Lalla Essaydi @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 large scale color photographic works, each mounted and unframed, and hung against cream colored walls in the entry, the main gallery space, and the smaller side room. There are 8 single images and 2 triptychs on view. All of the works are chromogenic prints mounted to aluminum with a UV protective laminate, and were made between 2009 and 2012. Sizes for the single images range from 24×20 to 60×48 (or reverse); the triptychs are made up of panels sized 24×20 and 88×71 respectively. Edition sizes are either 10 or 15. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Lalla Essaydi’s new show follows a direct conceptual line from her previous projects, revisiting her earlier subject matter and building fresh ideas on top of old ones. Like a theme and variation exercise, her path forward seems thoughtful and methodical, reworking a palette of interconnected motifs in search of new insights. This clear sense of deliberate progression leads to a smart pairing of two new projects, where elaborate fabrics face off with bullets as primary decorative elements.

For the most part, Essaydi’s artistic starting point generally remains the same: large scale color images of young Arab women, draped in exotic caftans and posed in hidden rooms and tiled alcoves, their skin covered with elaborate Islamic calligraphy. Her women disappear into a camouflage of henna lines and geometric patterns, trapped by Orientalist fantasies and Western stereotypes of the Arab world. But Essaydi’s newest harem girls don’t vanish into a swirl of gauzy beige or match with the abstract tile designs nearby. These women lounge in overflowing piles of embroidered silks, luxuriating in flowing, shiny color. While the women still wear Essaydi’s signature tattoos on their faces, hands, and feet, the dark swirling lines are no longer the visual focal point; our attention is immediately drawn to the riotous clash of sumptuous rich silks and the forbidden exoticsm they represent. These specific works deserve a pairing with Mickalene Thomas’ pattern saturated images of African-American women, not only for their parallels of vibrant color, but for their commonalities of feminist perspective.

From afar, Essaydi’s other new series is equally full of glitter and sparkle, her models draped in washes of golden metallic medallions. Up close, she upends the glamour, building the entire spectacle out of brass shell casings. Patterns of bullets decorate the back walls in repeating patterns, while elaborate robes, dresses and jewelry are expertly woven from left-over ammunition. Her illusion is surprisingly successful, as even after the viewer understands the inversion (and the resulting implications of violence and control that the bullets bring to the imagery), the works still shimmer with remarkable beauty. The tension is more overt and confrontational in this series, especially when enlarged to monumental scale like the larger-than-lifesize triptych that dominates the center wall of the main room.

These new works show Essaydi slowly expanding her artistic territory and bringing in additional complexity. They point to bolder contrasts and more challenging juxtapositions, where elegant finery and rough weaponry are equally seductive and symbolic, and where historical gender roles brush up against the modern world with persistent force.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The single image photographs are either $9500, $16500 or $24000, based on size. The two triptychs are $24000 and $85000, again based on size. Essaydi’s photographs have become more available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $7000 and $57000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Little More (distributor link here). Hardcover, 316×265 mm, 308 pages (unpaginated), with black-and-white and color image spreads/pairings. With short texts by the ... Read on.

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