As the landscape of the art world has evolved, so have the modes through which artists express themselves. Technology has become integrated into the works of artists who are creating in the context of the digital age. Painting, however, remains a pivotal medium through which artists continue to experiment.
Ayyam Gallery’s Painting Across Generations hinges on this notion. Piecing together works from a multigenerational group of artists, which includes Samia Halaby, Thaier Helal, Tammam Azzam, Safwan Dahoul and Afshin Pirhashemi, the show highlights developments that have generated a new wave of painting in the Arab world and Iran.
“I think painting is often taken for granted in the region. Painters are still widely represented by galleries and acquired by institutions and private collections but we rarely get a focused show that deals primarily with the development of painting itself, the medium, its subject matter and the trends that are taking it in new directions,” said Ayyam Artistic Director Maymanah Farhat.
Navigating through the show’s condensed selection of large-scale paintings, interesting juxtapositions between politically engaged works and more introspective ones become apparent.
From afar, two works by Halaby, a pioneering abstract Palestinian painter, elicit oddly calming sensations. What may appear as undefined compositions of colour at first glance recall the elaborate interplay of light and movement and draw upon the characteristics of foliage and the reflective quality of water.
Consuming the painting becomes a more involved viewing experience, as Halaby’s ability to imaginatively reinterpret colour and forms invites the viewer to participate in completing the picture by drawing on new associations.
Helal’s abstraction echoes in a similar direction. The Syrian artist employs approaches that blur the line between painting and assemblage. Incorporating painting with other media in his Night on the Mountain, Helal builds elaborate textures that seem to pierce off the canvas apparently representing the waterways that have endured through the rise and fall of civilisations.
Expanding on the idea of regeneration present in Helal’s work, Azzam’s painting depicting a decimated building in his homeland of Syria seems a stark contrast. The piece, which is part of his Storeys series, seems an explicit reflection on the horrors of war. Through his intricate brushwork and bleak palette, Azzam emphasises the violence while confronting the viewer with the tragic details of destruction.
Pirhashemi’s photorealist portrait invites an element of visual drama. Pirhashemi considers the role of women within contemporary Iranian society as the artist examines the complexities of power. In Vitruvian Woman, Pirhashemi portrays a defiant female protagonist who attempts to break free as two other women pull her off in different directions in straitjackets.
“When we looked at our roster of artists to organise the exhibition, we selected painters whose work is difficult to place in the sense that their approaches are distinctive and can be viewed among a number of international movements,” Farhat said. “While the content of the work is crucial to the show, we were more interested in how each artist approached his or her subject matter.”
She explained: “It’s interesting because although they aren’t a circle of artists in a traditional sense, they are all well-versed in the development of painting across centuries and come to similar conclusions because in a sense this is where painting is in terms of its international progression.”
Dahoul’s piece from his Dream series seems a timely addition to the show. Using allegorical representations to address the refugee crisis, the Syrian artist intensifies feelings of solitude and rejection by casing an alienated figure in a foggy sea who appears to drift in hopeless isolation.
“In the future, we might look to Safwan’s work to understand the abject sense of isolation or abandonment that was experienced by displaced populations or those struggling to survive in places like war-torn Syria or Iraq,” Farhat said.
Although the works stem from different perspectives and approaches, at the core of the show the idea of the power of art as a tool of intervention seems to permeate. Placed within the context of an increasingly tumultuous time, the works offer a breath of fresh air and room for reflection.
Farhat said: “Whether representing these issues with abstraction, allegory or expressionism, I think most artists in the region feel compelled to respond to this specific moment in time in some way, whether addressing the pain of it, the sorrow endured or the destruction. Art can intervene by offering a space of contemplation. It can also serve to record or document a specific moment.”
Painting Across Generations is scheduled to remain on view through March 31st at the Ayyam Gallery in Beirut.
- Jimmy Dabbagh is a journalist based in Beirut and contributes cultural articles to The Arab Weekly.
- Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly.