Al Kuwaitiah  

Sunday, August 25, 2019

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The art of painting and erasing the subject
In the middle of the 20th century American artist Robert Rauschenberg approached an older colleague, Dutch-born abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, and asked if he could erase one of his drawings.
De Kooning agreed, and in so doing collaborated in one of the pivotal, certainly one of the more amusing, moments in the history of contemporary art.
The piece that emerged from Rauschenberg’s labor was “Erased De Kooning Drawing,” 1953, a gilt-framed paper work whose principle features were the few residues of the original work that the younger artist chose to leave, or proved unable to remove.
That work has proven resonant for several reasons. For one thing, it profoundly embodied the theme of absence – a central motif of contemporaneity – and, in this case, an act of destruction as deliberate as the more conventionally artistic act of creation. The work was also striking because, without the narrative reflected in its title, it was utterly indecipherable.
It’s easy to project the benevolent spirit of Rauschenberg upon “Rehearsals for a Setting,” the most recent solo show by Lebanese artist Omar Fakhoury, up at Agial Gallery.
These 20 acrylics have a strong common theme. The canvases are all depictions of plinths – those bases upon which statues are erected. As the titles of individual works inform you, Fakhoury’s pieces are modeled on existing statues of “great men” scattered around the country.
The statues themselves have been excised from Fakhoury’s work.
Not just anyone gets a statue erected to him. By their nature, public statues are memorials and many of the titles in Fakhoury’s series allude to gestures of power common to the political classes – “Man Holding a Cigar,” “Two Men Holding Flags, Chains and Weapons,” “Man Holding the Constitution,” “Man Raising his Finger.”
Less frequently, other titles – “Weeds,” say, or “Empty” – seem to reflect upon the political figures’ lingering legacy upon the political landscape their memorials occupy. Scrutinising these ensembles of canvas, acrylic and narrative gesture, it’s tempting the see them as critique of the country’s vaudevillian political system as much as aesthetic baubles.
This series complements Fakhoury’s 2015 “Le Socle du Monde” (the base of the world), the discreetly poisonous sculpture the artist contributed to “On Water, Rosemary and Mercury,” the group show Christine Tohmé curated at the Beirut Art Center a few months back.
That work was an oversized cuboid plinth painted with naphthalene – the stuff that’s used to make mothballs – which has proven toxic to vertebrates. The “plinth” was large enough to serve as the base of a fair sized statue but it was enclosed within a false room that was so small and low-ceilinged as to preclude the putative statue.
Though these canvases are less imposing than “Le Socle du Monde,” they are more complex, post-Rauschenberg, creations. Not content to simply omit the statues from his depictions of pedestals, the artist renders base and statue both, then literally rinses the latter from the canvas, leaving the colors bleached and dripping.
This discrete removal of hitherto central images from media is oddly reminiscent of “Recollection,” the most-recent work of Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari, in which he takes Israeli fiction and documentary films shot in Jaffa and removes the central figures, to unveil and highlight the landscapes and incidental figures on the margins.
Fakhoury isn’t a new media artist. He works with inoffensive traditional media – here acrylic paint and canvas – and his themes are not obscurely aesthetic.
Yet, in its exploration of public memorials (a touchstone for a good deal of arresting work in the past decade or so), the work’s themes are utterly contemporary.
The jagged edge concealed in the work comprising “Rehearsals for a Setting” is given some practical, historical and critical disclosure in the essay Lebanese curator Amanda Abi Khalil has contributed to the exhibition catalogue. It’s a slim but significant publication, which ought to help shore up Fakhoury’s stature long after this show shuts.
 
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