BEIRUT: Male nudes tend to take a back seat to their female counterparts in the history of figurative art. Sure, there are all those statues of David and versions of the pieta. But variations on a reclining odalisque or Venus on a half shell are far more common, relegating men's bared bodies to random niches - Robert Mapplethorpe's photography, for example, or paintings that take up athleticism and heroism as their themes.
Outside Gibran Khalil Gibran's riffs on William Blake, the traditions of Lebanese painting from the 19th century up to the present likewise champion the female nude - consider Hussein Madi's angular, voluminous women; Jamil Molaeb's softer, more sensual reclining nude studies; or the chilling female nakedness built into Mohamed Rawas' recent, meticulous and nearly architectural compositions.
Wissam Beydoun's current exhibition at Espace SD, then, piques some curiosity. "Mouvements," as the show is called, features nearly 30 figurative paintings in mixed media, all of them men, all of them nude. A triptych of male wrestlers set against the back wall of the Gemmayzeh gallery brings the exhibition's emphasis on exerted masculinity to the brim.
Beydoun, however, is quick to counter fast conclusions about his present body of work. He also insists that despite the resemblance - Beydoun, like the men in his paintings, is tall with huge sad eyes and a bald pate - he doesn't paint himself over and over again and isn't engaged in an exercise of extreme narcissism.
"There are a lot of faces here," Beydoun says, scanning the room. "But they are not self-portraits. They may look like me" - he frowns - "and people ask: 'Why men?' But I consider them all to be one human being with different expressions, different feelings around him and what he's living through. And I mean human being with a capital H."
"Mouvements" marks Beydoun's second solo show in Beirut. His first, held at the French Cultural Center on Damascus Road, featured collages with textiles and heavier materials. Though he earned a bachelor's degree in fine art in 1986, Beydoun has only turned to painting seriously - and to exhibiting seriously - in the last five years.
In the mid-1980s, he was part of group that pioneered the field of Arabic comics. "We were six people doing cartoons," he recalls. "We exhibited in France and in Lebanon. But then everyone went his own way and I focused on painting."
Beydoun incorporates oils, acrylics, oil stick, ink and the occasional swatch of fabric in his current paintings, which use paper, canvas and wood for support. "I do everything myself," he says. "I stretch the canvas, prime the canvas, I would like to start mixing my own colors. Every texture gives you a certain feeling, a certain emotion when you're looking at it. Everything you have to feel and touch.
"I paint every day," he adds when asked about his studio practice. "It's like a discipline. You have to draw and paint every day. I paint mostly from memory. I don't have a model and I don't want to have a model. I don't see many exhibitions, just the card or the poster, so as not to be influenced. You have the materials and you use them."
Nearly all the paintings on view at Espace SD have two-toned backdrops, sky and ground. The figures set against those horizon lines express a kaleidoscope of emotions - rage, anguish, melancholy, solitude, calm.
"We are all stuck on the ground," Beydoun notes. "Eventually everyone tends to go upward - a certain spirituality. So I paint the struggle to go up while being stuck on the ground. The ground is important. When this human being is tired, he falls down on the ground, becomes one with the earth."
In several of Beydoun's paintings, his human figure sinks down into repose. In two, the curves of his body appear like craggy rock formations or mountains. In one, he curls into fetal position, save one extended leg, his flesh rendered in vibrant colors and earth tones. In another, his pale body seeps into what looks like a field of wheat, prodding the viewer to wonder whether he is asleep or dead.
Otherwise, Beydoun paints his men standing, often defiant in their posture, flecked with hues of red that suggest anger.
"He is always standing and affirming that he is standing," the artist says. "He is standing despite everything that is going on around him."
To have an exhibition on view during a time of acute political turmoil when no one is really wrapping their head around art, and in a city that never seems to escape episodes of violence, whether random or all-consuming, means Beydoun need not explain too much about the context of his work, or the troubles that addle his figures.
"I was born in Lebanon and I have always lived in Lebanon, except for a few years in Paris and Dubai. I've lived 30 years of war and it's still coming," he laughs ruefully. "And they want me not to scream and shout?"
It says something about the contemporary art scene that so many people have advised Beydoun to pursue chirpier themes. The mainstream art discourse in Beirut is such that anguish, however real, has little place because it is considered a commercial dead end.
"People tell me not to go into this because you cannot sell it. It's hard. It's violent. I don't know if anyone would want to see this every day. I don't think anyone would like to see women with all these expressions, although more and more they are living through all this, too," he adds.
"I have three daughters and I asked the smallest about my paintings. I said: 'Do you like?' And she said: 'No, it's all akhbar, because for her the news is all bad. So I asked her what she thought I should paint, and she told me flowers and butterflies."
Wissam Beydoun's "Mouvements" is on view at Espace SD through February 3. For more information, please call +961 1 563 114