Controlled Entropy, Taher Jaoui at 81 Leonard Gallery

Taher Jaoui: Controlled Entropy installation view, photograph by Hannah Rozelle, photo courtesy of the artist

One might find Taher Jaoui introverted the moment meeting him. It might be less about an aloof temperament commonly found in an artist than a reserved and prudent character often associated with a science person. The way in which Jaoui’s artworks act out follows a similar interpersonal pattern. Those scratchy mathematics signs and formulas are the most prominent elements of the new series of monochrome paintings featured in Taher’s current solo exhibition Controlled Entropy at 81 Leonard Gallery, co-hosted by Uncommon Beauty Gallery. The juxtaposition of the handwritings of mathematical formulas and the gestural brushwork in an abstract expressionist manner not only prompts questions about Jaoui’s background, but also problematizes the hostile split between art and mathematics. Reminding viewers of a lecturer running a mathematical calculation across the blackboard with chalk, this series of paintings highlights the performative elements in mathematics, as well as the craft aspects of labor invested in this intellectual activity.

Taher Jaoui: Controlled Entropy installation view, photograph by Hannah Rozelle, photo courtesy of the artist

Born into a scientist’s family, Jaoui diverted his career path from financial engineering to art through self-learning. Such hybrid experience makes his work come across as cryptic, sober, frisky, and bold simultaneously. A more playful side of Taher’s personality can be revealed in his polychrome paintings, where the incredibly raw, vibrant, and authentic display of colors captures the restless and rebellious spirit of street art in Berlin, a place where he lives and works.

Like how graffiti in Berlin embodies the sophisticated but explicitly disorganized layers of history, Jaoui’s work can also be understood as a durational performance consisting of countless real-time events taking place in his subconsciousness. Sometimes he feels worn out after committing too much mental effort to dig things out of his subconsciousness and arrange them on the canvas. It is all about Milking the Cow (2020), a polychrome painting characterized by marks of erasure, captures such a moment of struggle in his creative process. Jaoui admitted that he was at one point about to throw this work away after realizing that the painting was saturated and going nowhere. The title came to his mind when he felt emotionally and physically exhausted working on this piece; “I felt I was like a cow that gave all her milk,” he says. Luckily, Taher eventually anchored the composition and saved the whole piece by adding some negative white spaces, or as he put is, “the piece went through a reborn process.”

Taher Jaoui, It’s all about milking the cow, 2019, mixed media on canvas, 79’’ x 118’’, photo courtesy of the artist

As Jaoui set himself a task of creating a multidimensional version of an existing painting, A Can Opener for Penguins (2020) marks his first foray into the field of 3D-printing sculpture. Rather than starting from scratch, the experiment of the new medium grew out of a long-term contemplation on incorporating his professional experience with data and algorithm as a financial engineer into his creative practice as an artist. To realize the new sculpture, Jaoui recycled a painting of the same title he had made one year earlier, divided the original composition into small segments, 3D-printed them piece by piece, and joined all the units into a molecular structure. Surprisingly, when those abstract forms break through the canvas and occupy volumes in the real space, figurative characters start to emerge.

Taher Jaoui, A Can Opener for a Penguin, 2020, colored resin, 17.7’’ x 10’’ x 3.2’’, photograph by Hannah Rozelle, photo courtesy of the artist

Given Jaoui’s artisanal competence, which can be easily sensed in his precise marks in paintings, one might not be surprised by the fact that Jaoui has long practiced as a sculptor working with traditional materials. However, Jaoui admitted that it is hard to bring what he experiences in painting into the form-making process of crafting. “Craft is a slow process, unlike paintings, what is going on in my subconsciousness cannot be simultaneously recorded,” he says. On the contrary, the immediacy of the sensuousness realized by 3D-printing is something that Jaoui has never gained from traditional craft-making.

Moreover, 3D-printing helps Jaoui to build a new type of relationship with painting. Although nothing is shaped by hand in the whole sculpting process, it distances Jaoui from his intense inner feelings and impulsivity and allows him to re-evaluate his composition. Instead of living in the myth of “let the art flow, and everything will fall into place”, the rational calculation serves as a backbone to the expressive nature of his art.

Taher Jaoui: Controlled Entropy installation view, photograph by Hannah Rozelle, photo courtesy of the artist

Controlled Entropy is on view through February 28, 2020 at 81 Leonard Gallery, 81 Leonard Street, Monday -Saturday 11am – 6pm

Peiyue Wu is a New York-based art historian and cultural journalist. She holds a MA in Art History from the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. She has contributed articles to various platforms including Sixth Tone, Tussle Magazine, and China Underground.