BEIRUT: What do gangly television antennae, fragile orchids, a crude magician, a few jagged edges of drywall and a ceramic heap resembling primordial sludge have in common? In the context of "Less Roses," an exhibition of new works by six contemporary artists on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, they all, each in their own way, speak to the city of Beirut and its peculiar urban condition.
Curated by German photographer Elger Esser, "Less Roses" gives shape, image and form to a quality of the Lebanese capital that cannot really be captured or represented - its simultaneous ability to attract and repel. Those who love Beirut as they hate it, who relish its chaos as they complain of its lawlessness and who bask in its beauty as they bemoan its decline and decay will have no problem grasping the immediacy and relevance of this show.
Perhaps because he is an artist rather than a curator, Esser has organized an exhibition of gestures. From work to work, "Less Roses" has touch where shows assembled by non-artists would rely more heavily on theory or intellectual thought. And perhaps because there are less artists than usual on view, the exhibition feels tighter and more concise than past shows mounted at the gallery.
On paper the six participating artists - Moritz Altmann, born in 1975 and based in Hamburg; Yto Barrada, born in 1971 and based between Paris and Tangier; Esser, born in 1967 and based in Dusseldorf; Peter Hopkins, born in 1955 and based in New York; Glen Rubsamen, born in 1957 and based in Dusseldorf; and Felix Schramm, born in 1970 and based in Dusseldorf - have little in common. They are bound together neither by generation nor geography. The fact that three live in the same German city does little to explain or justify their varied artistic concerns.
Instead, what joins them together is simply the feel of their work, their exploration of a rather well-worn theme - beauty - and their perseverance in following it through to its end, across some invisible, liminal threshold to ruin and wreckage.
"Less Roses" opens with a site-specific sculptural installation by Felix Shramm, who spent eight days creating a work that literally ruptures a room at the gallery's entrance. Inspired by the idea of architecture gone brutally but productively awry, Schramm has pierced walls with ragged planes and chipped paint. Seizing on the fact that Galerie Sfeir-Semler, as an art space, adheres to the white cube model, Schramm has disrupted it with a large-scale sculpture that, though stationary, seems to twist and shift depending on how and from where one looks at it.
Peter Hopkins' paintings are also changelings. Hopkins uses industrial materials and everyday household liquids in lieu of traditional paints to create monochromatic works that catch and refract light to such an extent that the colors change as one passes by.
Along the back end of the gallery, Moritz Altmann's ceramics, both baroque and grotesque, rest on clean white platforms like an oversized collection of nightmarish Hummel figurines. Altmann, fresh out of art school, has frozen forms that recall the oozing fluids of a Matthew Barney production as if they had spilled out of an ostentatious set of fine china.
Glen Rubsamen's vibrant, hyper-realistic paintings of groovy, gradated blue skies and orange sunsets are marred by the black silhouettes of electrical wires and television antennae. Likewise, Yto Barrada's wallpaper and photographs depict seemingly sublime landscapes critically mucked up by traces of poverty, depravation and the vast income discrepancies being caused by cookie-cutter real-estate development in the third world.
Barrada's pieces in "Less Roses" are part of a larger project delving into species of irises that are disappearing from present-day Tangier, and as such, they link up to Esser's precious yet enormous curiosity cabinets based on a kind of pictorial journey through Lebanon in search of endangered wild orchids.
The work that steels the show, however, is the one that is most anomalous to the rest - an 18-minute video by Barrada called "The Magician," from 2003. Unfussy and uncomplicated, Barrada films her titular character as he pops eggs out of his mouth, wrestles a scraggly chicken to sleep and other tricks of the street-side trade. Between what are clearly arduous takes, he lets his facade fall and drags heavily from a cigarette stuffed deep in the crease between his index and middle fingers. As in all of the works in "Less Roses," magic, like beauty, has worn thin and become forced, yet it still crackles with occasional brilliance.
"Less Roses" is on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler through November 1. For more information, please call +961 1 566 550