BEIRUT: The advent of digital media has rendered one of Shakespeare’s better known metaphors prophetic. Mobile telephone-borne video cameras, reality TV and CCTV all ensure that today’s world really is a stage.
All the men and women are merely players, without much say in the matter. Working with oils and canvas, Syrian artist Abdullah Abdessalam paints scenes from everyday life, transformed into semi-abstract tableaux. Together they resemble a film storyboard, or sketches distilling moments from a complicated play.
Perusing the 36 works in his solo show, currently up at Gallery Zamaan in Hamra, gives viewers a sense of isolated incidents, which you must struggle to reconstruct as a linear narrative – a tale of love, violence or betrayal tinted in red and full of unexplained darkness.
It was this staged element of Abdessalam’s works that led gallerist Moussa Kobeissi to suggest the exhibition title, “Life is a Play.” The suggestion strongly influenced the direction of the artist’s subsequent work, an impact that can be seen in the show itself.
These works were completed over the course of two years – 2011 and 2012 – and suggest a clear evolution in approach and tone. Not a well-known artist, Abdessalam experiments with subject matter, style and technique, though an admirable fluidity and certain shared elements of composition and color make the body of work cohesive.
The earlier pieces in the series are brighter and more cheerful than their later counterparts and in them Abdessalam’s style is sketchier, more impressionistic. Rough silhouettes of grouped figures are placed against a blocky, almost cubist backdrop, leaving the overall effect jumbled, the details out of focus.
The paintings become gradually darker and more melancholy – Kobeissi suggests this to be a response to ongoing violence in Syria. In parallel, Abdessalam’s work undergoes a stylistic transition, moving away from abstraction to become more figurative, detailed and engaging.
One of the larger pieces, executed in subtle shades of blue, black and gray that appear almost monochrome, captures a crowd of 30 or so figures arrayed in a rough semicircle, which encompasses three sides of the canvas. Abdessalam’s flowing brushstrokes render the figures wraith-like, insubstantial, like a column of weary travelers who have been marching so long they have wasted away to nothing.
The center of the semicircle – the focal point of the canvas – is left blank. The expanse of smooth, reflective nothingness might be a frozen lake or a polished dance floor, some kind of magic circle into which the figures fear to tread or an absence that cannot be rendered.
The painting exemplifies the theatricality and sense of mystery that pervades Abdessalam’s work. His paintings possess an intriguing ambiguity that leaves viewers with a confused sense of an epiphany, dawning but unrealized, of something menacing or something sublime.
In visual counterpoint to Abdessalam’s ensemble tableaux are a series of portraits, which exude a more troubling aura of pain and despair. The subjects are depicted with jagged, mismatched features and tortured countenance, eyes often shut in sorrow, mouths open as though wailing with despair.
Whether depicted in groups or pairs, the figures appear trapped in their own personal nightmares, possessing something of the unendurable sense of isolation in the face of horror that radiates from Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 work, “The Scream.”
The final six pieces, executed after the exhibition title was chosen, represent the peak of the artist’s accomplishment. Combining the most effective elements of the earlier works, Abdessalam has elaborated on the perhaps unintended theatrical aspect of his work, creating a series of tableaux set on stage.
Dominated by shadows and shades of deep red, these works are grouped together on one wall of the gallery, forming a set of scenes that could stem from a rehearsal gone wrong.
The walls of Abdessalam’s theater are a deep wash of maroon and rust, overlaid with trails of black-and-white paint, which create an impression of the aftermath of an inferno.
In the foreground of one piece, standing before the stage, are five silhouetted figures. Others are grouped onstage, their clothes rough sweeps of color, their faces as blank as those of cartoon aliens.
In the center of the stage stands a man in red, clutching what might be an enormous wooden cage. Next to him stands a pyre with a long pole protruding from it vertically. A woman stands, head bowed, old-fashioned skirt billowing, atop the pyre – a witch awaiting execution.
Abdessalam’s technique still appears to be developing, but his paintings exude a powerful atmosphere and an enigmatic beauty. This exhibition suggests a rapid evolution in his output over the past two years that, combined with his fondness for experimentation, suggests he is someone to watch.
Abdullah Abdessalam’s “Life is a Play” is on show at Hamra’s Gallery Zamaan until March 14. For more information call 01-745-571.