Roy Lawaetz
by Roy Lawaetz

Modular Triangular System (MTS)

1. Alternative approach

“The Modular Triangular System” is an alternative approach to painting on canvas, a departure from the western ”window” aesthetic that has been universally accepted for support systems in Art. It has had its primary origins and formulation in the Caribbean but it anticipates the multi-cultural trends of the Tri-Millennium which will strive more and more to assert hidden claims in a complex global village. None of the works illustrated in this publication rely on the rectangle as a window onto the visible and imagined world. Instead the triangle is utilized as the exterior structure, the creative element for pictorial activity. It is the supreme catalyst - one that offers a greater degree of flexibility than its traditional counterpart the rectangle.

“The Modular Triangular System” acknowledges that Art has been dominated by the rectangular form for centuries thus resulting in a remarkable and triumphant over-shadowing of the triangle – the form that gave birth to perhaps the world’s most majestic wonders: the Pyramids. But it is not to these ancient monuments that “The Modular Triangular System” obtains its inspirational material. It turns to a less likely source, the Zemi cult stones of the lost Taino Indians from the Caribbean. These historical relics are rather discreet in size. They usually measure not more than several inches, and are certainly almost obscure when compared to Egypt’s colossal Pyramids.

The Caribbean Taino Indians carved these triangular images out of raw rocks choosing this universal shape above the rectangle, circle or oval. It was an Antilles civilization’s calculated decision, a preference in design and function. Unobstructed by the western world’s architectural influence, this ideal was created by the free imagination of the primordial artist. It was Columbus’ arrival in 1492 that introduced diverse rectangular objects to the Caribbean: the charts, table tops, western architecture and the Bible. For the Spaniards the triangular-shaped Zemis only symbolized an abomination, pagan idols of a non-Christian people. Zemis were often lost during the Conquest by the merciless destruction of artistic treasures and relics of Pre-historic Antilles culture.

>Columbus returned to Spain, however, with some Zemi exemplars. Those triangular objects had been viewed by Europeans as artistic curiosities. The Indians’ preference for Zemi idols over gold apparently only instilled more religious fanaticism in the Spanish intruders’ fervor to destroy as many of them as possible. Hence more than 500 years after the Conquest, the world’s exposure to Taino culture continues to be relatively minimal. The miniature idols that have miraculously survived are in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, The Heye Foundation in New York, the Museum of America iMadrid, the British Museum in London, the Ethnographic Museum in Copenhagen, The Museum of Man, Paris and other public and private collections.

2. Zemi Myth

But could the Zemi myth serve a similar purpose for image-making on canvas as it had done on stone for millions of Taino Indians? And the three points on a triangular canvas? Could they be effectively utilized to produce serious Art? Could they by themselves generate enough sustaining interest upon which to build a large body of work for an artist?

These questions posed not only challenges to the artist but also to his own understanding of the rectangular conformity of the art world. One of the most basic and stable conventions of Western Civilization was the two dimensional representation of a three dimensional space as seen through an enclosed frame. The rectangle’s universal usage and status remained undisputed. Its principal shape consisting of a four-sided object supported a large framing and manufacturing industry, art suppliers, galleries, museums, mass-produced print work and auction houses. Wooden stretchers upon which canvas was stretched were sold in pairs, thus creating a manageable and practical solution to determining size. There was a wide range of interchangeability and convenience - a global rectangular system was already in place. To be sure, it would not be an easy task to abandon the rectangle. It had existed for centuries providing artists with practical formats to paint on. In short, this feature of its standard configuration meant that at least one aspect of the work was already universally endorsed and predetermined by the general public.

3. Emulation factor

The factor of emulation, the desire for artists to follow one another, and continue a grand creative legacy as they have done for centuries has provided the rectangular shape with a consistent role from which the work developed. There was wide appeal for its continuity. It was broadly accepted even if the artist’s style remained obscure or ridiculed in his lifetime. This was the format upon which the artist’s work was judged, for better or worse, by Posterity. The shape of the painted rectangular object was seldom questioned. It was never in conflict with prevailing tastes. In some cases it was even painted over by another artist at a later date to be given new life as a modified rectangular work.

The basic shape of the canvas was also natural progression of the artist’s sketch on his drawing pad. It was as predictable as the sun’s early rise on the horizon. It was used by millions of artists, art students and schoolchildren the world over. Already in kindergarten children were taught how an empty piece of paper could be filled with colorful crayons. It was the introductory receptacle what could be instantly transformed from nothingness by the infantile imagination. This practice in its evolved states, also led later to the rectangular canvas experience. But what happened if the canvas surface suddenly departed from the accepted norm to that of the triangle for instance?

  • Would new visual perception demands be placed on the art viewer?
  • Would the triangle appear as a weird freak if it started to mutate?
  • Would the triangle be too impractical?
  • Would it lead to alienation? Would it risk being called empty and decorative by art critics?
  • Would it be worthless?
  • Would it be Outsider Art if the artist turned his back on the “window”?

4. Art conditioning

Man has been conditioned through time and space to evaluate and perceive painting within the rectangular guideposts of art history. The four corners of the rectangle are essential to this perception. They play a key role in the construction of the principal image and its related subject matter. Optically they define area limitations and depending on their vertical or horizontal exaggeration they either suggest repose or action.

5. Key features of “The Modular Triangular System”

But what are the specific advantages of utilizing the triangle in terms of pictorial language, if any? Why should any artist consider the triangle? If the triangular work of art is to be judged on its own merits (apart from espousing a cultural discrepancy) then these questions are valid. It is not sufficient to assume that multi-cultural considerations alone should justify the extremist position of “The Modular Triangular System”. There should be other qualifying and dramatic reasons to warrant a serious investigation by artists of the three pointed canvas for the Support in painting and in this regard there are choice of interesting propositions to consider:

A list is provided below with the key features of “The Modular Triangular System”:

  1. Angularity Mobilizes a dynamic factor into the art equation.
  2. Diversity Multiple applications give the Support a wide range of options.
  3. Flexibility Provides the Artist with a wider support base for innovation.
  4. Formats Alternative design independent of pre-manufactured configuration.
  5. Interactive Technological integration gives the Support a new participatory role.
  6. Inter-locking Combines individual fragmentary elements for optimum versatility.
  7. Modularity Provides a more organic-like quality in the Support.
  8. Mutative Canvas elements can be expanded to include other distinct formats.
  9. Sculptural Three dimensionality can be integrated into the art form if desired.
  10. Void-Fullness The respective relations between them can be dramatically increased.

6. Rectangular aesthetic

Europeans worked for centuries to promote their own rectangular aesthetic along the guidelines of order, balance and traditional values to recorded superhuman achievement. From Leonardo da Vinci to Pablo Picasso and others, the world has witnessed a steady stream of masterpieces. But with each singular investigation of the rectangle by Protean geniuses and their followers the chances for triangular inclusion has concurrently decreased. As a consequence this developed aesthetic has pre-supposed historical transitions for the Caribbean within a Judeo and Christian context. The Caribbean’s triangular aesthetic, in contrast, perished rapidly with the persecution of the Taino civilization and thus its potential and long term development never evolved in the last half a millennium. Subsequently all chapters in the Archipelago’s history confirmed its former existence as essential archaeological material but not as a vital artistic continuity. This phenomenon is quite in contrast with the considerable interest in Aztec, Inca, Maya and Olmec civilizations which have served to influence countless artists worldwide.

From an MTS point of view the rectangle is currently the principal and almost exclusive form upon which to paint. It helps to preserve a certain range of world culture and history. Considering the two non-European legacies of the Caribbean, the Pre-Columbian and the African, it is quite unlikely that the rectangle can always best serve the spirit and authentic legacy of these two cultures within the human experience. What has occurred, in fact, is that the European legacy has provided the format upon which almost all the world’s artworks on canvas are produced including the Caribbean’s. Viewed from a multi-cultural perspective this might appear quite limiting, especially so when mirrored against specific global events.

When black slaves from Africa were introduced to the Caribbean once again the triangle was very much in vogue - this time, not in the form of Taino Zemis, but in the concept of the Triangle Trade associated with shipping and slavery. Thus the triangle has strong associations not only with the Caribbean’s ancient art but also with the phenomenon of black slavery. In a curious historical context the fates of both the Tainos and Africans were thrown together in the Spanish quest for gold, expansion and cheap labor. The triangle recalls an important part of Caribbean history that is provocative to understanding its past. It offers a symbolic gateway for depicting a particular legacy specific to the Region as well as a liberating path to self-identity.

From the vanquished indigenous culture to the inhumane importation of Africans, this form whether in the appearance of sculptural idols or in global logistics, has deep roots in the Archipelago. And added to this is the Christian ideal of the Divine Trinity introduced by Europeans, another important triangle in the Caribbean's network of symbols. The Caribbean’s unique background, geography and complexity are quite capable of producing the stimulus for an art style that draws from the rich sources of its own cultural and historical fragmentation.

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