Djamel Tatah’s Spare Wax Portraits Blend Ancient and Modern Techniques

The subjects of ’s compositions appear resoundingly isolated. Lacking names or distinguishing features to define them, the figures in the artist’s current exhibition at London’s Ben Brown Fine Arts are without graspable identities. Their placement on monochrome backgrounds further removes them from any real-world context. Many of them avert their gazes; one shields her face with her hand, a decisive act of obfuscation. The blue tones used to render their faces serves to intensify the melancholy mood, resulting in an overriding sense of sobriety.
Born in Saint Chamond, France, in 1959, Tatah studied art in Saint-Étienne in 1981. His distinctive style is due in part to his adoption of the painstaking method of wax painting. A process with ancient pedigree, wax painting involves applying the molten medium in various colors to a surface in order to “burn in” pigment. Tatah’s distinctive aesthetic blends this ancient technique with the modern, as he employs digital technology to realize his works. Using friends and family as models, Tatah photographs his subjects and then projects the image onto his monumental canvases. The artist’s dedication to a complex process certainly pays off; his colors are simultaneously luminescent and muted, a quality which lends the works, which are formally simple, subtlety and nuance.
Twelve large-scale paintings are on view at Ben Brown, all untitled and recently completed. Greeting visitors to the gallery is a striking, unusual piece within the context of the works collected here, showing two figures in a single canvas. Facing each other but with closed eyes, the pair is dressed in the utilitarian, dark clothing common to all of Tatah’s subjects. They are also united by their pose, heads tilted back in apparent contemplation. They may be disconnected from each other and their audience, but it does not appear to trouble them.
Moving into the space one encounters a huge triptych, one of the strongest works on display, which shows four adolescent boys against a cornflower blue background. The central pair engage one another while the two depicted on the outer panels look out at the viewer with expressions that silently call for connection. Solitude may dominate but, as with the wax forged colors, there’s space for subtle variation.  
Laura Purseglove
Djamel Tatah is on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, Jun. 4–Aug. 7, 2015.