May round-up: emerging and rising artists

May came and went without causing much of a stir — or it’s my fault for missing out on potentially great shows.  Most exhibitions left me unfazed when I was looking for challenges. I want to see bold, unconventional art, works with meaning, yet not willingly abstruse. I’m bored with the exasperatingly inoffensive, be it polished pieces that cater to the lowest common denominator, or fabrications disguised as avant-garde. Perhaps I should be content with the mere fact that things are happening in Beirut. Galleries surge left and right, and others plan to open; museums multiply; local auctions boast record numbers; artists are well nurtured; foundations and collections compete for attention; the media (including myself) report on it all. And, still, the mood remains lethargic, even depressed, likely a reflection of the country’s dire economic straits.

Time for a lighting round of capsule reviews of a few artists and works that caught my eye this month:

Because they could be the future ~

It’s too often obvious in exhibitions of emerging artists  (although I have yet to see what Haven for Artists is presenting at the Institut Français) that they feel bound to work within norms of what they think universities, institutions, and residencies prefer.  


Vanessa Gemayel’s recent show at Art Lab, Une Mélodie dans mon bleu, by contrast, is refreshing. Eschewing the usual art school route, the painter abandoned her MFA to pursue her own path. Her paintings have autobiographical roots and underscore the importance of music to the artist,  inscribing them in a historical line drawing affinities between the two arts. Her colors, sometimes jewel-like, at others verging on garish, oscillating between the very hot and the very cold, enter a gestural dialogue pointing to a kind of synesthesia. Her landscapes shimmer under the moon or the sun; houses, trees and mountains build up in layers, while human beings only appear furtively. Certain paintings made more of an impact, while other deserved some editing, but the collection did succeed in telling a story, and unabashedly reflected a quest for unfettered expression outside the constraints of what’s fashionable today, affirming Gemayel's commitment to her vision, and the courage to pour her heart out, let the viewer into her inner emotional  turbulences. Gemayel might be a naive —  she’s part of the collection of the Musée International d’art naïf Anatole Jakovsky in Nice, France – Centre Jean-Dominique Jacquemond but she’s very much self-aware. One to watch outside the beaten paths.


At CUB, Nadine Kanawati, a fresh MA graduate from the Lebanese University’s fine arts program,  proposed textured paintings mixing paint with tire powder, creating abstract compositions in gold and shades of grey and black. Many of the compositions evoked volcanoes, fires, and the aftermath of disasters, bringing to mind post-apocalyptic landscapes, although their aesthetics were not exactly novel. There’s perhaps an environmental message, and definitely a hopeful one, trying to figure out glimpses of light within contemporary anarchy.  Kanawati’s small formats, and round canvases, an underutilized format existing since the Renaissance, were more efficient, for they created peeping holes into larger abstract scenes. The concept yields less to the large-scale, which looks dated.


Because nature, technology, and the future of mankind should be pondered ~

An unfairly overlooked venue that has featured several good surprises in the past few months, Station Beirut hosted The Natural, the (Un)Cleansed and the Foreign, a collaboration between Lebanese and Slovenian artists, explored the intersection between nature, technology, and human being. An eager DIY spirit permeated the show, for better or for worse. It was a case where the works needed to be taken in before reading the very detailed curatorial statement, lest it hamper the enjoyment of the show, but which was nevertheless to make sense of them and engage with the discourse. Charbel Samuel Aoun’s breathing bunch of burnt tree branches, And I Still Breathe, anthropologized nature to transform it into human lungs, an installation with a certain environmentalist statement — aren’ t forests the lungs of the Earth? Then, Dreams in Time, by Aoun, Perla Chaaya, Magaly Jabbour, Elie Azzi, Frederic Zreik, Joanne Nehme and Joy Sfeir, took us camping on a bed laying on tree branches, whose bedpost opposed a trumpet and a shotgun, at once annulling and amplifying both. Unfortunately, it was too loud on opening night distinguish the sounds emitted from the installation (an interview with an ex-soldier from the Lebanese forces from Hammana), but the meditation on humans becoming one with the Earth, and ideas of purity and impurity inscribed in it, came across. 

Vanessa Gemayel’s Une Mélodie dans mon bleu is on show at Art Lab, Beirut, until June 1st.
Nadine Kanawati’s The Road Ahead is on at CUB Gallery, Beirut, until June.
The Natural, the (Un)Cleansed and The Foreign ran at Station Beirut from May 10 to May 19.