In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.
As an American who has lived in Paris since 1983, I can readily appreciate the joys and pains of assimilation. As a novelist, however, I want to be neither an innocent abroad nor a cultural reporter; my decade in Europe is something I want to make my own, just as I hope to turn "France" into a region of my mind. Philip Taaffe has set a brilliant example of how to accomplish such a transformation.
Taaffe's work reminds me of something I recall Piet Mondrian said: that balance in art is life, but symmetry is death. In Al Quasbah there is a vitalizing dissymmetry between foreground and background; they are out of phase with one another, though they suggest one geometrically satisfying series perceived through another (a mosque's marble floor seen through a metal grille, for instance). The tones in the foreground are binary, an unvarying alternation of white and black, whereas the background is all half tints and grisaille and some discontinuous forms and a hint of red blushing across the upper-left-hand segment, like an earth color underlying a faded fresco. It was by placing pattern on pattern like this that Henri Matisse rendered depth in paintings devoid of traditional perspective; the disparity in the patterns suggested superimposition and thickness. Taaffe has intensified this effect by hinting at a dim interior seen through the dramatic chiaroscuro of a strong stencil.
Matisse wrote, "The decorative element is an extremely precious thing for a work of art. It's an essential quality. It's not pejorative to say of an artist's paintings that they are decorative." Yet in Orientalist painting from Delacroix to Matisse, a compromise between ethnographic notation and exotically sensual atmosphere usually undermines the value of the decorative; the painters have projected Western fantasies onto a hashish dream about the Orient, a dream guaranteed precisely by the rich fabrics and sumptuous arabesques they have found there--the decorative par excellence. Taaffe, by contrast, goes to the root and branch of Islamic decorative syntax. Basing his painting on abstract geometrical forms, stylized floral elements, and a highly controlled mise en page, he has recuperated for the West a tradition in which, because representation is forbidden, "decoration" is essential. Islam has at least three bastions of secrecy, veiled from the eyes of Westerners--its writing, its mosques, and its domestic life. Taaffe, in a sense, has found a key for these three doors, or at least a way of referencing them: his work cites calligraphy, the tilework and bronze and wood designs of the mosque, and the alternating open and closed spaces of domestic architecture. By devising his own vision of the basic means of the Muslim craftsman, he has found a way of referring to an alien culture without exoticizing it. …