With a lick of paint, paradise opens in Gemmayzeh

BEIRUT: There is no shortage of beautiful but derelict structures in this city. They stand, enclosed behind walls and beneath overgrown gardens, or else stranded alongside deep gouges in the urban fabric, displaced by the erection of what is hoped will be high-income tower blocks.

Passing the gracious arcades and stained glass, you may wonder how such an edifice hasn’t been destroyed yet. If you linger a little, imagining the high ceilings and columns within, you may fantasize about living in such a house, renovating it to bring its heritage back to life.

One such villa can be found in Gemmayzeh, wedged between Gouraud and Sursock streets – and English-born Beirut-based artist Tom Young is among those who have fallen in love with it.

On his way back home one New Year’s Eve, he noticed the beautiful building and thought it could make a great space. He called the telephone number on the building’s entrance and met with the house’s owner. Together they decided to transform this derelict mansion into a magnificent art center.

After several months of work, Villa Paradiso is scheduled to receive its official opening in September. The space was inaugurated May 30 with “Carousel,” an exhibition of 60 of Young’s artworks. He likes the idea of exhibiting in a site under construction.

“My paintings are a combination of history, memory and absence,” Young told The Daily Star. This space “goes with the works.”

The historic and the modern mingle in this renovation, with original columns setting off the renovated art deco facade, with treble arches incorporated into the structure. This reconciliation of old and new is important in Young’s project.

For 40 years the villa was home to the Baloumian family and in one room, Young uncovered such personal belongings as family photographs and sheet music of original compositions. He’s dedicated one room to the display of these pieces. During the May opening, a pianist performed one of the found compositions.

Young’s works sublimate important moments of his life – whether in Lebanon, France or Cuba, where he’s also lived. His large canvases recall the immense width and breadth of the house. Several artworks are exact renderings of rooms or items present there.

“Let the Light In” (130x180 cm, oil and dirt on canvas) depicts a room in which all the windows are wide opened to – as the title suggests – let the light in. The paint is peeling from the walls, the broken floor is coated with dust and dirt – as though someone had abruptly abandoned an earlier renovation project.

Young’s painting is a perfect replica of the room. It represents the slightest detail, while the light in question is rendered as blinding. The work’s technique and precision suggests something of the artist’s attachment to the place.

Some of Young’s other works were inspired by the found photographs, creating the impression that specters of the family still reside in the villa.

One untitled work (40x30 cm, oil on canvas) represents family patriarch Madiros Baloumian. Nearby, another black-and-white portrait is hung behind glass, which has been frosted with a fine layer of cement.

These portraits are not for sale, Young points out in the exhibition handout, as if to demonstrate that memory and history cannot be forgotten.

“Golden Age” (106x140 cm, oil on canvas) is inspired by a photograph of people at an unknown beach. Young’s work depicts the atmosphere and ambiance in the 1950s, known in certain circles as the golden age. The artist’s palette is utterly respectful of the hues found in the photo today.

In several works, Young used old picture frames or broken glass found in the house to bring a sense of history to his work, conveying the impression that they belong to the mansion.

Villa Paradiso’s life as an exhibition space will continue after Young’s exhibition concludes on June 19. A program of workshops for children is being planned, as are concerts, art installations and talks on architecture and history. The villa plans to host social and cultural events, grounding the art center’s place in the city’s architectural and artistic landscape.

No doubt some who attended Villa Paradiso’s inauguration believe it would be better to destroy this house and erect a brand new state-of-the-art structure, like those mushrooming nearby. Yet the excitement radiating throughout the night from most of those present suggests that many Lebanese remain attached to these, the architectural vertebrae of Beirut’s heritage.

Tom Young’s “Carousel” is on show at Gemmayzeh’s Villa Paradiso until June 19. For more information on it and attendant cultural events, please call 76-509-550.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 06, 2013, on page 16.




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