exhibition review

Means of transportation to apprehend Mohammad el Rawas

Mohammad El Rawas, Train I, 1975. Oil on canvas, 198.5 x 247 cm.

Mohammad El Rawas looks at visual culture as a bottomless cornucopia of opportunities. A series of prints in the nineteen-eighties introduced his liberal appropriation of images high and low, old and new, which he merrily kept on recycling through series of Joseph Cornell-inspired boxed paintings. El Rawas stayed the course in his latest works, while also reflecting on his own artistic trajectory, showing a collection of paintings that simultaneously underscores the appeal of his artistic vision – with memorable high points – and exposes its hazards.

Mohammad El Rawas, A Domestic Scene, 2017. Oil on canvas, 130 x 140 cm.

The Lebanese artist borrows details, figures, or even entire artworks from varied, and, sometimes, clashing time periods and art genres to construct ambiguous and hybrid worlds where art historical and present time collapse in a series of visual jumps back and forth between past and present, inviting different levels of interpretation. His myriad references gravitate not only towards icons of art history — the Renaissance Masters, the Impressionists, pop artists — but also towards obscure French academic painters; they embrace the low-brow (Mangas, comic books) and the unabashedly generic (men’s interest magazines, internet stock images). Images from the past and the global present are deemed equally relevant, both visually and conceptually. By appropriating and reproducing images, El Rawas effectively empties them out of their initial meanings to give them new ones — or none at all — in contexts of his own choosing, and often associates his findings with contemporary women painted in a hyperrealist style. His recent works also find El Rawas at his most self-referential, incorporating reproductions of his early works and including elements harkening back to his early-career abstract sensibility, with dabs of free brushstroke and zones of solid color. In that sense, the paintings not only juxtapose past and present images, but also spur a time travel within his own career.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the two incontrovertible highlights of the show, the majestic Train I (1975), and its remake Train II (2016). Although Train II is not El Rawas’s first reimagining of one of his works — he had revisited The Will of God and Offerings (1989), and erased and rebuilt An Outing on Wheels (2010) — it is his most ambitious to date.

Mohammad El Rawas, Train II, 2016. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250 cm.

Train I, El Rawas’s graduation project at the Lebanese University in Beirut, is drenched in Arshile Gorky’s style, in its chaotic, yet organized, collision of stylized female bodies, faces, dangling limbs and abstract shapes in garish colors. The shock of the 1975 Lebanese war prompted El Rawas to abandon abstract expressionist-influenced art and turn to printmaking techniques instead, before developing his current approach to painting. In the meantime, Train I was lost, only to be rediscovered by chance four decades later: the reunion sparked the birth of Train II, a painting that encapsulates El Rawas’s current practice of amalgamating styles, techniques and periods, all the while reminiscing about his beginnings, thus building a bridge with the artist’s younger self. Both paintings display a sense of staging and choreography; it is as if Train II had inherited its predecessor’s dynamism, and given it structure. The color scheme carries over as well, and becomes more saturated in the process. Train II also alludes to El Rawas’s early years, with a freer brushstroke than usual, and abstract zones that structure the composition. The two paintings’ four corners are nearly identical, and the word TRAIN appears in both in capital letters. 

Everything else has been updated. Less impetuous and much more methodical than its ancestor, Train II shows off the breadth of El Rawas’s visual culture on a monumental scale. To the extreme left, there is a reproduction of a black-and-white photograph of a train conductor, akin to an inside joke winking at the seemingly arbitrary title of the original. Then, El Rawas gives life to his formerly abstracted shapes, and a plethora of figures emerge, each group of characters seemingly inhabiting a world of their own. Yet, although detached from one another, they create subtle connections within the painting and with the viewer, and force the painting’s linear reading to circle back onto itself.

On the left, a blow-up of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Philip Lucasz (1630s) and a little nineteenth-century boy appear anxious to embark the train. A doe, from the same period, direct sher attention to a gigantic female Manga character wearing only red bikini bottoms, the reincarnation of the nude figure with similar attire sitting in the middle of Train I. All false modesty, this seductress figurine doesn’t quite address us, but seems to enjoy the attention.Her hand, rendered in a cubist fashion reminiscent of the woman’s hand in Train I, motions towards the leg of a dancer: from high and middle-brow art to pop culture, we now get to an internet stock image of a couple of ballet dancers. A leg features below them, an echo of the one hanging in Train I. To their right, two sensual Oriental women (one watching the dancers, one the viewers), lead us back in to the center stage. These voluptuous inventions of French Orientalism respond to a distant third one, framed like a postcard on the left, bracketing and adding to the dancers and the Manga figurine’s sensuality.

Train II thereby exploits the tension between two moods: on the one hand, the graceful, sensuous one set by the dancers and the female characters, and, on the other, the tense one emerging around the train conductor. Then, in an ironic twist, a strange whizz sound, emitted from a flying shape, arrives to deflate the introspective solemnity of both. But Train II is above all about El Rawas himself and his art. As if the painting could not get more self-referential, he has inserted himself on the far right, under the guise of a cubist face repurposed from one of his early self-portraits, declaring the omniscience and authority of the artist over his painting, and perhaps over the entire history of visual production.

Mohammad El Rawas, Ghazl al Banat, 2018. Oil, acrylic, charcoal and graphite on canvas, 120 x 130 cm. (Detail).

As Train II – and multiple others — exemplifies, the success of El Rawas’s visual puzzles resides in their overcoming their juxtapositional nature and forging implicit interactions between protagonists of different stories, as if disparate characters had an unplanned meeting on the stage of an improbable theater, built on El Rawas’s  timeless settings, neither urban nor natural, which sometimes feature modernist architectural elements eerily evocative of futuristic ruins, framed by precarious systems of geometrical lines. El Rawas’s compositions have a narrative edge, as links and meanings emerge organically, tying together disparate characters and situations. (El Rawas has previously been called a raconteur, an eminently suitable title.) In this show, however, juxtapositions seem less deliberate and more haphazard, and spur fewer such conjectures, although the paintings An Avatar, Ghazl al Banat, and A Domestic Scene shine through. They are also the rare images where everything is paradoxically tied together, yet one still senses that something’s at stake, a feeling which El Rawas’s incongruous meetings of discrepant elements usually brought about, through a constant sense of intrigue within unexpected atmospheres, be they tense, serious, or erotic. 

Train II is also a reminder that it is womanhood that El Rawas has been celebrating all throughout his career. (One of his first paintings, in 1975, was simply titled Woman, and his last show was called Apotheosis of Woman.) El Rawas doesn’t favor a type, but champions women’s diversity, in shape, kind and attitude. Never confining women to a stereotype, he often plays on the ambiguity of his heroines’ intentions, from the demure young model, to the provocative Orientalist nude, the playful nymph, the menacing sorceress, and the sultry comic book figurine. Whether real or imaginary, mischievous,  sensual or dangerous, all are strong, intelligent, and in control. In El Rawas’s works, it is women who scrutinize, and resist and defy the voyeur, whereas male figures often look more like extras than as actors. Yet, in the recent paintings on show, the profuse preeminence of women doesn’t help women shine. Subtle plays on gazes and ingenious connections are too often replaced by stiffness. It’s not about how many different ways one can represent women, but about how they are represented: now many seem bland, inconsequential, or even superfluous. Rather, purposeless. In An Avatar, one of the exceptions, the progression flows seamlessly from the Vermeer painting, to the painted model, the red-turban-wearing model, and the sleeping Waterhouse beauty.

Mohammad El Rawas, the Masons, 2018. Oil, acrylic, graphite and charcoal on canvas, 120 x 130 cm.

El Rawas’s usual detached, cynical eye on the world is also missed. Known for his deep humanism, as reflected in his wartime works, El Rawas has been providing acerbic cultural commentary throughout the years, in too many works to count – The Institution (2000) or Sit Sown Please (2007), for instance, jump to mind. Few works on display in this show (save A Wedding Ceremony perhaps) evoked larger implications. There was, ultimately, something formulaic about the exhibition  —  women from different spacetimes apposed to a reproduction of the artist’s own work —  a conceit that sometimes felt forced. I missed El Rawas’s wit. But, fast as a comet, a train saved the show.

Mohammad El Rawas – Recent Works is on show at Saleh Barakat Gallery in Beirut until 20 April 2019.

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