BEIRUT: Few Beirut-based artists paint in a style as instantly recognizable as Flavia Codsi. No one who has been traipsing through gallery shows for the past five years or so, or attending the Sursock Museum's autumn salon, could mistake a Codsi canvas for a creation by anyone else. The powerful formal consistency and technical precision of her large-scale, hyper-realist paintings are rivaled only by those of her brother Fulvio. He also makes large-scale, hyper-realist paintings, but he gives them a distinctly futuristic twist and has a greater affinity for metallic paints that catch and reflect light.
Still, nearly four years have passed since Flavia Codsi last staged a solo exhibition in Lebanon. Her show at Espace SD in the fall of 2003 featured many huge, full-bodied portraits of men and women depicted in various scenes of struggle - internal, external and existential, their bodies braced against sleeping or waking, dreams or nightmares or an oft-repeated, metaphoric gust of wind that stood in for all manner of forceful emotions and circumstances.
Now, Codsi returns for a bout of sustained public viewing with a show of 12 new canvases at Aida Cherfan Fine Art in Downtown Beirut. Enticingly titled "Fructivores," the exhibition marks a continuation in terms of style but a departure in terms of mood.
Gone are the tortured anxieties, and in their place Codsi has painted expressions that cover the happier, more exuberant end of the emotional spectrum, all thanks to her decision to delve into the relationship between people and, well, fruit.
"This show was originally planned for last year," says Codsi. "But I wasn't ready in time for summer, and then there was the July war, and after that I wasn't in the mood at all."
Looking up at the paintings she has just finished hanging on the gallery walls, she explains, "This wasn't what I was living then at all."
In one painting that hangs in the gallery window, a mesmerizing young woman stares out intently as she lifts a handful of mulberries to her fruit-stained lips. In another, the graphic designer Raya Khalaf massacres an enormous watermelon. In yet another, the artist and publisher Nadine Touma throws her head back to drop a single, ripe cherry into her mouth. Codsi's relationship between people and fruit carries a lusty charge, emphasizing loud, defiant living that is good for you, too.
Because Beirut is a small city and the art scene even smaller, visitors to Aida Cherfan will likely recognize all of Codsi's subjects, including her husband, whom she has posed in a heavy scarf, seated at a long table before a battalion of halved oranges, clearly warding off a cold with a serious dose of vitamin C.
Codsi says such face recognition is all in good fun - "It's fun to recognize people you know," she says, "and I am surrounded by beautiful people so it's a pleasure to represent them in my art" - but it fades as soon as one hones in on the remarkable detail of her brushwork - the activated bones of a hand, the striated muscles of a forearm, the folds of fabric and gathered seams of a dress.
Codsi considered holding her show in the fall or winter, but she eventually decided, due to her current themes, colors and preoccupations, to wait until spring.
"Now, I think the mood is right," she says, with an emphasis on think. It is difficult to rewind the clock and remember the atmosphere in Beirut a year ago, but Codsi gives it a shot. "Before the July war, there was a lot of positive energy in town, a lot of projects happening, a lot of excitement and prosperity. For me, fruit is a sign of prosperity, of healthiness and well-being."
Roughly half the paintings in "Fructivores" were completed in 2006. The rest are from 2007. Although Codsi's show opens in 30 hours, she says she is still finishing one last piece, which will bring the final count to 13.
"It's a small one," she reassures. "I'm a bit of a slow worker. I like to take my time. I like to be in the right mood."
As for the overall mood of "Fructivores," she says: "I am in that phase of my life. I am happy," she laughs, "but that doesn't mean I am going to stick to painting fruit. I have painted fruit before, but as trompe l'oeil. Here, I wanted to [use] a different approach than the traditional still life. I wanted to capture a passionate relationship," she says, "like taking a bite out of life."
Codsi never went to art school and is entirely self-taught. Without a wince she says she began painting as a hobby, though she admits that while she still enjoys painting very much, "it's not something I do in my spare time anymore."
Her process begins with an idea she seizes onto and visualizes fully, a mental image she sees in exquisite detail.
"I make a small sketch on regular A4 paper, and then I try to find the person who best corresponds," she says.
When she finds the right subject, they meet in her studio. Codsi poses them and takes a series of photographs, including close-up shots of, say, their hands. Then she uses the photographs to redraw the image on a large scale.
Once painting begins, Codsi commits her backgrounds quickly, applying one or two layers of paint to the primed canvas with a knife. She makes her backgrounds deliberately abstract so her figures will pop and stand out more.
Codsi paints primarily in oils, though she occasionally uses acrylics. She keeps her color palette limited to red, yellow and blue, in addition to black and white, though for the "Fructivores" series she also used turquoise, lime yellow and fuchsia for contrast.
What saves the current exhibition from being mere confection, albeit of a healthy kind, is the fact that Codsi's paintings don't festishize fruit. Her natural sweeteners fuel the kind of mad energy of someone who gets punched in the face, shakes it off and laughs. Her subjects exude relentless will.
Their indulgence in watermelons, apples, mulberries, bananas, oranges, cherries and more may be the imagined excesses of an artist who must exercise restraint in reality. In 1995, Codsi suddenly developed adult-onset diabetes. She is, as she explains, insulin-dependent. As a result she must stick to a strict regimen when it comes to her own fruit intake.
"I can have one apple, two clementines, or 10 grapes, but no more," she says. "Maybe I chose [this subject] unconsciously because it's something I can't actually do."
Flavia Codsi's "Fructivores" is on view at Aida Cherfan Fine Art in Downtown Beirut through June 8. For more information, please call +961 1 983 111