Paintings by Tomm El-Saieh meld strategies of Modernist abstraction with subtle echoes of the rich color and interlacing patterns found in Haitian Vodou imagery. El-Saieh, who was born in Haiti and is based in Miami and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is of Haitian, Palestinian, and Israeli descent. His work reflects both his cultural heritage and an understanding of how Haitian figurative art is often embedded with references to Haitian history and the lore of voodoo spirits. In 1991, at age 7, El-Saieh left Haiti with his parents for Florida, as political conditions worsened when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown by the Haitian army; he now returns often. Belonging to a family living in Haiti for five generations, El-Saieh feels deeply connected to the country and its culture, even though his focus on abstraction may seem counter to Haitian traditions.
During a recent interview with Art Basel in his Miami studio, he remarked, ‘I was always interested in abstraction,’ recalling an early encounter with a book of Kandinsky paintings. ‘I really like the idea of a universal language, being able to transcend everything so that everybody can connect with it.’ In abstraction, he added, ‘there’s no national identity, just pure freedom, pure expression.’
Intricate layers of color and line in El-Saieh’s abstract paintings, which will be on view during Art Basel Miami Beach at Central Fine gallery, recall ‘all over’ Abstract Expressionist compositions by Jackson Pollock, while also bringing to mind the pioneering ideas of Hans Hofmann and Josef Albers. Paintings by Hofmann and Albers illustrate how various colors and shapes, depending on their placement, can appear to advance or recede in space. ‘You can use saturation and non-saturation [of color] for push and pull, also the blurriness and sharpness,’ El-Saieh said, referring to Hofmann’s term to describe optical illusions of movement forward and backward in space that can animate a flat canvas.
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