Nicolas Moufarrege: Recognize My Sign
- Casey Gregory
November 10, 2018–February 17, 2019
As a teacher of Art Appreciation, I know that no movement infuriates the new-to-art crowd like ‘appropriation art.’ “So what do you mean, he just copied an ad and called it his art?” Crossed arms and sneers spread like a virus across the classroom. This is exactly the kind of bullshit they always thought artists were getting away with. And they’re not entirely wrong, it is the kind of “art for artists” that, while posing interesting questions about authorship and our consumption of images, can really alienate an audience predisposed to believing that the entire project of contemporary art is merely some vast scam or a dumb game of one-upmanship among the monied class. But frame it in the language of music, as a sampling or a remix, and suddenly perceptions begin to soften, my own included. All this is to say that the work of Nicolas Moufarrege, now on view at the CAMH, represents the kind of exciting and innovative remixing that was happening everywhere during the artist’s tragically brief career (no wonder. he was, after all, contemporaneous with some of the world’s first MCs). I mention this because some of the most moving and emotionally powerful works of this exhibition are framed as belonging to the “appropriation” movement. Like a great cover song that reimagines the original to strikingly new effect, Moufarrege blew past the academic navel-gazing that is appropriation into an utterly new place, one that is capable of capturing ideas and emotions as diverse as terror and desire.
Since Moufarrege’s career was relatively brief, lasting only ten years from his transformation from art critic to maker until his untimely death in 1985, the retrospective can be tidily contained within a single floor at the CAMH. Still, the richness of each image and the layering of associations required to process them means that it’s not the kind of small exhibition to be quickly breezed through. It begins with smaller works in which the artist employed a “free-stitch” technique uncommon to embroiderers to create surfaces that seem to flow like water, gently transitioning from figure to atmosphere to delicate pattern and back. The most fluid example of this is 1975’s Le sang du phénix [The Blood of the Phoenix], in which architecture is interspersed with the disembodied eyes of a figure. Reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary rendering of the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, these eyes survey a world being constructed or destroyed around them. But unlike their literary counterpart, Moufarrege’s all-seeing eyes are alight with concern, a kind of emotional presence that connects all of the works in the show.
The progression of the exhibition invites the viewer to follow the artist’s evolution as he began to amp up his scale and toy with the strictures of this traditional medium- incorporating passages of ghostly embroidery canvas that are sometimes painted and sometimes left bare. As he worked, living first in Paris and then New York, Moufarrege seems to have become more freewheeling with his choice of images, incorporating humorous juxtapositions to devastating effect. The ‘busiest’ culmination of these are six works from 1983 arranged against the museum’s far wall. Narcissix of One and Nick’s of the Other counts thread, pigment, glitter, and beads as among it’s materials, and it’s imagery ranges even further afield. Santa Claus and Spiderman, a wailing figure from Picasso’s Guernica, and an African tribesman share the stage. At center is a child wearing headphones, eyes wide with fear. The psychic receptor of all of the world’s violence-real or imagined- this child is our own lost innocence outraged in perpetuity. This is in contrast with the blase title, which hints at the mundanity of it all. Because they are so packed with associations, each image may be read like this, for it’s compositional or material interest but also for it’s multiple deeper meanings.
In one of the final finished works in the exhibition, we see a montage of images-a Lichtenstein figure whose head has been supplanted by a gleaming, mirror-like rectangle, a passage of scumbled gold that evokes the older, similarly flat works of the Byzantine era, and the muscular, Baroque contour of a nude man. Behind this drawing on the gallery wall is cast a corresponding shadow. In a posthumous exhibition like Recognize My Sign, It’s difficult not to read the shadow as a metaphor for the artist’s unrealized work. The weight of the aesthetic evidence in this exhibition doesn’t reinforce that melancholy interpretation however. From looking, you will find that Moufarrege seemed to have left nothing on the table.
Some artists build a body of work over time by gently and studiously paring back unnecessary layers, arriving at that most essential kernel through a process of editing or enhancing focus. It appears that the project of Nicolas Moufarrege was the opposite. As he moved across three continents, he seems to have gathered more and more of the world to himself. His very medium depended on this kind of density-a thousand shining threads pooling together in just the right way to create an image. But in his crowded and varied world full of seemingly disparate things, Moufarrege found a way to create meaning-by sorting, deconstructing and recontextualizing. This is work that teeters on a needle-thin edge of revelation and control. It thrives on a different kind of paring back, not of the image but of that extrinsic layer of culture that disguises our common humanity.