Driss Ouadahi (b. 1955, Algerian), is not your typical
post-studio painter. He demarks himself from today’s
painters who see the canvas as an object rather than
an end in itself. To put it bluntly, Ouadahi paints
paintings: his speciality are realistic depictions
of postmodern architecture.
Ouadahi’s style is one of architectural precision.
He studied architecture in his undergraduate years,
and then went off to the Kunst Akademie of Dusseldorf,
where he now resides for more than 40 years. Having
lived in Algeria, France and Germany, and being
represented by galleries located as far apart as Dubai
to San Fransisco, he is a cosmopolitan by nature. I
had the chance to meet him in November 2014 in Abu Dhabi
through the generous Lawrie Shabibi gallery and asked
him some questions about his practice.
Sophie Arni: Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I was
really impressed by your style of painting and its contents. I love
postmodern architecture and feel it is not celebrated enough as an
art form. Where did the idea of painting postmodern, steel and
glass kind of architecture come from?
Driss Ouadahi: lived through my whole childhood in modernist
architecture. Le Corbusier went to Algeria in the 60s to plan
a version of his cité idéale in Algiers. Although the plan did
go through, a number of architects copied his style and I
happened to grow up in a modernist 'cité'. This left a big
impact on me. I decided to study architecture and wanted to
become an architect before turning into painting. I was
fascinated by Le Corbusier's vision to transform living
spaces into standard, comfortable, non-superficial and
utilitarian environments. What I especially loved was when
I moved to Germany and found myself living in essentially
the same urban environment as my Algerian one. The
international style makes migration easier. Actually,
these types of buildings are often the homes of immigrant
populations from all paths of life: from elite expats in
Dubai to modest Algerian communities outside of Paris. I
also spent some time in Marseilles, where you find a lot
of modernist architecture legacy. Living in these aesthetically
similar fabricated cities throughout three countries was the
inspiration to spend my life painting futuristic postmodern
cities. Indeed, the landscapes which I paint can be found in
Dubai, Düsseldorf, Los Angeles or London alike: if you are
familiar with these environments, you can feel at home everywhere.
That's the beauty of them.
S.A.: Let's talk about your technique. Your wall
labels read 'Oil on canvas' but I'm wondering how you
achieve that final look. Your canvases are extremely
detailed, yet feel as they lack crucial elements to
precisely identify what we are looking at. The multitude
perspectives you use almost add a sense of blurriness.
I guess this goes in line with the celebration of
globalism you stand for.
Driss Ouadahi: Yes, in a way. The way I paint is a
step-by-step process. I first start with drawing on the
blank canvas. After I outlined the whole background scene,
the buildings, the windows and the ground levels, I use
tape to outline the foreground grids. I tape the main
vertical and horizontal axes of the grid that will stand
in front of the outlined urban scene. Then I add paint.
I usually use a complimentary colour palette. I paint the
background with less detail and softer colors and leave the
precision and strong hues for my foreground grid. Sometimes
I do the opposite. I love the moment when I remove the scotch
tape and the white grid is the element that helps to shift
S.A.: And how about these grids? I know that geometrical
patterns and grids are often aesthetics used by Arab artists
today, who like to mimic the famous mash'rabiyyas windows so
famously known in the Middle East: a way to see without being
seen while at home. Do you unconsciously refer back to this
concept in your work?
Driss Ouadahi: No, this is not a link I think of when
I prepare my paintings. I don't think of myself too much as
an Arab artist. I celebrate the International Style and find
myself using grids because I like to use geometry in my work.
I have lived in Germany for more than 40 years now: I like
to think as myself as a global citizen.
I found the way Ouadahi deals with multiculturalism
particularly stricking. He chooses to deal with
multiculturalism, perhaps the most important social
issue in the 21st century, with the mathematical
formula of grids - the formula put forward in
Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture already
in 1923. Going back to this original text gives a
new perspective of understanding Ouadahi's practice.
Le Corbusier in a way premeditated the global
neoliberal era we live today. He knew that for
the new growing urban populations, populations
that were demographically so different and
expanding at unprecedented rates, a standard
had to be applied. A standard that would keep the
population happy, in control, healthy."Modern life
demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan,
both for the house and the city" he writes. He didn't
understand the concepts of 'styles'. For Le Corbusier,
Ancient Greek architecture was the only 'style'
to ever refer back to. This is in part because they
used geometry, and technology in the most efficient
and productive way possible.
Ouadahi’s works are thus powerful because they
refer to a powerful and socially relevant theory,
that is still applied throughout the world today more
than 90 years after its inception. Postmodern buildings
are perhaps a little bit more 'decorative' than
Le Corbusier's, they use glass and steel instead of concrete.
The golden formula is still standing: build beautiful,
build standard, build fast, build cheap. Glass and
aluminium are in fact the cheapest and most resistant
construction materials you can find today. They do not
need much maintenance, resist humidity, heat and cold.
They are standards, that used throughout the world to
build rectangular structures ranging from the Freedom
Tower in New York City to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai,
to Frank Gehry's Louis Vuitton Foundation.
Ouadahi likes to celebrate this utopian architecture.
Indeed, he does not only find utilitarian value in
this style, but a genuine personal satisfaction -
coming from a global citizen who feels at home in
these pre-medicated international buildings. Not
only is the concept he refers to powerful, but his
relation to it is as well. In addition, the technique
is uses is admirable. We might wonder why an artist
today might spend so much effort to conduct the
lengthy process of painting architectural models,
when new media technologies requires him to just
have access to a computer software and a printer
to make similar designs. Ouadahi creates everything
from scratch: here we return again to the personal
satisfaction he clearly showcases.
Ouadahi sees modernist architecture, as a way to unite
populations, to unify urban landscapes, from the Middle
East to Western Europe, to the Persian Gulf. In addition,
he revitalises painting in a completely new way. For me,
a stellar combination that leads me to think he is on
to become a great figure of today's generations of painters.
Sophie Arni, November 2014, Abu Dhabi. All of the images are reproductions of Driss Ouadahi's paintings. No reproductions allowed.
Courtesy of Lawrie Shabibi.