The first time I saw Nicolas Moufarrege’s work, I realized I didn’t know that it was possible to move almost willy-nilly within the same composition from a figure with finely rendered anatomical specificity on identifiable, contextualizing ground, to a decorative scheme that seemingly comes from some extra-dimensional space, to symbolic motifs also appearing here and there, with some phrases in Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic thrown in. It’s not just that he broke rules key to representational fidelity; he did it so elegantly that the rules thereafter seem like arbitrary ways of holding back a sensibility that is best unrestrained.
Yet, Moufarrege’s unbridled technique doesn’t go wayward. Walking through his show at the Queens museum, Nicolas Moufarrege: Recognize My Sign, I was genuinely excited, hopping from piece to piece, hoping I could somehow absorb their energy and way of seeing the world as a kind of garden of immortal iconography.
In looking at “The Fifth Day” (1980), a combination of pigment and thread on a sandy brown needlepoint canvas, a nude, male figure seemingly steps from a place at the bottom of the composition where an abstract tile pattern meets three flowing currents of white, red, and green waters. There’s a black bird flying towards the flux, against the backdrop of a bluish sky, with clouds the figure might reach out to touch. I particularly love how Moufarrege made the clouds recessed areas of thread, painted white, copper, and flecked with gold. Blue thread is overlaid and slowly morphs into beige, while the entirety is framed by a decorative archway, as if I am really looking into an ancient ruin.
Besides the formal innovation there are more rewards, such as the artist’s backstory. Part of this is a peripatetic, immigrant narrative: Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he came of age in Beirut, Lebanon, before leaving the former French colony for Paris after civil war broke out, and later landing in the United States via a Fulbright Scholarship. Changes in his work parallel these relocations. His work grew from what he called “experimental weaving,” and combined this technique with paint in Paris, and then in New York took on Pop art, comic book characters and motifs, and other elements of popular culture. There is also his queerness, which I think comes across in the loving, idealized, and attentive way he composes his male forms. His art thus charts the apotheosis of his entire self.
This story continues through what I consider a downturn once he arrived in New York and became enamored with pop culture pastiche. He was excellent at mimicking Picasso, Lichtenstein, Hokusai, Yves Klein, Munch, et al., but this work doesn’t have the searching, lyrical earnestness that the work made in Beirut and Paris does. It’s in the earlier works that I see what I’m always gratified to see: technical virtuosity, rule-breaking assertiveness that doesn’t succumb to smugness, meaningful story-making, and a consistent willingness to take risks — with Recognize My Sign, I get to have it all.
Nicolas Moufarrege: Recognize My Sign continues at the Queens Museum (Flushing Meadows, Corona Park, Queens) through February 16. It was organized by Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and curated by CAMH Curator Dean Daderko.