Mai Tabakian’s creations appear to be hybrids. Although they cannot exactly be described as paintings, they look like pictures. At the same time, the striking presence of matter, volume and structure immediately gives them a sculptural, or even architectural, dimension. So, they are hybrids mainly because of the use of fabric as the main medium in Mai Tabakian’s work. These last years, contemporary artists have noticeably showed a renewed interest in this material and its multiple plastic possibilities. Like for an Arts & Crafts revival, in the rehabilitation of “crafts”, we are witnessing embroidery, tapestry work and also an appropriation or reappropriation of textile material making a foray into contemporary creation, to which Mai Tabakian’s work definitely belongs. However, in this case, we are not dealing with embroidery, tapestry work or appropriation per se because fabric is used for what it is: material, colour and texture. Mai Tabakian’s work might have things in common with a kind of textile marquetry: fabric is embossed on round parts of extruded polystyrene.
The artist does not use fabric as a material to be sewn or to be pieced together around a body, even a fictitious one, but really as a pictorial medium whereby colours, textures and motifs might have things in common with the painter’s palette. To her, fabric is highly rich on plastic, chromatic and textural levels as well as in its peculiar and sensual relation to the sense of touch that is often disregarded in plastic creation. Mai Tabakian’s works, their layers, their lines, full and round, and their curves irresistibly prompt us to sense its intimate geography with our fingertips.
Beyond this formal interest, Mai Tabakian’s choice to use fabric is reminiscent of an underlying personal story related to this material. Because if her work immediately refers to the concept of needlework, this activity reminds her of her childhood’s universe: on one hand, her maternal grandmother who used to sew and introduced her to it at an early age and on the other hand, her travels to Vietnam, her native country, where, as a young girl, she was fascinated by the abundance of coloured fabrics, shimmering clothes or silk. It reminds us of the link that some artists like Louise Bourgeois or Annette Messager might have with fabric as a vehicle for women’s stories and the handing on of femininity but also for childhood memories and its evocations, often bringing us back to the transitional object. But where either of these artists tends towards a sort of expressionism rooted in introspection and memory, Mai Tabakian has chosen to create abstract compositions of shapes, which are sometimes organic, sometimes more geometric, sometimes similar to parabolas. But choosing this quilted rendering, like a cocoon or a protective receptacle could let come to light a lot of hypotheses while suggesting a way to prevent yourself from revealing too much.
So, beneath formal abstract appearances, we are guessing an existential depth, a rising emotion, complex stories and reminiscences that do not allow to be revealed at a glance, a glance too busy getting lost in the maze and the twists and turns of motifs created by appliqué.
Mai Tabakian mentions a “pressing need,” an inner need to “compulsively”, as she puts it, put together fabrics to create her works. This compulsion shows itself in the obsessional aspect of shapes which are often curved, repeated ad infinitum, without beginning or end, or constantly repeating themselves, in these fragmented, yet obsessively rebuilt or recreated, kaleidoscopic visions. It can also be pictured in the “making, ” the work in progress that evokes the meticulousness of the clothing industry, of seamstresses bent over their work. This iterative function is the evidence of a mind caring about regularity as well as a kind of soothing of the soul while at work. In spite of colours that are shimmering, bright or soft, glittery or pastel, Mai Tabakian’s works must hide more frightening or painful realities, feelings or thoughts, evoking a kind of struggle against cruelty about which we don’t know everything.
So, “Le grand mystère” (The Great Mystery) (2011) shows weird blisters, deformities or gestational organisms as well as mysterious, delicate and smooth volumes. “Le noyau pneumatique” (The Pneumatic Nucleus) (2010) and “La fusion” (The Fusion) (2011) or “L’éternel manège” (The Eternal Merry-go-round) (2010) seem to be reminiscent of this shifting infinitely small that rules over matter, this intangible and organized reality that eludes us and of which science tries master the primitive confusion. “Sisyphe” (Sisyphus) (2011) and its delicate contrast between red and pink, flesh and blood, looks frightening and devouring. Ambiguity is obvious.
Mai Tabakian talks about “neatness” concerning the way she works, meticulously and almost surgically as she puts it. As is often the case with artists working with textile, the concepts of wound and suture are involved: the dual function of fabric -protecting and mending- is found. So here is the gesture that makes-and revives-the wound and that cures, fills up, smoothes out what has been torn. There is indeed something belonging to a cathartic way to transcend negativity, to transcend what is vile or sickening: one of her works “La route de la soie” (Silk Road) (2010) displays, in harmonious tones, silkworms that, in Vietnam, are grilled and served to eat after having been used to make the fibre and of which Mai had kept a horrified memory as a child. To transcend the origins of dread and distress via an expression which is both tender and aesthetic, gentle and simple, opaque and solid, harmonious and changing, abstract and evocative, sucking in and impenetrable. To transform ugliness into Art. To reverse what could been seen as impure in the organic and trying to make it beautiful and soothing, whether it become geometric or it relieve itself of its “intestinal” dimension in a subtle game in-between attraction and repulsion.
From this point view, Mai Tabakian lays before us a very careful work, very “finished,” that bears its decorative dimension and its ornamental motifs braided with contrasting shades, whose inspiration seems to be drawn from Art Deco, from the curves of Art Nouveau to the 70s geometric motifs, including the Delaunays’ “Art et Lumière” Orphism.
Mai Tabakian’s plastic language is now developing via hypnotic compositions made of spiral patterns (Medusa series) and is practising her approach to objects with a more obvious sculptural dimension, logical continuation of the hybridisation of her work. Thus taking parts of the Art History, she is building her own language and at the same time her own plastic and aesthetic concerns on these foundations but also mysteriously gives life to her personal story.
Art critic and curator
(traduction: Clémence Simon)