Adrift in spacetime with Tamara Al Samerraei

Tamara Al Samerraei not only toes but also often smashes the line between the very bold and the very delicate — or even the almost erased. When both modes collide meaningfully, she conjures up a sense of suspense, a sense that’s something’s happened that you’ve missed out on, of mystery, of tragedy. In her latest exhibition, What Floats in Space, Al Samerraei does achieve this a few times. Loneliness still pervades throughout transparencies, and drama arises from thick brushstrokes juxtaposed to translucent quasi-architectural zones.

 
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To be literal, few things floated in space throughout the show, for dripping and melting only underscores the earthy nature of things, pulled down by gravity. Still, Al Samerraei’s paintings are anchored nowhere, all the while evoking familiar places we’ve seen or rather seen represented, but we can’t remember where. There’s a desert, maybe a high-end apartment, at some point a nod to outer space; the locations straddle the generic and the barely recognizable, allowing, yet frustrating one’s projection into them.

The process of revelation of the forgotten object should be what interests us, writes Loïc Le Gall in the curatorial text. But objects are never fully revealed.  They anchor the eye in the process of sliding into a no-man’s-land hidden in some timeless memory, and are simultaneously reconstructed through the mind as hesitant snapshots. Neither real nor imaginary, they slide between physicality and a strange will to vanish by dripping or fading.

 
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The persistent dripping, in fact, only adds to the paintings’ characteristic wetness. Al-Samerraei’s brushstrokes look like they won’t dry, her bodies are mermaids, her plants exude humidity. At the same time, there is a sense of decay permeating through her works, especially in the greyish, corpse-like bodies, which is perversely eye-catching. Strangely, Dalí’s Persistence of Memory came to mind,  in the way place is undefinable yet recognizable, time and memory are elusive concepts, and a sense of anguish prevails.

In one painting, a nude woman reclines in an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, connoting visibility and vulnerability. We’re peeping over the plants and the sculptures over the bedsheets. The living room’s dematerialized to put the spotlight, ostensibly, on nothing. The woman is not the immediate focus, but Al Samerraei brings us back to her, her dramas, her dreams. She pits the spiky against the smooth and the curvy, unsettling our promenade throughout the scene. She makes us anxious, working with the most banal of material. Elsewhere, shadows lurk behind potted plants, themselves threatened by an abstract green zone ominously creeping upwards, while golden rays of light enhance games of reflection on a balcony, and tensions emerges out of quietness, and are at once time deflated by vertical drips. Yet, despite a few highlights, Al-Samerraei's recurring template of layering graphic transparent zones, dripping paint and thick brushstrokes meant that the formulaic lurked not far behind.

Tamara Al Samerraei (b. 1977, Kuwait), lives and works in Beirut.

What Floats in Space is on show until August 31, 2019, at Marfa’,  Beirut.