Michel Gauthier, Yamou

Monography “Yamou” published by Skira/Atelier 21, 2014

The first “official” work in Abderrahim Yamou’s artistic career dates from 1989. The artist was thirty years old. He had been painting for several years and had even held an exhibition in a gallery but today he does not consider any work before 1989 as more than experimental since they did not yet show the perspective that defines his œuvre, even in its embryonic stage. In otherwords, Yamou’s artistic career did not develop particularly early. He was born in Casablanca in 1959; his father was blind. He spent his childhood in boulevard Watteau, between rue Raphaël and rue Delacroix and although his favourite formof expression was drawing onwalls, in his school exercise books, and on large sheets of Kraft paper, acquiring familiarity with drawing tools and techniques, he did not envisage a future as a painter.
After passing his baccalaureate in 1978, he left for France to study biology at the University of Toulouse. As well as his interest in drawing and image, Yamou was fascinated with the miracle of the life, birth and growth of living creatures. However, he soon became bored with his biology courses and after a year, he abandoned life sciences in favour of sociology. He followed this course to academic completion, or almost: a bachelor’s, then a master’s degree followed by a thesis that he did not however complete; his subject was Moroccan art following the country’s independence. However, Yamou was already well aware that his true interest lay in creating art rather than speaking on the subject. In 1986, at twenty-seven years of age, he decided to become a painter. Following this initial decision aftermuch self-interrogation, he soon realised that hewas facedwith an evenmore difficult question, this time aesthetic: what should he paint?

Native land

At the end of the 1980s, Yamou was no longer living in Toulouse. He set up his studio on the outskirts of Paris in Montreuil. One of the most emblematic paintings of this period is Ben M’sik. This work did not only take its title fromthe large slum in Casablanca, but it also included some of the actual materials, sand and earth from Morocco itself. Ben M’sik is almost square in format and is based on the tension between a piece of grey sheetmetal that can be seen in the lower right hand side of the painting and the irregular ochre mixture of sand and earth piled in some areas and scattered in others, covering about two-thirds of the quadrangle.
Naturally the sand paintings of André Masson from 1926 spring tomind. Horizontal canvases were randomly splashed with glue then covered with sand; the canvas was slowly raised so that the sand slid off leaving some remaining sand attached to the fine glue lines drawn by the artist. But the sand in Yamou’s works was not simply an unstable and granular material. It came from the ground in his native land—each time he travelled to Morocco, the artist would bring back small bags of sand and soil. However the sand and earth from his homeland should not be seen as symbols of exile but rather as an important element representing duality: on one hand his native soil; on the other, the very urban element of sheetmetal. Otherworks created in 1989, 1990 and 1991, raised the dialectics between earth and metal to the rank of artistic method: Porto, Carré de sable 1 and 2, Petit A1, Michèle, the Evald or Seule series, one of the artist’s unquestionable successes in his early period, in which he created the first structural compositions that reappeared in a number of later works: a horizontal division between the upper part that featured the motif, and the lower part painted inmonochromatic tones.
During his early years, the young artist deliberately chose a dry, arid style, but it concealed two contrasting paradigms: the sand with the sheet metal, the desert with the town. Later when paint replaced the earth on his canvases, the colour he chose most frequently was raw sienna.
Behind the aesthetic confidence in works such as Ben M’sik or Seule lay a slight hesitation. Should earth be considered simply as the contrasting opposite to metal? Does the future of the work exist in the nourishing promise of earth or in the turbulence and frenzy of urban life? Between 1989 and 1991, the artist scraped and scratched this earth, not as a farmer or gardener works with the soil, but in a manner engraved with the double memory of abstract expressionism and graffiti that had become prominent in the 1980s.
Obvious references to Twombly do not however completely conceal the references to Basquiat or Haring. A principle characteristic of Yamou’s painting at that time seems to have been a kind of rage: it almost seems to indicate a form of frustration when compared to his later work. However, this anger is also connected with the political situation that existed in Morocco during this period. These were still the “years of lead”; it was necessary towait for the constitutional reforms passed in 1992 and 1996 before the Moroccan monarchy would relax its absolute power. Porto, Seule, Brésilienne, Zapata, Contre un poème; pieces that, among others, tend to reduce the painter’s work to its most elementary form, expressed violently through scratching and scarification.
A work on paper in 1994, Empreintes, brought a new twist to his graffiti: the aligned row of small strokes is a clear reference to the marks made by prisoners to count the time passed behind bars. Yamou created this piece based on the photograph of the ruins of a former old Portuguese prison. In this drawing, the viewer is tempted to interpret strongly significant elements, hidden narrative, even scratches, but also and perhaps above all, a confession that may or may not be conscious, of a feeling of being imprisoned. Yamou was restrained by an aesthetic and a language that were dominant in Moroccan art at that time, but that were not truly his own.

The Homage to Rothko

In 1994, the same year as the prisoner graffiti piece, Yamou painted an unusual work entitled: Hommage à Rothko. This piece totally reflects the sequence of works the artist was painting at the time while still showing his strong need for some other place. While the title of the painting is very appropriate — a series of quadrangles of various sizes and colours floating on the surface of the colour field, — the work includes several characteristics that cloud his reference to Rothko. Using a colour palette dominated by rusty brown, the composition engages the viewer in a reading that is vertical as well as horizontal. Moreover, it proposes several scripts in Latin, Arabic and non-linguistic fonts that compete in a slightly sacrilegious way with the colouredmass.
Traces of a previous status of the painting or the presage of a challenge to the colour field; the closing of one period or the opening of another; the message transmitted by these inscriptions is not univocal.
However, if this homage to Rothko is surprising, it is because it was unexpected in the light of the artist’s previous production. Of course, there is no doubting the sincerity of the young painter’s admiration for the creator of Four Darks in Red. However, a homage to Twombly or to Tàpies would have been more logical. So, how is this homage to be interpreted? Is it simply part of his artistic voyage, a little conventional, or does it have some deeper meaning?
With this piece, Yamou concluded and completed the materialist abstraction that characterised his earlierwork. The painting seems to use Rothko’s vocabulary less as some assumption of colour than as a zero setting of his pictorial language. In Yamou’s Hommage, the quadrangles in varying shades of dark brown seem like backgrounds awaiting some future formal event; they seem like fertile soil waiting to be sown.

Hommage à Rothko, 1994 Acrylic on canvas, 158/145 cm

Yamou, Hommage à Rothko. 1994

The Prehistoric Temptation

The strategy of moving outside the field of pure abstraction, that Rothko’s work seems to have served as an emblem, occurred under the auspices of the prehistoric period. In 1993, while he was working on a series of canvases with misty, watery backgrounds, a far cry from the dry arid effect of his former works, although he had not yet completely abandoned the elementary graphism of his early years, Yamou had a strange experience: without his realising it,when he had finished a series of senseless lines on the side of the painting, a human figure appeared — Homme debout. The figure was the result of an accidental graphical parturition.
Its origin is the same as that of themarks, trickles and scratches that surround it. The primitive nature of the image could evoke figurations shown in prehistoric cave drawings. Essence ocre, painted in 1995, and several other works created that year deliberately followed this same “prehistoric” trend. Canvases such as Midi, Oryx, and Vanessa as well as pieces painted on paper such as Tribu or Le Saut show animals leaping out from the layers of paint without any representative aim. When confronted with works such as these it is justifiable to remember the importance of the rock engravings in the Anti-Atlas region.
These carvings had a strong influence on Moroccan art. But even more… at a time when the Western art scene had been feverishly debating the death of painting for over ten years, Yamou was focussing on the first instead of the last painting in history. When Steven Parrino,with a basically necrophiliac gesture, pronounced painting as dead, torturing the corpse by wrinkling, slashing, or tying up in rough parcels, those monochromes that already back in 1921 Rodtchenko had pronounced as “the end of painting”, Yamou was attempting to reproduce the gestures of the first painters in history. One of his paintings in 1993 was entitled Matin: the canvas has the misty, translucent atmosphere that recalls the paintings by Turner that depict different moments of the day. The chromatic transparency and themilky clouds perhaps bear witness to another break of day, the dawn of painting. However, the “prehistoric” moment in Yamou’s art was not represented simply by a preference for dawn over twilight. He inherited the values ballasted by the historical avant-gardes. In fact, the “prehistoric” tropism of the modern art generation was one of the cardinal elements in art between the two world wars. Parietal compositions were published in L’Esprit nouveau by Le Corbusier and Ozenfant in 1921, in Documents by Georges Bataille in 1929. The Cahiers d’art dedicated an entire publication to prehistoric Africa in 1930 and shortly afterwards Christian Zervos announced his desire to retrace the cosmic and biological life of humanity from its beginnings in order to discover the “origins of art”. Why did prehistoric art and especially parietal art have such a strong effect on the consciousness of the period? Rémi Labrusse recently explained this phenomenon in a remarkable article: in exalting prehistoric art, the modernists intended to promote “the poetics of the return to a point of non-determination between those poles that human history later placed in opposition. Against this historic fixation of opposites, a number of artists observed and embraced ‘prehistory’ as the crystallisation of an ideal stage of non-determination of meaning.”
In other words, in the mid-1990s the prehistoric theme gave Yamou the possibility of maintaining the illusion of an escape from this history of art that he found disturbing, as revealed in his Hommage à Rothko. Labrusse continued his analysis of the infatuation of the avant-gardes for the prehistoric concept as a symbol of heterogeneity in principle, a state of non-distinction between opposites. “To start with, the most direct message transmitted by Palaeolithic art was that of the undefinable porosity between non-figurative signs and figurative images, between undecipherable traces, almost illegible hybrid beings, and prodigiously present animals, whose incongruous coexistence was able to feed the well-known debates of the 1930s concerning the overthrow of formal stakes of figuration and abstraction. … This ‘prehistoric’ confusion was very solidly embodied by the mixture of realism, abstract symbols and material effects in Palaeolithic art, by the mystification of forms” and bywhat in 1933 Brassaï called the “chaoticworld of the incisions [on] cavewalls.” When Yamou negotiated his abandon of abstraction, the “prehistoric” option was by no means the least effective since it refers to an age before the distinction between non-representative traces and figurative images, freeing painting from the antagonism of figuration or abstraction and, more fundamentally, proposing the indefinite as the source of all authentic expression.
At a time when, each in their own manner, David Salle, Peter Halley and Jack Goldstein practised a form of painting that was situated strongly in a period after the distinction between abstraction and figuration, Yamou chose to place his concept in an age when this distinction did not yet have any sense. Postmodern ideology had just declared that history was finished; Yamou acted as if it had never started.

“However, more widespread in the heart of the general idea of “prehistory” was the interpenetration between nature and culture of which it was question: … the natural indications are irizated with a strong power that they share with human beings.” Beyond the aesthetic divisions of opinion, and first of all that of abstraction and figuration, prehistory allowed the avant-garde school of the 1920s and 1930s to challenge the principle difference: in otherwords, between objects made by man and products of nature. Fossils would have been the emblem of this natural universe most suitable to compete with artistic symbols and, as such, would have fascinated Picasso,Ubac or Miró. The Embalmed Forest painted by Max Ernst in 1927 is a perfect example of this indistinction between human architecture and fossilised trees.
With post-modern relativism and the poetics of the elimination of hierarchy and the arguments it engendered, the prehistoric paradigm and the fossil, or at least the imprint of living beings, were revived. In 1991, Allan Mc Collum produced a series of mouldings of the famous and ill-fated chained dog whose form was preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius (The Dog from Pompei). In 2004, Yamou significantly entitled one of his works Jaune et fossile. Ten years after his “prehistoric” paintings, the artist had still not completely abandoned the evocative power of the fossil. For an artist who had begun his artistic career using sand and earth in place of paint in order to associate them with industrial sheet metal, prehistoric utopia constituted a valuable resource.

Yamou, Jaune et fossile. 2004

Jaune et fossile, 2004 Oil on canvas, 116 x 162 cm

It validated the dualism of his early works and legitimised his research, already underway, on the way of binding artistic symbols and natural phenomena closer and closer to one another.
However, before dealing with this research, another and decisive function of the reference to prehistory must be emphasised. As written by Labrusse: “It is…the anthropological validity of progressist ideology that the prehistoric idea has offered to destroy — the thought behind the statement that made Miró famous in 1928: ‘All art after Neolithic art is decadent’.”1 Challenging the notion of historical evolution and progress in artmade a comeback in the 1970s and 1980s with the end of the grands récits and especially with that expressed by Clement Greenberg who saw the history of art as the progressive stripping away by a given art of all the conventions that do not belong to it. The prehistoric idea took hold evenmore easily for Yamou who began to paint while Greenberg’s grand récit finished demolishing all its credit and while history of art lost the sense that the American critic had assigned it, but it also allowed Yamou to escape from a time-span that occidental art had decreed as universal in order to establish its cultural domination more easily. Oryxes furtively crossed Yamou’s “parietal” canvasses to ward off the historical-aesthetic evolutionism that tended to stigmatise the “delay” of the non-occidental art scenes.

Ear of wheat

Although Yamou had not yet completely decided to abandon prehistory, a painting from 1995 very obviously marked a decisive change in the development of his artistic poetics. Épi de blé is a large-sized vertical composition inwhich the artist re-used a technique that he had not employed formany years: an all-over coating of sand. But in this case, the sand was no longer the support for elementary engravings but formed the groundmatrix for several real ears ofwheat glued by Yamou close to their images. With regard to this piece, it is certainly admissible to recall the famous precedent of the Composition au papillon (Composition with Butterfly) created by Picasso in 1932 and acclaimed by André Breton — a lepidopteron was glued to a small piece of fabric among various other elements including a lime leaf and scraps of string. This collage was a result of the moment, referred to previously, when the modernists began to focus strongly on prehistory. Although Yamou’s painting resembled his general work, it no longer belonged to the prehistoric sequence of his production. Despite appearances, it was not a case of blurring the distinction between nature and culture, between the vegetal element and its symbol, but to transform the painting into a living place. It was no longer the birth of a painting as a space of theoretical indistinction and heterogeneity, but the painting of birth, the emergence of a form of life.
The earth brought from Morocco finally found its destiny. Initially the symbol of his native land, it became the element in which a form of life is called to discover its origins. His art was reconciled with his initial interest as a student: biology. It is easy to understand here the sense that Yamou adopted regarding the contrast between nature and culture. The introduction of natural element into the painting marks the desire to preserve a principle of life in the heart of a work of art that constantly threatens reification. Anothermanner of challenging the separation between art and life, the leitmotiv of twentieth century avant-gardes. At the same time, Michel Blazy began to use perishable materials, growing plants or leaving them to rot. For a certain time Yamou attempted to growplants in thematter of his paintings. The results were not satisfactory. By creating a clear separation, his art began to follow the two directions indicated in Épi de blé: the living plant in the work, or its representation.

The Birth and Death of a Sculpture

The year he created Épi de blé, Yamou became an art gardener with works such as Percussion végétale rouge, Percussion végétale noire, Caisse and Cercle végétal. The plants emerged from works tha twere not pictorial, as the artist had first envisaged, but sculptural. Most of these pieces resemble containers filled with soil in which seeds (a type of helxine ground cover) were sown so that the plant would grow, prosper, then die. In this way, we are dealing with a work whose form is constantly changing, a work that interacts with time as well as space. These works recall certain experiments performed in the 1960s aimed at transforming art into living organisms. One example was Dressage d’un cône (1967) by Piotr Kowalski: seeds were sown on revolving tables; under the effect of the rotation the grass assumed the form of a cone as it grew.
As well as the plants they contain these sculptures by Yamou have a surprising peculiarity: they are covered with hundreds of nails. This nail that appeared as early as 1989 in one of the sand pictures (Porto), entered pictorial and sculptural language at the beginning of the 1960s thanks to Günther Uecker. However, itwas not the Group Zero member’s work that inspired Yamou when he began to cover his sculptures with nails, but the N’kondé statues from the Bas-Congo.
These statuettes, mainly anthropomorphic or zoomorphic are studded with nails andmetal blades.They are fetish figures thought to possess supernatural powers and are used for casting spells and curses, for tracking down offenders and carrying out punishment. The nails hammered in by Yamou have no punitive scope. By placing them close to plant life, the artist aims at generating a double process. In fact, the act of watering the helxine to nourish it also provokes the rusting process of the nails. In other words, the poured watermakes one part of the sculpture growat the same time it deteriorates another.
Yamou’s plant-sculptures are not always in container form. His Horloge biologique (1999) and Les Colonnes chavirées (2010) were shaped like slightly bent vertical cylinders, 80 cmhigh for the former, and four (170 cm) life-size sculptures for the latter. The phallic form of these sculptures underlines the paradigm of generating life already stated with inseminating the soil and plant growth. In several works from2010, the metal was not associated with plant leaves but with tree wood. L’Arbre couronné, L’Arbre et la chaise and L’Arbre fécondé have vertical tree trunks crownedwith strange metal compositions made with nails and sickles. In their own particular style, sculptures such as these are connected with the tension between the natural element and the metal product that was the subject of Yamou’s initial works like Ben M’sik and Seule. Yamou’s three Arbres sculptures should be associated with certain sculptures by Didier Marcel almost from the same period, such as Phoenix canariensis, and Jardins de la petite Afrique (2008): three white moulds of Canary Island date palms in flocked resin capped at each end with polished stainless steel. A few years previously, Marcel had created several pieces composed of various sections of silver birch trunks stacked or grouped and sealed with similar capping.
Works of this type embody the contradiction between the real and the artificial; this is only one of the expressions of the polarity present inmodernism between an art form that aims at erasing itself as such in order to be more strongly connected with reality, transforming itself into a form of life and an art form that is conscious of its radical alternative perspective, and striving to increase its difference with reality. In terms and with a style of humour that are very different from those of Marcel, Yamou is also actively pays tribute to this polarity. At times his sculpture grows plants in the midst of metal nails and at others, his paintings are aimed at portraying plant life.

Landscape and Ornament

When Yamou decided to paint the plants that he had been growing in his sculptures, he considered the landscape as the most appropriate theme. Paysage de nuit (1996) was one of the first examples of the iconographic mutation of his painted work. The lower quarter of the canvas is occupied by a dark band, rather like a layer of humus seen in cross section, above which is a blurred reddish landscape. The upper right hand corner reveals several lines ofArabic script. It seems as if this nocturnal landscape has been the site of some strange alchemy: the transmutation of written letters into grasses. The same effect is present in Premières feuilles (1996).
In 2004, Yamou changed his language and vegetal elements to give them a new aspect: alongside the seeds and leaves on a black background, the word “arbre” (tree) was engraved in phonetic script — the presence of Joseph Kosuth moving through the gardens of Yamou.As its name indicates, another painting from 1996, Nuit, also shows a nocturnal vision of plant life; the darkness is deeper, colder. When he does not plunge the landscape into obscurity, the artist drowns it in the mist. After Brume (1996), the fog became far thicker in Alexandra (1999) and a series of small paintings in 2001, Paysage du centre 1, 2 and 3. Yamou seems to have taken the water poured over his sculptures to nourish the incorporated plants spreading it throughout his misty, was he dout landscapes. Perhaps reminiscent of Turner or rather some hesitation in granting his landscape complete positivity of its form? However, Yamou rapidly changed focus. There is only one trunk and a few branches in Arbre fond jaune (1997).
Paysage nocturne (1997) depicts only one single branch. This concept is even stronger in Manhal, Yamna and Blanche (all three works from 1997) and in Sous-bois gris (1999), Les Fils (2001) and the remarkable Enchevêtrement (2001). Green suddenly made its appearance in the artist’s palette. In fact, Yamou was not truly focussed on the landscape itself, but on the plants that formed its composition. He was not interested in an overall view but in the vertiginous plunge into a close-up in detail. The painter’s eye became deliberately short sighted.
A large canvas from 1999 expresses this problem. It is entitled Vue de loin. A strange painting because of its whitish, mainly empty background and the primitive style of the plant elements that seem to recall the “prehistoric” works of 1995. It is as if there was a need tomime the non-realismand the elementary aspect of cave drawings to ensure that the distant view would not be interpreted through the appearance of a landscape — a veduta.
Several paintings from this period — Paysage nocturne, Bogota, Manhal — share the same structure: the plant image is set against a monochrome surface. C’est comme un jardin, painted by Mohamed Kacimi during the same period, proposed a similar composition: two quadrangles, one white on top of another in black; a tree flower growing out from the second. But it is also the large dark rectangle in Hommage à Rothko that reappeared in Yamou’s works. A return that was not aimed at sustaining the rights of abstraction in contrast to vegetal figuration, but at providing a kind of loam in which the painted plant life would thrive.
Just as the oryx in Midi emerged from behind a large brown mark, the plant in Bogota springs forth from the corner of an almost black rectangle. A painting on paper in 2002, Les Arbres voyageurs 2, is based on the same concept but with a more luxuriant vegetal motif. Samia (2001) proposes a variation on this theme with branches that grow out from two black bands on each side. The structure became more radical and was clearly stated in Bas noir (2001). The canvas was divided in two: the upper part dedicated to depicting plant life and the lower part, in an impeccable monochromatic black. Another work fromthe same year features a strictly identical composition, but the black element is replaced with yellow (Bas jaune). Works of this type do not follow a concept of tension, of contrast between the figurative and abstract zones; on the contrary, a relationship of continuity occurs between the two parts of the painting. It is as if the paint medium has been transformed into the humus in which the (images of) the plants draw their nourishment. Earth was used to replace paint in the early works; here it is the paint that replaces the earth.
By choosing a style based on close-up images, Yamou created interwoven curves and filaments in a range of forms that recall a leitmotiv of traditional ornament: the arabesque. This is one of themost universal types of ornamental decoration that exists in the Muslim world. After its appearance in Greece around the 6th century B.C., the vine leaf motif was widely diffused around the Mediterranean and in Asia Minor.
Adopted by the Romans it spread throughout the whole of Europe. At the beginning of the Christian era, it was introduced to India.With the arrival of Buddhism in China, the vine leaf found a new field for expansion and became widespread after the 5th century A.D. From China, it spread to Japan.
Despite the universal nature of its diffusion, as arabesque decoration, the vine leaf became one of the emblems of Islamic culture due to the fundamental role it played together with architecture and calligraphy. Originally inspired by Byzantine models, arabesque rapidly acquired its own distinctive qualities, one of themost important being its highly abstract composition. This is the ornamental motif, rich in history, that Yamou included to enrich his vegetal figurations. The title of a series of sixteen pieces produced in 1998, composed of two groups of eight works, clarifies the origin of the motif: De la fleur à l’arabesque 1.
Like the piece, Deux fleurs (1998), these paintings combine classic arabesque motifs with stylised flowers and black disks symbolising seeds. The arabesque always forms part of the background completely fulfilling its decorative function. On the other hand, in Dualité (2000), the respective positions of these elements are reversed and the arabesque becomes the principle feature. In somemeasure, in a painting from 1999, Fleurs blanches, Yamou attempted a blend of landscape and arabesque with the misty view of undergrowth and in the forefront, almost as if they had been scattered against awindowpane, a series of white flowers, painted very distinctly and arranged in the flowing composition of an arabesque. Although after a few later attempts — Fruit vert (2000) and Les Arbres voyageurs 1 (2002) — Yamou abandoned the arabesque quite rapidly, he used the idea of a pattern arranged in the forefront of the painting and over the whole surface in several pieces over the next few years — Orée (2002), Abondance (2002), Comme un nid (2003) and Rouge du fond (2003).
This formula has the advantage of giving the pictorial field more depth and of placing the underlying botanical images further away, in thisway accentuating their enigmatic atmosphere. A piece painted in 2009, New York, picks up the theme, but in an unusual version. While the paintings described previously had reinstated the representational potential of arabesque, by contrast, New York emphasises the abstract tropism by reducing it to a weft of relatively widespread pinpoints.
Yamou’s experiments with arabesque in painting, although inevitable, revealed themselves as basically fragile. Vegetal figuration by a Moroccan painter could not have ignored this motif completely but the ornamental importance of the arabesque was not appropriate to playing a dominant role in the foreground in works where the main, if not exclusive theme was life as it is manifested in the germinating of a plant or the opening of a flower. Philip Taaffe can adopt the arabesque to complement his painting that is aimed at a formof exaltation of the ornamental paradigm. Porte Amur (2001) is the magnificent overlaying of two arabesque lattice grills, the fore and backgrounds of the painting being based on this ornamental form.
On the other hand, Yamou’s style would not suit the ornamental reification of the vegetal image. Despite their common taste for botanical and aquatic environments, and despite a certain similarity in some of their images — such as the case of Habitation (2004) by Taaffe and the Mosaïque series by Yamou, strictly contemporary — it is this aspect that separates the two artists. Yamou returned to arabesque in 2010, several years after he had developed the garden theme that he had made his own. However, as the title of the work indicates (Arabesque en formation), the ornamental motif is not completed, it is still in gestation; moreover, it does not fill the whole pictorial field. Above all, it is not traced with a line but is the concatenation of anothe rmotif, the illustration of a cellular organism.
In other words, the arabesque is no longer a pattern, independent of the painted plant growth; it is also subject to the biotic process that Yamou’s painting attempts to portray. The arabesque had already returned, although less explicitly, in a work painted the previous year, Graines lasso: the ellipses are formed by floating seeds.
The arabesque is no longer ornamental but a living element. Besides, in Arabesque en formation, it is no longer the arabesque that assumes the ornamental function, but the image of a cell through which it is seeking a new and maybe final form. A work painted in 2009 shows the ornamental destiny of the cell better than many other paintings: in Seventies — the microorganisms fill the field in a pattern similar to a wallpaper from the 1970s. But these works belong to the period that opened up as Yamou’s poetics found their appropriate and personal language.

Poetics of Germination

In 1989, Yamou used hessian fabric, andmore explicitly rice bags, as a support for one of his paintings. The piece was entitled Basmati. It took almost a quarter century for the powers ofmetonymy to produce their effect and fromthe rice bag; Yamou took the grains, or rather the seeds, as a subject.
In 2003, some strange floating creatures appeared in Yamou’s artistic garden: small vegetal balls in full germination, flying seeds suspended in the air — Les Apparitions, Les Volants. The Stigmata of Saint Francis painted by Giotto at the very end of the 13th century inspired the form that is still present in Yamou’s works ten years after its creation.
Yamou conserved the memory of the trees scattered here and there on the rocky slopes, green balls on fragile trunks that hardly seemed able to link them to the ground. The view of Giotto’s tree, its transformation in a disquieting ball with the compactness of cactus, is no doubt the result of the change in the perception of the vegetal world induced by plant photography; among the most important were the images of Karl Blossfeldt and Albert Renger-Patzsch (Blossfeldt’s album, Urformen der Kunst, that enjoyed world-wide success and Die Welt ist schön by Renger-Patzsch,were published in 1928). However, unlike Blossfeldt and Renger-Patzsch, Yamou never attempted to transform plants into “things”; he also avoided close-ups and always depicted them in movement.
He wanted to transform Giotto’s tree into a figure, an actor, not a “thing”. In 2003, he painted his version of The Stigmata of Saint Francis with his Le Rocher de Damas (2003). No saint, no Christ, no stigmata, but trees, even less tree-like than those of Giotto, rooted in grey shapes, some of which had already assumed the form of the grains thatwere to become the subjectmatter of a large number of paintings. The Stigmata of Saint Francis was to germinate the future germs of Yamou.
The underwood, the leaves at the tips of branches were no longer enough for the artist to represent plant life and the life in plants. He needed to take the tree back to its original seed. The three works in the series Les Graines established this motif in 2003: black, white or grey balls, sometimes, but very rarely another colour, not yet germinated, or having already given birth to very precisely-drawn leaves, evolve weightless in an unknown space that can often be imagined as aquatic.
If the titles of a number of works include the word seed/grain — Graine du jour, Graine primitive, Graines joyeuses (all three from 2005), Onze graines (2006), Graines 2 (2007), Graines aquatiques 1, 2 and 3 (2008), Graines bleues, Graines lasso (both from 2009) as well as the famous pieces Chute de graines, Début de graine (both from 2005) and Oiseau graines (2009) — and if other works refer to terms belonging to the same paradigm — Fécondation, Germination marine, Germination active (all three from 2005) — it is simply because since 2003, almost all of Yamou’s painting production is focussed on seeds, sprouts, and embryo in every form and kind.
Although two works by Klee, Pflanzenwachstum (1921) and Wachstum der Nachtpflanzen (1922) demonstrate his interest in plant germination and growth as a metaphor for development inworks of art, there is no doubt that only the Indian artist, Sayed Haider Raza, has shown the same strong, long-lasting passion as Yamou for the seed motif. Begun at the end of the 1970s in a geometrical language far removed from Yamou’s biomorphic style, the Germination Paintings series shows the black point, the bindu, symbol of the seed, from which spirals, chevrons, and triangles spring forth.
However, the seed did not constitute the end of the genetic search that guides Yamou’s painting. The vision became microscopic and cellular organisms rapidly began to fill his canvases. They were established from 2004 in several pieces of his Mosaïque series, like Germination, Deux temps, 20F1. Still today, in a slightly modified form, they continue their fundamental existence as in the superb series from 2013, Les Organismes. If the history of biomorphic painting reveals forms that evoke cellular life as in the famous Cellular Composition in Red Circle (1927) by Léon Tutundjian for example, these figurations are mainly derived from the imaginary created by scientific films, especially the earliest examples.
The films by Jean Painlevé naturally, mainly dedicated to underwater fauna (from The Octopus in 1928 up till How Some Jellyfish Are Born in 1960, as well as The Seahorse in 1934) that fascinated the Surrealists, but especially the films by Jean Comandon, like his extraordinary Protoplasm Movement in the Elodea canadensis (1910) which, thanks to the ultra-microscope, shows the movement of protoplasm and the circulation of chlorophyll seeds in a plant cell, Germination of pollen (1911) and Germination of seeds (1931). The structure of certain paintings by Yamou pay credit to the film reference. The division into two equal parts arranged one above the other evokes the running of film frames. This is particularly obvious in Germination, 20F1 and Ciel et graines.
Under the lens of Comandon’s microscope, Yamou’s garden takes on an erotic atmosphere. A work from 2006 is entitled Graines de désir and a series of ten works in 2009, Accouplement. In another piece painted the same year, with neo-symbolist accents, the silhouettes of a couple approach one another among seeds and pollen tubes.
In 2010, a seed, together with two Giotto-like balls on a red ground with curving lines bore the name L’Amoureuse. The same year the image of other seeds was entitled Sein gauche — and the equation between the human body and the plant world became official. A work on paper from 2005 shows a female sex with seeds, branches and several lines written in Arabic. But it is perhaps with Deep Inside (2007) that infra-flower erotisation was expressed most successfully: a dark cavity dominated by the colour violet, a channel full of white seeds ready to burst forth, and the central luminosity of a vulvar form compose the image of the act of fecundation. From this viewpoint, Yamou’s work is the successor to the plant paintings that Georgia O’Keeffe began to create after abandoning abstraction in the first half of the 1920s: flowers, leaves, and fruit in large format created uplifting as much as arousing perspectives.
Flower Abstraction (1924) and Red Canna (1925–28) feature large floral evaginations, and Purple Petunias (1925) displays obscene purple flesh. Moreover, in the famous series of six paintings representing Jack-in-the-pulpits, the sexual symbolism (vaginal for the spathe, phallic for the spadix) is evident. In O’Keeffe’s paintings, like those of Yamou, the painting does not erotise the flower as much as the flower erotises the painting, it is less a question of figuration of Eros than the erotisation of figuration.
Seeds, cells, sprouts, genes — Yamou is the painter of true beginnings, first conceptions, initial germinations, genesis and origins. One of his works is entitled Avant l’aube (2003): the cellular night before the dawn of flowering. Another, D’avant la naissance (2005). His matrix garden, just as abundant as that of Éclosion or Let Any Flowers Bloom (both from 1952) by Roberto Matta, rich in multiple elements that reveal genuine scenes, represents a Garden of Eden: seeds and cells escape the view of Saturn. Unstill life like an anti-Vanitas.


The strange effect of Yamou’s floral figuration is largely due to his demolition of all notion of scale. In Cellules et arbre and in Cellules au lac 1, 2 and 3 (all from 2005), magnificent branches and even, for the last three, a small lake, are set alongside cellular organisms. In Villes graines (2010), one of the very rare paintings of the period with a landscape perspective, seeds are connected with each other by filaments floating in space against a background composed of a group of quadrangles, a distant descendent of Hommage à Rothko, representing a modern town. More generally, the truly utopic place where Yamou locates his vegetal fairy tales does not consider scale. An amoeba can have the same dimensions as a flower. Several focal lengths are involved in composing the same image.
But the most flagrant anomaly in scale concerns the nature of certain images that are both microscopic and cosmic at the same time. The first painting to apply this ambiguity is the diptych L’Avant et le premier (2003): the right hand side is a very beautiful variation on the iconography of Rocher de Damas — the blocks of stone have become seeds and the Giotto trees are now vegetal balls which are one of the recurring elements in Yamou’s artistic vocabulary; on the left hand side, solid spherical elements plunge through the black immensity of intergalactic space. However, there is a discontinuity between the two parts of the painting; the balls on the right do not evolve within the same world as the solid spheres on the left.
Two years later the wonderful painting, Début de graine, unified this representational space. In a vertical composition, the left side shows a vegetal effervescence with a few stems branching into the rest of the field. In the middle of this flora, giant seeds seemto be drifting in unison, conjuring up an irresistible image ofmeteorites. The plant seed has been transformed into “star seeds” to quote the title given by Jean Arp to a relief sculpture created in 1949. Yamou’s embryonic garden is transformed into the theatre for a space opera. Vent arrière (2010), a large horizontal painting in black and white, recalls the same concept.
On the right a close-up view of branches; and on the left a star cluster, with a lemon-shaped solid mass drifting off into space. A very small work, S.T. 8 (2013), is based on the same concept: from the garden to the cosmos without interruption. In another way, the titles of other pieces show this blend of cellular and cosmic shots, the fusion of the infinitely small with the infinitely big: L’Autre ciel (2010) and Ciel et graines (2005) whose structure is complex, inspired at the same time by L’Avant et le premier — the painting has two distinct parts, one in the colours of the garden, the other in intergalactic grey — and by Début de graine — where seeds fall from one space into another.
In Parmi les étoiles (2009), a female body shape made up of seeds is added to the vegetal germination and stellar constellation. It is well worth pausing to consider the marvellous work Insémination (2012): vegetal balls and seeds stand out against a lunar background as if they had been introduced into a shot of Gravity (2013), the film by Alfonso Cuaron; amilky flow escapes fromone of the floating bodies. Seeds fallen from flowers are inseminated by the cosmos itself.
All these works, and in an even more explicit way, Parmi les étoiles, pick up the cosmogenic theme, cosmic maternity. In the fundamental works he has dedicated to this subject, Arnauld Pierre draws the contours of the myth of “the child of the stars” that weaves together the encounter between the cosmos and the living being from The Beginning of Life (1900) by Frantisek Kupka, to 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick. The aquatint by Kupka, also known as The Waterlilies, shows a strange scene: on a pond at night, a lotus flower inside a bubble gives birth to a human fœtus floating inside another bubble.
This gestation “occurs according to the laws of an unknown biology, associating the vegetal and the human, the aquatic environment (the primordial waters in a large number of myths) and the cosmic environment (the dark night where unknown spheres and stars float)”. Recollections of this print seem to inhabit Bulle blanche (2006): a transparent bubble rises on a pond of water lilies. Later works by Kupka, such as the work entitled Cosmic Spring (1911–23) and the three works in the series Tale of Pistils and Stamens (1919–23), painted in an abstract language that is no longer that of the symbolismse en in The Beginning of Life, return to the theme of cosmic birth under the aegis of the flower.
It is possible to distinguish embracing human figures in one of the three Tales of Pistils and Stamens, in the centre of this “pollen festival” as in Parmi les étoiles, the glowing female form is the centre of the transaction underway between the cosmos and the vegetal elements. Yamou’s paintings Début de graine, Vent arrière, Parmi les étoiles and Insémination, add an unexpected episode to the long history of cosmic maternity, with a very unusual iconographic element: the seed-meteor, the seed planet.

La vie de la peinture

The first great artistic shock for Yamou was on seeing Monet’s Waterlilies at the Orangerie Museum for the first time in 1984. The young man had not yet decided to become a painter. His initial works in the early years, dry and earthy, revealed nothing of the influence of the painter-gardener of Giverny. On the other hand, at the time he chose a vegetal theme, the memory of the Waterlilies sprang immediately to mind. In 2005, Yamou was given the opportunity to widen his relationship with Monet. He went to live in Tahannaout, a small town south of Marrakech, in the lower foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. A house, but above all a large garden where he was able to indulge his passion for growing flowers and experimenting with grafts and cuttings. However it must be quite clear: if Monet’s painting at Giverny was “preceded by hiswork as a ‘special gardener’ who took care of his pond every morning, sitting in a boat to eliminate the slightest imperfection on the surface, any willow leaves, or twigs that had fallen during the night, looking after his little islands, and ‘dipping each water lily leaf in the water to remove any dust’”, Yamou’s floral painting did not require any such protocol. On the other hand, the paradoxical relationship that Monet cultivated between the precise care with which he arranged the reality that he was about to represent and the underlying abstraction of his painting is a lesson for all those who, like Yamou, are well aware that abstraction and figuration are not essences, but trends and steps, and that the concern with the representative can generate abstraction and the representational can surge from the heart of abstraction. With Monet, the painter who created his garden so that his paintings could become abstract, Yamou caught a glimpse of the point where the rupture between life of the painting and life in the painting becomes fundamentally unstable.
A group of three paintings Cellules au lac from 2005 with the same structure clearly refer to Monet. The upper three-quarters of the painting shows a scene that is similar to the Waterlilies: a pond, plants floating on the surface, reflections. Cells cover the lower quarter of the canvas without respecting the perspectivist illusion maintained by the figuration above.
In the foreground are several stems crowned with a budding bouquet. These are unusual paintings as they combine three very different registers: impressionism bordering on abstraction, a microscopic vision treated ornamentally, and almost photographic figuration. Monet’s Waterlilies, images from Comandon’s films transformed in wallpaper, and something like the shots of branches, flowers and leaves that in Technicolor light up the end of the film The River (1951) by Jean Renoir. In 2011, Yamou pays official homage to Monet, or almost, with his work: Hommage à Claude.
White balls colonise the pond of Giverny in the upper half of the painting and then fall into the firmament in the lower part. However, in order to pay this homage to Monet, Yamou was forced to paint in a way he no longer paints, precisely because he had learnt so much from Waterlilies.

From 2009 with his Oiseau graines, and more systematically after 2011, Yamou placed a stronger focus on painting without foregoing the representational nature of his work and without changing his vocabulary (seeds, vegetal balls, cellular organisms are still present). Painting is representative through the expression of its very materiality. During the incredibly fruitful early years of this decade, one success has followed another placing Yamou in an unusual position in art of the period: in 2011, As above so below 2 and 3, Épidermes 2 and 3, Lapsus 8 and 9 and Trois premières notes 1, 2 and 3; in 2012, the Aquatic Seeds, Cellules violettes and Les Amas jaunes series; in 2013, the series Les Coulées and Organique 1 and 2. The title Les Réactions of a series painted in 2011 is revealing. Here it is the painting medium itself that creates the reaction. In Les Réactions 1, a giant cell, painted ith detailed precision, seems to interact with its environment. However, this interaction does not give rise to a representation of the same nature: the artist uses the specific sensibility of the paint medium to best advantage to depict it. So it would be mistaken to suggest the coexistence of figuration and abstractions with regard to these paintings. The concept was attempted in other paintings, such as Trois bandes verticales (2011): a microorganic environment animated by interwoven white filaments which we have learnt to recognise in Yamou’s works, crossed vertically by three stripes of varying widths and colours that recall the zips that became the cardinal instrument in Barnett Newman’s works after 1948, and that exemplify a method for absolute abstraction by proposing the simple division of the canvas into different monochromatic fields. When we become aware that these zips originated in the drawings that Newman created in 1944 to evoke vegetal germination and growth, it is less surprising to rediscover this element in Yamou’s painting and this raises the doubt that perhaps their presence is not purely abstract. Les Réactions and the other works previously mentioned and executed in 2011, 2012 and 2013 are not at all abstract. They are based on the articulation of two different representational systems. In one, the painting is subject to the necessities of representation: the black seeds, the microorganisms are painted according to the image that the artists has in hismind. With the other, the representation is dependent on the reactions of the painting medium: the biotic events that affect the space in which the seeds and microorganisms are suspended depends on the excitability and the reactions of paint to the stimulation exercised on it by the artist.The painter uses and invents different techniques to stimulate the pictorial medium, to play with its properties, with its chemistry. For the series Les Organismes (2013–14), another peak in his artistic production, Yamou used a compressor to blow air onto puddles of paint, to breathe life into them. He also uses it in the series Vertitude (2013) but to obtain a different effect: not to expel the oil paint from the centre of a form, but to scatter it in archipelagos that are then reworked to create a vegetal appearance. In one sense, Yamou’s recent production tends towards becoming the “primordial soup”, the organic element, the culture broth. If theyare sowing the seeds of the cosmos, the seeds from the garden of Tahannaout are also inseminating the very body of painting. One mythology stems from the other.

Michel Gauthier, 2014

"Yamou"", monography edited by Skira/Atelier 21

Language : French/ English

192 pages, 30/24 cm
published in 2014