In 2006 the Paris-based master printer Michael Woolworth invited French painter Djamel Tatah to pick up a crayon and draw on a lithography stone for the first time. Recently, in Woolworth’s atelier, tucked behind the relentless roar of traffic at the Place de la Bastille, they mounted an authoritative overview of what is now eight years of rich collaboration. “Oeuvre(s) sur papier” included some 40 lithographs and woodcuts, including two-and-a-half-meter-long Wood 113 (2013).1
Tatah was born in 1959 in France to Algerian émigré parents who had come to work in the factories of the Gier valley. In his ascetic paintings he builds immaculate, resolute grounds of oil paint and melted wax on which he studiously positions life-size figures in poses remembered from press clippings and art history.2 He uses people close to him, both friends and family, photographing them in “caught moments” that he projects, scales up and hones into anonymity. Some figures fly into voids. Some lie prostrate and crumpled. At the edge of the canvas they are cropped off at the hips, breast and ankles; they march outwards en masse, often repeated or mirrored in a way that mysteriously reinforces their sense of solitude.Tatah whitens faces, darkens hair and smoothes out signs of aging. Detail is synthesized to remove pictorial distraction: the clothing is neutral and only the occasional fold of fabric, a lapel or a parting in the hair is picked out with a painted white line. Social markers and distinctions are erased, his sources buried, and a distance established that is crucial to his art.
Woolworth recognized a common ground between Tatah’s painting and the aptitudes of printmaking, not just the general shared principle of repetition but also specific formal echoes: the linear absences that result from gouging a wood block or from a gap between jig-sawed blocks echoed Tatah’s painted white line. Woolworth describes the images in terms of compartments: one for the figure, others for the ground. This compartmentalization suits printmaking, translating into woodblocks or lithography plates that must be made separately then fitted together—“marquetry in simple form,” as Woolworth puts it.3 Lithography and woodcut could also provide the type of flat, richly colored tabula rasa onto which Tatah choreographs his figures.
Holding a central place in the exhibition are three monumental jigsaw woodcuts (Wood 0108, Wood 0208 and Wood 0308, all 2008) designed for the Centre Pompidou group show “Airs de Paris” (2007). All are pulled from the same block depicting a single young man, hands in pockets, lips pursed. Seeping into the gouged line that describes the folds and edges of his dark clothing, thinned shades of Prussian blue, russet and a dull acid yellow come through (the color is different in each of the prints). The backgrounds are nocturnal—black, nuanced with oxblood and mulberry. These luxurious color fields were built with multiple passes through the press, and the strata of inks can be glimpsed at the edges of the cuts, where irregularities in the cheap plywood matrix allow a rim of deep salmon around the hairline or a loop of ultramarine dropped below an earlobe to shine through.
In the atelier’s front room, by contrast, pale beige grounds support white figures articulated by the artist’s deft lithographic line printed in black. In Tatah’s first attempt at lithography, he drew across three stones to depict the head and shoulders of a man (Litho 0107, Litho 0207, Litho 0307, all 2007). Woolworth coated the vélin de Laurier paper with a glowing skin of casein to establish a matte, velvety surface that evoked the “muted” property of fresco.4 The casein caused the black lithographic line to bounce rather than sink in, giving it the freshness of a charcoal sketch. The figure’s eyes are closed beneath heavy brows and his right hand raised; he may be dead or just sleeping. For the front-room works, Woolworth added a beige woodblock layer that cuts around the shapes of the figures, leaving them flat and anticorporeal, described simply through the white of the casein and the black of the lithography. The slight tonal shift from the beige woodblock ground back into the white casein base on the figure plays on Tatah’s fixation with the absent or disappearing presence.5 Among the most striking of these works is a diptych showing a woman rotating to the left and to the right, as if in stop-animation (Wood 0311, 2011), and a vertical print in which young man looks directly at the viewer, offering up two stones (Wood 0111, 2011).
These stones form a rare example of a specific attribute or accessory in Tatah’s work (an earring appears in a canvas from 1989). The print in question is part of a series of nine conceived for a joint exhibition initiated by Tatah, “Valérie Jouve (photographies)–Djamel Tatah (peintures),” that opened in the Palestinian Art Court–al Hoash, East Jerusalem, in July 2011 before moving on to Ramallah and finally to Gaza. A full set of the prints was donated to the collection of the future Contemporary Art Museum–Palestine (CAMP).6 Given this background, it would be easy to attach political content to the image of a young man holding stones, as well as other works that show women in hijabs and hoodie-wearing boys behind bars. In other works, wood-base striations down the length of a nose and nicks on the back of a hand read as tears or scourges. But Tatah’s scrupulous refusal to offer clues of class, politics or nationality means that these suggestions never resolve into anything as limiting as a clear statement on Middle Eastern politics or the troubled youth of the banlieues. Instead, the suppressed gestures of his figures are free to evoke the broader universe of human expression and experience. Tatah intended them to convey a sense of peace.
The eerie side of Tatah’s aesthetic is forcefully apparent in Wood 0109 (2009), in which a young man plunges through silvery ether. The delicate lithographic line that gives life to this twisted figure (one arm is hidden or missing and one leg seems to end in a blunt, squared shape) also attends carefully to the abstract folds and billows of fabric that wrap the body like a shroud. For this print Woolworth urged the artist to accept the beauty of an imperfect ground; Tatah threw the challenge back, requesting that Woolworth print a surface that conjures air. Wood 0109 required 12 color passes (including five pulls of white to build the density and translucency) to achieve its final nacreous, iridescent surface, with ink runs so heavy that the saturated sheets had to dry pinned to the walls rather than on racks where they might stick.
These are among the studio’s most ambitious prints, as reviews in Le Monde and Libération newspapers acknowledge (a rare event for a private print show). Hung bare and unframed at the artist’s request, the works’ chromatic grandeur contrasts with the steel press beds—one of the most pleasing aspects of the show was seeing prints displayed in the place where they were made. Woolworth’s full-time collaborator, Julien Torhy, is integral to Tatah’s printmaking and was recognized on the wall labels, which name the printers alongside the artist. Once a “monomaniac”7 painter who made neither works on paper nor drawings, Tatah has become a sensitive and accomplished printmaker through his work with Woolworth. His uncompromising sensibility seems to suit the discipline of the printing process and his motifs, incessantly repeated in oil paint, are rejuvenated in print.
A related catalogue is available from the studio, “Les papiers de Djamel Tatah,” text in French by Michael Woolworth, published on the occasion of his exhibit at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Châtellerault, Ateliers de l’imprimé, December 2013, 8 pages, 10 illustrations, edition of 200 of which 30 are signed and numbered.
- Tatah does not title his prints, which are identified by workshop codes.
- Dagen Philippe, “Bodies of Thought,” in Djamel Tatah (exhibition catalogue), MAMAC Nice, 2009, http://djameltatah.com/en/publications
- All quotations are taken from conversation between the author and Michael Woolworth.
- Michael Woolworth, Les Papiers de Djamel Tatah, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Châtellerault, Ateliers de l’imprimé, 2013, 2.
- “Valérie Jouve (photographies)–Djamel Tatah (peintures)” toured to the Sakakini Culturel Center, Ramallah, Palestine, in September 2011 and the Centre Culturel Français, Gaza, in October of the same year. The series of nine prints was first exhibited in Tatah’s solo exhibitions at the Château de Chambord, April 2011, and at the Musée de l’Art Concret, Mouans-Sartoux, June 2011.
- Woolworth, Les Papiers de Djamel Tatah, 1.