BEIRUT: Chaouki Chamoun makes no secret of his long path to painting. Born in the Bekaa Valley in 1942, Chamoun began drawing young, producing pencil and charcoal sketches of saints, inspired by his uncle’s church murals.
Aside from this, the artist recalls, “I did not see a painting until I was probably 12. Learning to do painting waited until ’59 when it was forced on me in a way.”
While attending boarding school – where Chamoun taught as well as studied, as his family could not afford the fees – he was approached by a stranger who asked him to paint portraits of two politicians.
Giving him LL300 – a year’s salary for many in those days, Chamoun explains – the man told him to buy whatever materials he needed. He’d be back in two weeks with pictures of the men.
“I didn’t know what to do with it,” he laughs. “When he left I went to a nearby art supply store ... and asked for oil paint.
“He said, ‘What color do you need?’
“I said, ‘The color of the face.’”
The shopkeeper remarked that, as he clearly didn’t know what he was doing, he should buy watercolors instead. Offended, Chamoun insisted on oil paint and got to work.
The teenager found that mixing flesh color from shades of red, blue and black was harder than he thought, and resorted to mixing the colors on his hands and face, trying to match the shade.
These days Chamoun has no trouble in mixing colors.
A selection of works spanning the past six years, Chamoun’s exhibition “From 2006 to Present” is now on show at the Beirut Exhibition Center. As curated by Amal Traboulsi, the show is arrayed thematically, emphasizing both the diversity of styles and subjects that is Chamoun’s hallmark and the sheer volume of pieces produced in a relatively short period.
“Painting to me is a daily exercise,” says the artist, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year. “The experience itself – which I cannot sign except as a product – is the most pleasurable. ... I never have enough of researching new techniques and new methods and a new aesthetic alphabet with which I could write my painting. This continuous urge for new materials and new subject matter never leaves me.”
Traboulsi has divided the BEC’s vast hall into sections and subsections, beginning with a series of landscapes, in the foreground of which stand straggling lines of tiny figures.
Dwarfed by their surroundings – snow-covered mountains, towering cityscapes (the skyscrapers drunkenly tilting towards one another, confiding secrets), abstract swirls and splatters that blot out the everyday world – these figures appear to be watching in pregnant silence, as though waiting for the answer to some unspoken question.
Particularly striking is an enormous triptych, measuring over four meters across, entitled “One Man, One Earth, One Destiny.” A double row of colorfully clad figures stands in the foreground, as if contemplating a vast wall of spreading cedar trees that form a verdant canopy hundreds of feet above, their leafy branches interspersed with splatters of red, looping white creepers and bright blue sky.
The show’s central section contains several series, among them a return to his earlier “Tuxedo Park” series – a Monet-inspired homage to the water lily – and several paintings from his rather lurid abstract and expressionist series “Spelling Love” and “Foliage.”
These bright, floral canvases contrast with a grimmer series capturing Chamoun’s response to the 2006 war. Among these blackened pieces are several in which Chamoun has inflicted a series of slashes on the fabric. The reverse of the canvas is sometimes pulled through these gashes to reveal an assortment of vibrant colors, poking through the blackness like the tongue of a distended corpse.
Other pieces consist of chaotic clouds of swirling arabesques, which at first glance appear to be writing.
“The explosion-like images are my reaction to the bombardment of the 2006 war,” says Chamoun, “That was an angry kind of reaction. ... Some of them I played with on my canvas with my hands, trying, as I thought, to create a new alphabet, like somebody searching in mud for I don’t know what.”
Traboulsi has saved the most dramatic works for last. Inspired by a trip to Abu Dhabi in 2007, these pieces tackle the desert, transformed in Chamoun’s paintings into a multifaceted source of wonder for his tiny, ever-present audience.
“I was always told in one way or another that we all came from the desert as tribes,” Chamoun explains. “I could not understand this, because I was brought up in a culture where I was looking West all the time. ... East was always behind me, and the desert in particular was behind me. ... This place of nothing became the place of everything for me.”
Chamoun returned again and again to the desert, filling a suitcase with bottles full of varying shades of sand, which he mixes with paint and applies to his canvas in bold, viscous strokes.
“It was one of the most enriching experiences of my life,” he says. “In my painting when I think about abstraction, or about how I can say more with less ... that was the desert. The desert answered it all.”
Chamoun’s dreamy landscapes capture the sands of the Arabian Peninsula in a variety of guises: blazing copper and gold with reflected sunlight, subdued and overshadowed by the beauty of the star-speckled night sky or sprouting skyscrapers like vast, symmetrical cacti.
With the sheer variety of works, “From 2006 to present” could have wide appeal. Minimalist black canvases, a contemporary take on Monet or the beauty of snow-covered peaks and rolling sand-dunes – all are magnified into mysterious spectacle.
Chaouki Chamoun’s “From 2006 to Present,” curated by Amal Traboulsi, is on show at the Beirut Exhibition Center until April 14. For more information please visit www.beirutexhibitioncenter.com.