreover; Outskirts). There are also works in which the color seems to swell the form that it infuses, almost as if the shape itself might be a beam of colored light (Hotspot, especially; but also Ventana and Pinfire). This swelling effect is reminiscent of the colored walls in the architecture of Luis Barragán, whose work Laget has long admired (Fortnight; Periphery; Outlier; Seesaw; Upland). As Emilio Ambasz remarked about Barragán’s architectural fusion of color and form: “Space flows majestically like liquid silence.” In the end the entire arrangement produces an optical field of color forms, interacting dynamically, tightly integral, and locked together in opulent intensity.
What is most important, however, is that at no point can a coherent illusion of rational space be successfully read into Laget’s formal arrangements. Visual cues are introduced and constantly contradicted, so that the eye cannot finally resolve the image. This is where the power of Laget’s art comes to full effect. Its basis is in her method of working out her configurations in a dialogue between “plane” and “solid” geometry. If she wants to introduce a square, for example, she will usually imagine that square as one of the planar sides of a cube. The cube, being a three-dimensional (solid) form, exists within spatial depth, and the planes of its sides will be distorted according to the observer’s point of view. In other words, each shape that Laget introduces has been conceived as a flat, two-dimensional plane, but one that has then been imaginatively projected into three-dimensional space, where it would recede optically in depth and the sides would slant accordingly on a diagonal. However, as she is working with only imaginative projections in the “virtual” world of painting, she retains the distorted shape of the plane in depth with its diagonal sides, and simply redeploys it as a flat irregular polygon on the two-dimensional surface of her canvas.
Anytime the eye sees a plane with diagonal sides, it will habitually want to interpret it as receding in depth. We want to read Nave, for example, as three colored squares falling through space in front of a tall blue rectangle. But only one true square is painted; the other two are narrow diamonds, which we interpret from their squashed shapes as squares angled in depth, tilting this way and that. Context also influences our reading, including the subtle overlapping of the planes.
Given the primacy of color in her work, it’s interesting to note that Laget develops her ideas for paintings first in black-and-white. She studied photography in art school, which sharpened her feeling for light and for tonal contrast; and part of the subtlety of the illusions in her final paintings comes from the fact that she imagines a consistent light source for her imaginary solids. She will often use mechanical drawing techniques, such as the “exploded view.” (The print Off the Grid #6, for example, is based on an “exploded view” of a box-like cube, unfolded to reveal all of its sides.) Preparatory sketches in graphite are done in small on graph paper and collected into notebooks, where they are worked with for some time before plans are drawn up for enlargement and a shaped armature is built for stretching the canvas. She makes decisions about color only after she has the bare stretched canvas shape physically in hand and has carefully traced the outlines of its internal configuration.
Sometimes the colored shapes will seem to intersect or overlap. But when these overlaps occur, they are not colored as a mixture of the hues of the two interacting shapes. Instead, the resulting shape is painted an altogether foreign hue. The eye has to go back to reading the resulting shape as an independent flat shape on the flat surface. Flatness is maintained overall; and although the eye and mind are constantly given numerous cues for the introduction of depth—by a tapered edge that appears to be receding in space, or by a change of shade that implies the shadowed side of a solid—the cues are contradicted and the space cannot be rationalized. We try to project our bodily experience of three-dimensional space onto the painting, only to find our reading frustrated or playfully jostled by contradictory cues. Laget is actually defeating trompe l’oeil (fooling the eye), and like the Cubists, proposing instead to trompe l’esprit (fool the mind), thwarting the viewer’s impulse to read an illusion of spatial depth or to impose a narrative. Like Pollock’s ‘allover’ line, Laget’s paintings give the eye no rest. The painting’s space remains “available to eyesight alone.”
That quality of pure visibility, without external reference, became an imperative of Modernist painting, according to Greenberg. In his explanation of how the space of Barnett Newman’s paintings is “available to eyesight alone,” Michael Fried remarked that, “The beholder is faced with a complex situation in which his responsiveness to tactility and tactile space has been aroused but not allowed to come to a definite conclusion.”
Geometry is unreal. It is an abstraction, extrapolated from the conditions and behavior of the natural environment. Its forms are not given in nature, but abstracted from our attempt to come to terms with nature and its unseen laws. The two-dimensional figures of plane geometry—circle, square, triangle—can be constructed or delineated only with the aid of mechanical tools. They do not exist in nature. Their outlines on paper are “models” of mental constructs, products of human artifice. When translating between the three-dimensional space of actuality and a flat two-dimensional surface, “plane” geometry (square, triangle) is “real,” but “solid” geometry (cube, pyramid) is only “virtual.” Laget exploits this paradox. She translates implicitly tactile cues into entirely visual ones. The space of her paintings is suspended between the real and the unreal in a constant optical interplay. With no ultimate resolution, the painting remains wrapped in its own perpetually labile and autonomous world.
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Mokha Laget’s original title for this exhibition was “Tectonic Torque.” Like all of her titles, this one is richly evocative on multiple levels. The term refers to forces at work on the earth’s crust and to the shifting of the massive plates beneath the surface, which causes earthquakes and Continental Drift. “Torque,” a twisting action, is an aspect of the vast pressures exerted on these plates by the spin of the earth’s rotation on its axis and by the interaction between the planet’s own gravity and the pull of the sun that it is orbiting. “Tekton” is the Greek word for craftsman, adopted here to refer to the earth’s structure. These are some of the kinds of invisible forces that geometry (which, after all, comes from Greek words meaning “earth” and “measure”) was invented to help us visualize.
In crafting the lushly colored architectonic plates that structure her shaped canvases, Laget has imbued them with internal pressures. These pressures, however, are not invisible. In fact, they are only visible. They exist only in painted relationships and how these affect the mind and eye of the viewer.
Art critic William Peterson lives in Albuquerque. Longtime editor of Artspace magazine, he has also been a correspondent for Art News, an adjunct professor of art history at the University of New Mexico, and Associate Editor of Museum Publications at the J. Paul Getty Museum.