A survey of late paintings and sculptures by Mokha Laget is on view in Washington, D.C.
By D. Dominick Lombardi
The summer of 2022 is a very special time for Mokha Laget. Her first exhibition in a commercial gallery was held in 1981 at the Jack Rasmussen Gallery in Washington, D.C. Today, Jack Rasmussen is the director and curator of D.C.’s American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, which is the location of the survey exhibition Mokha Laget: Perceptualism featuring Laget’s late paintings and sculptures.
The exhibition, which runs through August 7, marks the momentous return for Laget, and one made even more compelling by what has transpired since 1981. Born in Algeria, Laget moved to France, then New York before settling in D.C. where she earned a BFA at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in the early 1980s. That is when she was introduced to the Color School by the esteemed educators and artists Gene Davis and Paul Reed. Later, as Laget looked beyond what she learned at Corcoran, she set her sights on her current residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she would purchase 20 acres of land in 1995. Located on a mountain top, Laget found this off-the-grid style of living to best suit her particular creative spirit, a sentiment that was addressed in a recent interview by the acclaimed art writer Lucy Lippard. In the interview, Laget points out, “New Mexico is the only place where I’ve specifically chosen to live. When I first came here, I was struck by the similarities between North African and Native American patterns in weaving and jewelry, not to mention the adobe architecture, the mountains and open skies. It felt very much like home.”
Curated by Kristen Hileman, Mokha Laget: Perceptualism celebrates Laget’s individual voice, her specific processes, and the independent thinking that defines her impressive career. Hileman points to Laget’s categorization of her work as occurring within the realm of “gentle chaos,” adding that this approach “must be contemplated with focus and thoughtful looking.” In her essay, Hileman quotes Laget, stating she looks for “exciting ways to solve problems of 2-D space by creating 3-D ambiguity.” How “the physical dimension of the object becomes a vehicle for perceptual experience,” and how “implied architecture can evoke doorways or passages…contradictory light sources…shifts between flow and disruption. This is the geometry I am fascinated by.”
Lippard sees Laget as “…a spatial trickster…She invites the viewer into an encounter that resembles a kind of intellectual play and, at the same time, expands one’s sense of form and color.” In Lippard’s interview with the artist, Laget talks about her time living in Northern Morocco, “where the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter have stood side by side for centuries…You might see a Christian arch here or a Muezzin tower there, but the work is about how all these eclectic elements coexist. Even modern architecture is inspired by ancient forms.”
In speaking of Laget’s paintings, David Pagel notes how Laget focuses on “…the often overlooked gap between seeing and knowing, perceiving and conceiving, looking and thinking.” This is the sweet spot for Laget, where she translates her perceptions and understanding of space and color, while her distinctive fascination with perspective can become otherworldly.
Thinking of all these observations, I can’t help but keep coming back to Laget’s lifelong journey, which is not just about her multinational changes in residences, or her obvious love of architecture. There is her activism, her extensive travels as a French interpreter and translator in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Then there is her work as an exhibition curator, an art restorer, writer and even her experience as a set designer, scriptwriter, actor and director—all these different fields and approaches to the art of communication in all its forms. These are the prompts and circumstances that Laget pulls from as she creates a narrative or builds a visual experience.
For instance, in Moment #2 (2022), there is the immediate understanding of a buoyant, receding space put forth by Laget, where she adds key elements to amplify the intensity of the preexisting perspective. Those visual maneuvers, which Pagel and Lippard so correctly point out, are the things that make her art mesmerizing.
In the painting Retrieve (2019), which features a Giorgio de Chirico-type cityscape, the artist places a proud extension at the bottom edge of the wooden bars before the canvas was stretched. This feature extends the painting into real space, warping and curving outward from the surface. This added feature, paired with the contrasting colors that define the architectural space, leaves the viewer with an extra added variable to digest.
In Capriccio #41 (2020), the kinetic complexity common to Laget’s work is tamed somewhat by the natural color and texture of the unpainted areas of linen. Like a 3-D puzzle in constant motion, Laget invites us into her thought process, which is no less than a brilliant balance of form, perspective and space. Here, shadow and light are defined, shapes churn and coalesce, and an expressive continuum of ideas plays out in a timeless dance of optic splendor.
This process of creating spatial effects softens considerably in Gamut (2018) where a more diffuse transition of light and dark is employed. As a result, opaque volume yields to transparent transitions, while references to the glass and steel elements of the skyscraper emerge. Gamut also portrays a keen sense of vertical movement, as if the collective forms depicted are awakening and ascending skyward, ready to leave the confines of a big city grid.
With works such as the kite-shaped Rokkaku 4 (2021), and the music inspired pastel on paper Visual Score #2 (2021), Laget fluidly incorporates additional senses and natural elements into her creative process.
Her ability to move easily from any number of forms of inspiration is important in understanding her true brilliance, as her entire life is a cornucopia of cultures and interests that constantly fill her spirit. One cannot help but admire Laget’s continued strength of unshakable vision. In her art and in her life, Laget continues to carve out a most substantial legacy that is forever expanding and enlightening us from the top of a mountain, in a studio in New Mexico.