BEIRUT: There’s a fine line between tragedy and humor, and Lebanese artist Annie Kurkdjian tends to tread it with great care. Kurkdjian, who studied fine art at ALBA, also holds a degree in psychology from the Lebanese University.
Perhaps this enables her to create works that elicit such a strong emotional reaction, evoking horror, sympathy, repulsion and laughter in quick succession.
“One Woman Show,” the artist’s second solo exhibition at Art Circle gallery, just off Hamra Street, features 28 acrylic and mixed-media pieces. Kurkdjian depicts scenes of nudity, deformity, self-harm and humiliation, a potent mix delivered with a dash of black comedy and a surrealist approach that ensures that her work is as playful as it is disturbing.
Kurkdjian has said reality is worse than anything she could paint. Nevertheless she sets out to shock, her paintings tackling such controversial subject matter as masturbation and madness. With these new works the artist has introduced a new theme, presenting her take on a major Christian denomination, including several unflattering portraits of a lugubrious-looking Bishop of Rome.
One of the untitled works currently on show captures a heavyset figure, dressed in the black robes and white dog collar of a priest, who looms over the upturned face of a small boy, mouth gaping wide like a hungry chick, tongue lolling. The priest clutches a white pill delicately between two fingers, ready to drop it into the open mouth.
The white pill might be medicine, intended to do the youngster some good. The man’s other hand – which grips the child’s nostrils as though to deprive him of oxygen and thus force him to open his mouth – suggests that what the figure is offering a more dangerous drug.
While this painting’s symbolism is not hard to decipher, the message behind other pieces is less easy to read.
In one, a man – naked aside from what appears to be a pair of underwear on his head – is suspended in the center of the canvas by a net, hanging by four ropes that disappear out of the top of the frame. Folded awkwardly in three, like a scarf dropped carelessly on the floor, the figure’s hands and feet poke through holes in the netting, as does his genitalia, a tiny set of blobs the size of his big toe.
“My subjects are syphilitics” Kurkdjian explains in her artist’s statement, “mad kings, puppets, ventriloquists, a blood-spitter, the pope, an obese masturbator, a madman who bites a duck, some prisoners and a woman wearing a checkered hat who finally dares to throw a look through the strange angle of her bent shoulders; in the sum they are ‘the orgy of Beirut.’”
Many of the works elaborate upon familiar themes in Kurkdjian’s work, including auto mutilation. A mixed-media sketch echoes a painting exhibited last year at a solo show at Le Maison du Sommelier in Furn al-Shubbak, a surreal work in which a golden-eyed woman, wearing a smart black dress and hat, encircles her own neck with a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth.
Kurkdjian’s more recent sketch shows a broad-backed young woman, her black hair starting high on her forehead as though she suffers from a receding hairline. The woman’s back is turned to the viewer, bisected by the white line of her bra. Her head, however, is twisted impossibly backward on a snake-like neck, allowing her to sink pointed teeth into her own shoulder.
Other works are equally disturbing, but more overtly amusing. In one, an androgynous figure with a circle of short black hair like a kippah lies on a maroon surface, seemingly incapacitated. His body is wrapped in a cloth and bound tightly in coils of string.
From the figure’s mouth, full of Kurkdjian’s trademark shark-like teeth, protrudes the torso, neck and head of a white duck or goose, beak stretched wide with panic, tiny wings raised, futile. Whether this animal serves as a gag or a meal is unclear.
Kurkdjian’s minimalist style and simple, often geometric, composition ensures that nothing detracts from the impact of her subjects, which are rendered with a clarity that makes the impossible believable.
“My paintings are my style,” the artist explains, “myself (or who I pretend to be), the skin I live in, my stay in hell, my redemption, my heaven.”
Kurkdjian’s artwork is definitely to be saved for after the watershed – which, for television illiterates, refers to the point in the evening’s programming that adult content can be broadcast.
Yet its spare execution, unabashedly controversial subject matter and bleakly humorous outlook ensure that a journey down the rabbit hole into the artist’s nightmarish world will be an experience to savor and remember.
Annie Kurkdjian’s “One Woman Show” is up at Hamra’s Art Circle gallery until March 28. For more information call 03-027-776.