- By Sophie Arni
Driss Ouadahi (b. 1955, Algerian), is not your typical post-studio painter. He separates 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 eye-level perspectives.
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.
The golden formula still stands: build beautiful, build standard, build fast, build cheap.
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 still stands: 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.