“The letter is armed to stop all the phony formations, lies, and tricknowlegies placed upon its structure.” —Rammellzee
PARIS — Wifredo Lam’s hot, hybrid style is essentially spiky. His skittish, prickly, armed imagery, most evident in “Umbral” (1950), prefigures the formal edginess of the weaponized letters in Rammellzee’s Gothic Futurism. As with Rammellzee’s graffiti-based output, Lam’s polymorphous paintings, now on view at the Centre Pompidou, prod us to wonder if a cryptographically armed world isn’t more attractive today than a world fully and immediately legible to all.
When first visiting Lam’s retrospective, I was not immediately hooked into the work. Many of the pieces felt a bit lumbering and arduous in the way that Roberto Matta or André Masson’s work can be. It was only later, in thinking about the show and noticing some visual correspondences, that I conflated Lam with Rammellzee into a kind of hybrid figure who furthered the accentuation of accumulation in both their works — a figure I might cheekily call “Lammellzee.”
The Pompidou’s Lam exhibition is organized in five chronological sequences corresponding to phases in the artist’s career, each bearing the stamp of the places, poets, and thinkers he frequented. Looking at key pieces in the show from the perverse position of our current age of high-resolution visibility, Lam’s complex, harpooned, mixed media work “Sans titre” (1958) seems to be in the process of sending out prickly robots to defeat the incoming data of ethnocentric eyes. Let’s read history backwards here so as to defeat overly ethnoanthropological readings of “Sans titre” by making use of Rammellzee’s extensive theory of “Ikonoklast Panzerism,” wherein he suggests the use of a “stabbing harpoon and pulsator technique” that “can unravel, extend, discharge, surround, attach.” By using repetitive, machine-sharp forms and vague, deep space indicators that anticipate Rammellzee’s fanged paintings like “Sigma flying through the Odine atmosphere a storm oven of the Gods” (1987) and much of Matta’s work, Lam seems to have been working in the tradition of the Baroque, which bends toward over-saturation and accentuates accumulation. (As Gilles Deleuze’s book on the Baroque explains, accentuation of accumulation is in fact the genesis of the modern subject.)
Lam himself had a thorny, accumulative identity. He was born Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla in Cuba to a black mother (Ana Serafina Castilla) and a Cantonese Chinese father (Lam Yam) and spent most of his life darting around the world. Lam’s mixed heritage, a reflection of the intermingling of races in Cuba, is often cited as having provided him with a path to liberation from restraining tradition. He is typically framed as an artist of mulatto ecologies, voodoo assemblages, and transcultural multiplicities. But as a biracial black man moving from Havana to Madrid, Barcelona, Paris (where he hung with Pablo Picasso and then André Breton’s Surrealist clique), Marseille, New York, Zurich, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba before darting off to tiny fishing villages on the Ligurian coast of Italy, his taste for accumulative surprise is evident — and foreshadows the formal tendencies favored by Afrofuturism, of which Rammellzee was a leading practitioner.
Lam’s totemic oil painting “La Rumeur de la terre” (“The Rumor of the Earth,” 1950), with its panorama of dark, dart-like shapes that suggest the migrational thrusts of Lam’s biography, and the etching “Apostroph Apocalypse” (1966), with its barbed, hooked hoofs, might both be seen as examples of Rammellzee’s imaginary “thought lances.” This resonance with Rammellzee’s concepts recurs in the mystifying canvases “Nativité” (1947) and “Le Bruit” (1943), with their Picassoesque use African masks and compression of perspective. Both paintings, inspired by Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), boast busy, thrusting, and sharp shapes that conform to the imagery Rammellzee espoused as Ikonoklast Panzerism.
Lam’s denaturalizing weaponization takes something of a mystical lunge with the sacrificial “Belial empereur des mouches” (“Belial, Emperor of the Flies,” 1948) and the darkly crucifix-like “Les Noces” (“The Nuptials,” 1947). Both paintings have a spiritual quality that is perhaps rooted in the atmosphere of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. (Lam’s godmother was a practitioner and in 1946 Lam and Breton spent four months in Haiti observing Vodou ceremonies.) In the fuzzy oil-on-paper piece “Autel pour Yemaya” (1944), Lam seems to have been anticipating Wild Style-like constructions that condense reality into incomplete outlines and use repetition, withdrawal, and collapse. Finally, the configuration of weaponized apparatuses, deployments, and structures in “Autel pour Yemaya” seems to transcend the old dichotomy between technology and the natural.
In the hard-nosed “La Jungla” (“The Jungle,” 1943), Lam, as proto-Afrofuturist environmentalist, depicts natural hierarchy being surpassed by vitalist horizontality. All of us of a certain age, especially John Yau (see his “Please Wait by the Coatroom: Wifredo Lam in the Museum of Modern Art,” Arts Magazine, December 1988), remember seeing it weirdly tucked next to the coat room at the old MoMA. In this oil painting, Lam explores a jazzy hybrid that incorporates Picasso’s Africanized Cubism, shattering planar congruity. Vertical vegetal forms seem to be giving way to a new anthropomorphic scenario in which big-footed, high-buttocked, weapon-wielding women and sharp-edged tools exert more influence than the surrounding field of sugar cane. It is a masterful painting that can produce a sense of grandeur in the mind that is both non-dialectical and network-centric. With such works, we become aware of how some images can permanently alter our way of looking.
In what for me is the best piece in the show, “Le Présent éternel” (“The Eternal Present,” 1944), Lam makes flourish another compressed, weaponized plane of machine-like forms. In it he may suggest, in the spirit of Rammellzee’s Ikonoklast Panzerism, that the most important thing to be is part of armed networks, assemblages, and environments that produce affective responses. I cannot help but wonder if such a theoretical weaponization wasn’t also tactically useful for Lam’s psychic preservation in the face of the European, ethnocentric paradigm that dominated Modern art theory during his lifetime.
But perhaps my ahistorical conflation of Lam and Rammellzee’s Ikonoklast Panzerism into a supercharged “Lammellzee” should itself be the barbed target of criticism for being insufficient in describing Lam’s heterogeneous artistic and ethnic situation. Even so, the Afrofuturist echoes in the work gathered here are poignant and powerful.
Wilfredo Lam continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, 4th arrondissement, Paris) through February 15. The exhibition will be on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid from April 12 to August 15, and at Tate Modern in London from September 14 through January 8, 2017.