BEIRUT: Five days before the opening of her latest exhibition, Lea Sednaoui threw a Bollywood-themed birthday party in a cleaned-up Karantina warehouse.
Sednaoui, 25, celebrates her own birthday in August, so the bash wasn’t for her but the space itself, and for the artists, friends and supporters who have helped make it one of Beirut’s more interesting, under-the-radar galleries for two years now. “Galleries never celebrate their anniversaries,” Sednaoui says with a frown. “But I thought it was important.” Anyway, she adds, “it was fun.”
Since opening the Running Horse Contemporary Art Space in May 2009, Sednaoui has done many things that galleries don’t usually do, such as creating a quarterly publication and offering weekend art history classes for kids. She has formulated an exhibition program based on gutsy intuition alone, and nudged it into the difficult business of buying and selling art, of which she had virtually no experience when she started.
The deceptively deep, street-level space that houses the Running Horse used to be Sednaoui’s studio. Before that, it was a wood factory, and before that it was a storage depot for Sleep Comfort, the enormous furniture emporium that serves as the gallery’s best landmark for lost visitors.
After studying sculpture at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, Sednaoui returned to Beirut intending to make her own work and live the life of an emerging artist.
“Initially I came here to practice sculpture, and this was my studio,” she says. “Opening the gallery came from a need to bring people and art together. I came back and all of my friends and acquaintances were gone – to do their master’s degrees abroad or whatever. It was difficult finding myself here on my own every day. I was very rigorous with a schedule to produce, but it was tough.”
A year later, she did minimal renovations, lined up a few exhibitions, opened her studio to the public and called it a gallery. That’s when the hard work began and Sednaoui’s willpower kicked in.
The gallery today has a total staff of two, plus two freelance designers and a multitalented handyman who does everything from electrical wiring to installing new work. The space feels at once like a project, a playroom and a highly professional gallery, which acknowledges the white-cube model but gives it a more welcoming vibe.
The Running Horse has staged 16 shows to date, a staggering number considering that many of them have involved artists mounting their first exhibitions ever.
Sednaoui’s program balances solo outings with group shows, which are usually based on an idea (such as femininity in the exhibition “Counting Thoughts”), a medium (“Soft Sculpture, or the Ordinary Reinterpreted”), or a place (“Under Radar Revelation,” a show of six emerging Iranian artists staged last fall).
Even the solo shows tend to emphasize a single project or a concrete body of work rather than giving a general overview of an artist’s oeuvre.
Over the last two years, Sednaoui has assembled a stable of local and international artists with little hype or hoopla. The core group – which she refers to as “The Running Talents” – includes Rasha Kahil, Hiba Kalache, Karen Kalou, Carlo Keshishian and Alfred Tarazi, all of whom were relatively untested or unknown when the gallery first presented their work to Beirut’s notably skeptical art-going public.
One of the things setting the Running Horse apart from other galleries in Lebanon is the extent to which Sednaoui puts the works she chooses to show before the name, reputation or profitability of the artists who make them. Although difficult to pin down, the gallery has definitely developed a coherent aesthetic across different media, from paintings, drawings and sculptures to photography, video and installation. All of the exhibiting artists produce works with a sense of humor, a slightly obsessive style and a tendency toward intimate engagements with the viewer.
The current exhibition, “Desires, Nightmares and Dreams II,” for example, features a marvelous installation of dazzling pencil drawings by the Japanese artist Emi Miyashita. A classmate of Sednaoui’s at Central Saint Martins, Miyashita specializes in surreal landscapes with sexual organs in place of hills, trees or a mountain crevice. These set pieces are minuscule, and the figures arranged among them are even smaller, such that each drawing comes equipped with an elaborate magnifying glass, pulling viewers in for a closer look.
A playful approach to sexuality is another common attribute of the Running Horse aesthetic. The next exhibition, opening June 20, features Rasha Kahil’s spiky photographs, for which she sets up her camera with a timer in people’s apartments. As soon as they leave her alone – whether for a minute to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water – she strips off all her clothes, strikes a poses and takes a picture of herself naked in their domestic milieu.
Like previous shows, “Desires, Nightmares and Dreams II” also offers a witty and decidedly contemporary take on sculpture. While other galleries occasionally show conventional works in stone, wood or clay, Sednaoui is exhibiting a series of hilariously painted Russian dolls by Keshishian, her second cousin, and a devastatingly funny piece called “Dammit,” by Greely Myatt, of an ice cream cone rendered in plaster and wood, the size true to life, installed face down on the floor.
Sednaoui discovered this Mississippi-born, Memphis-based artist at an art fair in Miami, where Myatt was showing a mischievous metal sculpture of empty comic strip speech bubbles – a sly critique of the pointless chatter that animates the commercial end of art-world events.
When asked if she ever regretted giving up her own work as a sculptor, Sednaoui says, “It took me a while to come to the conclusion that it’s either/or. But I do believe a gallery is very personal, so whatever I show is part of a vision, a taste, an opinion. I use it creatively.
“For me it’s very important to show things you really like even if they don’t fit a historical or geographical context. It’s really about an identity more than anything else – an identity for the space and also for the work, because it’s about creating an opportunity for the work to come through. If you can’t do this through art – break all boundaries – then how do you evolve?”
“For some people, this could be a weird show, and weird art,” she explains, gesturing around the rooms filled with “Desires, Nightmares and Dreams II.” “But that’s cool. I mean, that’s the point. People have to be forced to see things and experience things in a different context.”
“Desires, Nightmares and Dreams II” remains on view at the Running Horse Contemporary Art Space in Karantina through June 15. For more information, please call 01-562-778 or visit www.therunninghorseart.com