Culture

Art between porn and modernism

BEIRUT: Sometime in the first decade of this century, city residents were treated to a series of street-level interventions upon some G-rated billboard ads.

The raised arms and decolletage of a smiling female model were poised above some commodity or other (fruit juice? underarm deodorant?) while a long-forgotten slogan coaxed passers-by to remember the brand name paying for the ad.

Evidently uncomfortable with the figure’s exposed flesh, anonymous vigilantes set out to “cover” her by lobbing black paint-filled balloons at select parts of the model’s oversized photo reproduction. The grass-roots moralists might have been assaulting the essential amorality of photography.

Raed Yassin recalls this spate of ad vandalism, noting the pitchmen eventually absorbed the vandals’ moral qualms and started self-censoring.

This shard of recent local history came up while the artist was chatting with The Daily Star about “Yassin Haute Couture,” nowadays up at Marfa’ gallery. Yassin’s second Beirut solo comprises seven works and series – photos, mixed media work, video and neon signage – all from 2017-18.

In addition, Marfa’ has stocked copies of “The S. Model Collection,” a limited-edition artist book of manipulated photos that reverberate through this show and the semifictive narrative that irrigates it.

That narrative springs from a few facts the artist knew about his father, who was murdered during Lebanon’s Civil War. The elder Yassin had been a tailor and clothing designer who’d worked in the Gulf.

“For a long time I’ve been trying to make a portrait of him [in my work], based on the myth and gossip I’ve heard,” Yassin said.

“Each time he appeared, he became a different character.”

In the installation series “The Best of Sammy Clark,” the artist’s father is said to have taken him to singing lessons with the eponymous performer. He’s mentioned in the video work “Disco,” as “Mahmoud Yassin.” Here he’s called Samir.

While trash culture interests Yassin – his practice is festooned with detritus from pop culture history – he says recomposing his family history, and examining its points of intersection with popular culture, is an obsession.

The fictive family history tricking beneath “Yassin Haute Couture” and two of its works – the video “I Hate Theatre, I Love Pornography” and the audio-sculpture “The Pimp” – first surfaced during Yassin’s solo “The Future is Nostalgic,” held this time last year at Athens’ Kalfayan Gallery. It sketches the careers of clothes designer Samir Yassin and his brother Fayez, who worked in the entertainment sector. After erecting successful careers in the Gulf, as the story goes, both brothers found themselves entangled in their clients’ family conflicts and thought it wise to leave the region. The pieces up at Marfa’ pick up the brothers’ stories back in Lebanon.

At the back of the first of Marfa’s two galleries, the 2018 neon sculpture “Azya’ Yassin,” mimics the size and style of a commercial clothier’s sign of a bygone era.

As the gallery’s other two walls are hung with color photos of women (apparently modeling clothing designs), the signage sets the aesthetic tone of the exhibition.

The show’s main body of work is a photo series that adorns the interior wall of each exhibition hall. The 18-piece “Playmate of the Month” is one of two series of photo-based, multimedia palimpsests.

The artist has photographed the portrait-shaped centerfolds – a feature shared by all print-media porn but, in this case, taken from issues of Playboy magazine from the 1960s through the 1990s.

At first blush, the viewer may not realize he or she is gazing at a photo of a photo of a nude model because Yassin has “dressed” each, painting elaborate outfits over their suggestively posed forms.

“Playmate of the Month” is driven by a witty conceit. On one hand it elevates smut to the status of contemporary art. On the other hand, it does so by means that, by doctoring pornographic images, make them acceptable to a moralizing sensibility that’s as far-removed from that of contemporary art as porn.

If viewers follow the “Playmate of the Month” series to the end, a formally similar multimedia series hangs on the facing wall. “Proposal for a Proposal” is a series of 11 team photo-style snaps of three to seven people in smart casual dress, each focusing on a young couple. The figures’ affable poses lack the photo-shoot salaciousness (or deer-in-the-headlights discomfort) that passes for eroticism in a porn spread.

The title signals that the occasion for the photos was the young couples’ engagement. The figures’ outfits suggest the snaps were taken sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century. (The groom-to-be sports the sort of tailed, black bow tie once fashionable among antebellum southern gentlemen – and, as fast food survivors may recall, a restaurateur-cum-brand called “Colonel Sanders.”)

In each photo, silk embroidery has been worked over the central female figure (the betrothed), changing her attire to something more ornate and three-dimensional.

On the face of it, the conceit powering “Proposal” is more or less that of “Playmate.” Both purport to be residues of Samir Yassin’s compulsion to design women’s clothing after it was no longer possible to do so publicly.

In both, the artist redresses female figures in found prints. Both series even share an intimation of sex – though the coitus in “Proposal” is formally sanctioned. In these cannibalized and manipulated family photos, polite conventionality displaces the winking brashness of the “Playmate” series.

In past conversations, Yassin has elaborated upon his fascination with the trash culture of the 1980s and the tropes of Egyptian cinema and pop music from that era have informed a great swath of his art – music, video and installation work.

Another, more intimate, facet of Yassin’s production hinges on personal history, not least his machine-worked tapestries that reproduce and fictionalize family photos – the focus of 2013’s “Dancing, Smoking, Kissing,” his first Beirut solo at the (now defunct) Running Horse Gallery.

With pieces titled “Playmate of the Month,” and “I Hate Theatre I Love Pornography” – and given the semifictive narratives of the brothers running beneath – “Yassin Haute Couture” might be read as an effort to reconcile the artist’s interest in trash culture and his creative mining of his family history. For the artist, there’s nothing to reconcile. “I don’t think Playboy is trash culture, honestly,” he said. “Maybe Penthouse and Hustler are more so.”

The Playboy shoots, Yassin observes, carefully deployed their nudes among tropes of the bourgeois “good life” – sumptuous, well-appointed rooms, elaborate swimming pools – and were nestled among ads for luxury goods like cigars, high-fi systems, overpriced whiskey. It’s the stuff he imagines would have littered the life of Samir Yassin, fashion designer.

Situated within the tale of a father’s forlorn exile from career success and material comfort – reduced to crafting clothing designs on photos of beautiful women (innocent-looking or not) – the smirking irony of Yassin’s works is wed to a peculiar pathos.

“Yassin Haute Couture” is up at Marfa’ through April 7. For more, see marfaprojects.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 21, 2018, on page 16.

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