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When light is red and black is bright
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BEIRUT: Walking into Hamra’s Agial gallery this month you might be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back in time to a medieval torture chamber.

“Wounds,” an exhibition of 13 mixed-media paintings by Lebanese artist Youssef Aoun, is a series of primarily black, white and red works which hint at the human form amid splashes and sweeps of thick, visceral red – the rusty color of drying blood.

Aoun’s intention was not to depict human suffering or violence. Rather the paintings comment on the role of art in the modern world.“The title of the exhibition concerns painting ... it concerns the communication of painting with others,” he says. “It’s the wounding of art on the part of the world and on behalf of other domains in art. For the last five years we have been saying painting is dead ... On the contrary, I think that as long as there are walls there will be painting.”

The work, he stresses, is not related to regional politics. “My painting is a social and cultural mission ... not political,” he says. “I am against that. It’s a communication with others.”

Aoun uses sand, metal, jute sacking and other scavenged materials to give his paintings texture. “I was a child of the war, I grew up in the bomb shelters,” he explains. “In the 1990s after the war had finished I started gathering broken things, little morsels. This exhibition was inspired by that period.”

These textures render his paintings three-dimensional. Each canvas undulates with dips and hummocks – a miniature landscape created by paint so thickened with sand it sometimes cracks open, revealing raw insides.

“Torn Apart,” is a beautiful black-and-white study, accented – as are many of Aoun’s paintings – by a series of vivid red slashes.

The deep gray canvas is bisected by a vertical line. At the base, a crisscrossing series of thick, charcoal black brushstrokes create the impression of wood laid out, ready to be burned. Above, a hunched black shape, topped by a rough oval, gives the impression of a human figure. Around the torso vivid, whip-thin lines of deep red form a rough binding or an exposed rib cage.

These dark shapes are silhouetted against a luminous pillar of white and pale grays, as if a spotlight were shining down from above on the figure, which may be tied, ready to be burned alive, or may be hanging, chest torn open.

Aoun insists he didn’t set out to make his work unsettling. “In the end the work overtakes the idea,” he says. “The red is blood, but it’s not blood. For me it’s light ... For me the black is a light, with the red. I see a lot more at night than in the day. In the daytime the light kills all the details, but at night you see easily.”

Though based on the human figure, his paintings don’t depict a specific scene. “In my opinion, everything is abstract and there is no abstraction,” he says. “It’s like the idea of God. We see nothing, but on the strength of praying we create a contact outside the physical – painting for me is the same thing.”

Granted, Aoun’s paintings are disturbing – whether intentionally or not.

“Don’t get me wrong. I like them,” one visitor remarked. “But if I had one in my house I couldn’t sleep at night.”

They are, however, also beautiful. Despite their dark shades, they possess an almost otherworldly luminescence, not out of place on the walls of any room.

Youssef Aoun’s “Wounds” is up at Hamra’s Agial gallery until the end of July. For more information please call 01-345-213.

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