BEIRUT: Light and darkness are often pitted against one another in myth and scripture, as though they were clashing moral forces. Yet darkness is not the opposite of light, simply its absence. Lebanese printmaker Hassan Zahreddine’s etchings play with light and dark in a process of reversal. The artist etches the dark parts of his detailed designs onto copper plates, eating away at the areas of light to create a balance between black and white.
“The Magic of Darkness,” currently up at Aida Cherfan Fine Art Gallery, is Zahreddine’s first solo show. This accomplished series of etchings uses traditional techniques including mezzotint and aquatint, both invented in the 17th century to allow for halftones to be produced without resorting to crosshatching or stipple.
Zahreddine demonstrates mastery of this traditional form, evoking a vanished era not only in his choice of medium but in his subject matter. The artist depicts figures in old-fashioned clothing, standing in rooms with simple, homely furnishings, or placed against colored backdrops that defy a sense of place or time.
Photos from the Arab Image Foundation’s archives provided the source texts for several of the works on show. Zahreddine uses the past to create a contemporary story, a process he likens to an archaeologist piecing together fragments to decipher ancient history.
The etchings are intricately executed and finely detailed, but there is a sketchiness about them that suggests Zahreddine is still experimenting with the technique, as well as with the opportunities afforded by a black-and-white palette.
The artist’s decision to exhibit several versions of the same plate is particularly interesting. It discloses the different stages in the production of a single etching, the effects created by layering elements from several different plates and the way Zahreddine is able to alter the atmosphere of a piece by playing with the balance of light and darkness.
Four related prints capture two women, wearing simple collared dresses and old-fashioned aprons, standing in the top left corner of the frame in an alcove or small room, hands resting on the back of a wooden kitchen chair.
In the first print, the surrounding area is a featureless wash of textured grey, save for the faint outline of a third figure in the foreground. A simple A-line skirt and two shapely, boot-encased calves is all that’s visible – her upper half being obscured by the forms of the other two women.
In stages, Zahreddine adds elements. In the foreground, beside the ghostly figure, a chair with a rounded back and woven seat appears, as do flagstones on the floor and a series of sketched lines suggesting walls. The detail causes the figures to seem further away from the viewer, marooned in their alcove.
At each stage the artist increases the deep black shadow to the left of the frame until, finally, the figures appear far in the distance, alone in a sea of darkness. As the gloom increases, so does the sense of loneliness and isolation.
One of Zahreddine’s favored motifs is a chair with a woven seat and something like a scarf or crumpled cloth hanging on the wall above it. His practice of printing two overlapping etchings on a single sheet often leaves two ghostly figures outlined atop one another in an unrelated scene.
Other prints employ color.
Two etchings portray young boys arrayed in old-fashion clothing, their bony knees bare above long socks, faces set in scowls.
They are reminiscent of such fictional childhood heroes as Just William or Dennis the Menace. The prints are embellished with splashed puddles of terra-cotta and blue, the soft washes of translucent color contrasting with the crispness of the printed lines.
Another print captures a dignified-looking, middle-aged woman in black-and-white, her hands and face rendered in lovely shades of grey, her dark chemise and skirt embellished with circular patterns.
Placed squarely in the center of the canvas, she is framed by a simple backdrop consisting of three horizontal stripes. At the bottom of the image is a terra-cotta field of painstakingly rendered grass, each blade denoted with a single stroke. Above it are a calm, featureless expanse of creamy sea and a deep orange sky.
Zahreddine’s elegant prints juxtapose an experimental approach with a traditional medium. The issue makes for an interesting historical study, recasting old photographs within an even older mimetic technique. Nicely laid-out and soothingly minimalist, “The Magic of Darkness” is one of Aida Cherfan’s strongest exhibitions for some time.
Hassan Zahreddine’s “The Magic of Darkness” is up at Aida Cherfan Fine Art Gallery in Downtown until Oct. 25. For more information please call 01-983-111.