Things solid, made liquid at Ayyam

BEIRUT: The term “melting pot” has most frequently been associated with the way the U.S. describes its cultural assimilation of immigrants, with the hard edges of various ethnic groups being reduced down to innocuous goo.

There are other metaphors for this sort of thing. In years past, Canadians expressed a fondness for salads.

This concept of multiculturalism has been adopted as the theme of the latest exhibition at the Ayyam Gallery. Entitled “Melting Pot,” it touts itself a showcase for paintings by “the most promising emerging and mid-career abstract and figurative painters from Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.”

Works by Syrian artists Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik and Elias Izoli, Palestinian painter Oussama Diab, Jordan’s Hilda Hiary and Lebanon’s Walid El Masri have been collected, presumably as a way to shine a light on the conformity in diversity that characterizes the region’s artistic production.

Meandering through the gallery’s wide space, viewers may be surprised (even disturbed) by the gloominess of some of the works on display.

Beik’s mixed-media canvases are a case in point. The composition of his “Scarecrows” and “Pain” (both 180x180 cm), the exhibition documents suggest, revolve around the walls of Damascus’ Old City, specifically his representation of “graffiti, etchings, marks and cracks.”

Pieces of thick textile have been affixed to both works, as if to refer to construction or composition. The textile used in “Pain,” for instance, has been stitched with thick colored rope.

Both works also work with cross motifs. It’s easy to assume that these represent something religious (or perhaps the practice’s original association with secular punishment and torture), but at least one of the titles suggests they also evoke “Scarecrows.” In “Pain,” these representations of things human seem to be trying to escape the stitched wall, the way blood seeps from a fresh stitched would.

The bright palette of reds and greys Izoli deploys in his 150x150 cm “Untitled” mixed media portrait is certainly eye-catching.

Its almost sordid representation of a figure’s bloodied human face is most interesting for his technique, resembling that used in digital graphics – a pixelated juxtaposition of reds and greys gradually forming human figures.

Here, the figure’s eyes are an indistinct reiteration of grey and beige, while the blood-red paint coating much of its face runs in sharp rivulets down the neck and chest, which upon closer inspection is comprised of a collage of pages from an Arabic calendar.

Another portrait, Hiary’s acrylic-on-canvas “The Mother” employs a much wider palette than Izoli’s work – various shades of orange and red as well as white and black. The maternal figure is smoking, her mouth forming the Arabic letter qaf (often transliterated as a “q”). The figure is comprised of patchwork-like designs, stenciled orange prints “textile patterning, color blocking and dripping paint.”

Masri’s abstract works also use stencils. His mixed media work “Chairs” seems to represent just one chair. At first glance you simply see a piece of furniture. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that this is less a literal depiction of an object than it is an application of overlapping white, blue and brown stencils – often used in murals.

Masri’s purpose, the gallery’s materials suggest, is to make onlookers wonder and “investigate ... the fundamental components of painting.”

Although the better part of the canvas is left blank but for the barest of washes, the artist carefully placed a smear of white paint on the lower part of the piece, highlighted with a few drops of more colorful paint.

Diab’s mixed media work “Contrast” is a trifle confusing. Also using portrait technique, he renders three women with their heads and eyes covered. Intriguingly, the eyes of two of these figures are covered with slices of cucumber and kiwi – it’s said these practices ward off wrinkles. A piece of cloth covers the eyes of the woman in the center.

Amusing at first glance, the piece is the artist’s representation of freedom of action and expression. We don’t know whether these women are “engaged in a free act,” as the exhibition materials suggest, putting whatever they like on their faces, or “constrained by it.”

“Melting Pot” is up at Ayyam Gallery until July 31. For more information, please call 01-374-450.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 26, 2012, on page 16.




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