BEIRUT: An afternoon with “Etel Adnan” can drive you back to basics. This exhibition of works by the eponymous artist, now up at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, offers a sketch of a long career devoted to exploring landscapes and the figures that move, fleetingly, about them. Reiterating themes and works from the Lebanese-American artist’s contribution to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel last year, the Sfeir-Semler show is comprised of paintings and tapestries, video and leporellos – her concertina-bound artist books.
Adnan is best known as a poet and painter but her curiosity has led her to experiment with other media and these, rather than chronology, premise the show’s separate units.
The east gallery, which greets visitors upon their entry, is turned over to video projection.
One wall is devoted to Vouvoula Skoura’s 2008 “Etel Adnan: Words in Exile,” a documentary primer on the artist’s life and work.
It takes its departure from her 1993 book “Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz),” comprising letters written in response to a request from Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi to write an essay on feminism.
The film mingles snippets of interview with Adnan alongside Traboulsi’s readings from “Of Cities and Women.” Dispersed throughout are the aestheticised landscapes shot by Skoura’s trio of Greek cinematographers.
Projected against the adjacent wall is Adnan’s “Motion,” 2012, a package of early Super 8 film experiments, compiled and digitized for documenta. There is not much in the way of stunning revelation here, particularly as the films’ audio may be drowned out by that of the nearby documentary.
Nevertheless it is interesting to see how the artist has applied the Super 8 lens to landscape features she usually explores via other media. Considered intimate by filmic standards, Super 8 offers a far more distant remove than that afforded by Adnan’s poetry and visual art.
Much of the gallery – its southern and western exhibition rooms – have been turned over to Adnan’s paintings and tapestries, with the show heavily weighted toward the former.
The pieces in “Etel Adnan” are hung without exhibit tags – as if assuming the public has a certain familiarity with (or indifference to) Adnan’s individual works.
If asked, the gallery’s helpful staff will point out that a handful of the paintings on show here (the first ones a viewer encounters) date from 1965-70, while most emerged between 2010 and 2013. The tapestries on show apparently follow a slightly different chronological logic.
All these brightly colored oils evince Adnan’s fascination with rereading and re-representing landscape.
The elemental differences suggested by the horizon line are denoted by strong juxtapositions of color.
In some cases, topographic details are depicted as parallel bands of color. In those that depict (usually solitary) mountains, faulting is represented as blocks of solid color slicing perpendicular through the horizon line, suggesting a myopic detail from an elaborate crystal pattern only visible beyond the frame.
Suspended above, like Jupiter’s perpetually mutable storm cloud, a sun, or moon looks slightly misshapen in the atmosphere.
In the early paintings there is a textural quality that was later abandoned in favor of near photographic flatness. Later, Adnan’s urge to combine incongruous color with a more tactile media seems to have expressed itself in her tapestries. A few can be found here, displayed vertically on the walls and horizontally, on plinths.
Adnan has observed a basic similarity of approach in her poetry and visual art – that the words deployed in her poetry and the forms wielded in her art aspire to a specificity that transcends the specific.
The remark offers some insight into her artist books – leporellos as the gallery literature terms them – several of which occupy a prominent place in Sfeir-Semler’s southern room.
These works evince a lingering interest in the tactile aspect of visual art, while echoing the anti-monumental quality of Adnan’s paintings and fabrics – most of which could easily be tucked under one arm for transportation.
Objects of color and form, the concertinas also often feature Adnan’s Arabic handwriting, betraying Arabic (and to an extent Iranian) modernism’s persistent interest in the written word as a form embedded with explicit and implicit meaning.
There are eight artist books on display, each sitting on its own shelf. The shelving is too short to display the longer works in their entirety, however, so the displays invite handling. With the want of exhibit tags, this is the best way to discern their names and content.
All the artist books feature white paper adorned by bands of watercolor. At intervals a black-painted figure is rendered in the midst of a fold. Within these rigid formal constraints, there is a notable degree of variation among individual works.
“Shajar” (Trees) and “Mountain,” both from 2012, are figurative exercises with black brushstrokes. The first depicts trees in a series of vertical lines. In the latter, daubs of black paint resembling mountaintops emerge from mist-like white.
The more vibrant “Signs and Colours” (Paris 2013) consists of black forms individually framed by bands of bright watercolor.
Most of the concertinas feature text but the use of the written word varies from piece to piece.
The playful “Al-Bahr” (The Sea, 2012) consists of an incessant repetition of this word, juxtaposed with color and ephemeral forms like beach toys.
Others reproduce books of poetry, handwritten and adorned by washes and strong abstract figuration, but they’re not Adnan’s own poems.
“Rasm wa Khat” (Drawing and Line, 2012) reproduces a book of poetry by Onsi al-Hajj, dated 1994, with individual poems interspersed among abstract figures resembling Xs and Os and illuminated by bands of watercolor.
It is one of two collaborations with Onsi. Another more painterly effort, dated 2013, is untitled but for Hajj’s name. More colorful than most of Adnan’s other text-driven works, it renders individual words in hues other than black and sets them against handsome washes, offset with strident abstract figures resembling signs of the western zodiac.
A third artist book from 2013 stages “Al-Sayf wa al-Burj al-’azra” (The Sword and Virgo) a work of verse by Issam Mahfouz, dated 1962.
Perhaps the strongest of the leporellos is entitled “Kalimat” (Words, 2012). Every other pair of sheets formed by the folded paper is adorned by a series of apparently random Arabic words and numbers, highlighted by washes of watercolor. These are framed by rough-hewn figures that resemble Chinese pictograms.
Adnan’s concertinas speak to the common labor of poets and visual artists. Forms are apprehended upon a landscape, stewed and sieved through folds of membrane until a written or visual language congeals about them.
Conflating formal obsessions that span the whole of her practice, they can be seen as her creative apogee.
‘Etel Adnan’ is up at Sfeir-Semler Gallery until Oct. 26. For more information see www.sfeir-semler.com or call 01-566-550.