BEIRUT: Lounging in a cafe, dancing tango, gazing into a mirror, performing music or simply reclining on her bed – woman, in all her mutably feminine splendor, nowadays haunts Beirut’s zone of reclaimed coast like a totem of sensuality.
Babylon-born, Rome-based Jaber Alwan (b. 1948) has gathered his muses about him for “Phases.” This solo exhibition of recent acrylic-on-canvas works has just opened at the Beirut Exhibition Center.
Alwan was the first non-native artist upon whom Rome’s municipality bestowed the honor of Best Artist. Over the course of his long career, he has exhibited in Syria, Italy, the UAE, as well as in many countries across Europe. He has also been invited to participate in several international art biennales, including that in Bastogne in 1990 and Rome in 1997.
The artist is known for his mastery of color, with vibrant blues, reds, yellows and greens mingling before giving way to a bright panorama of mankind in all its conditions. An uncurated exhibition, “Phases” clusters Alwan’s paintings into several categories, depending less on thematic considerations than the prevalent color deployed.
“Jaber’s figures remind me of the overflowing stream of feminine figures in the Italian culture of Neapolitan baroque,” Ravenna Modern Art Museum director Gianni Morelli wrote in his program notes, “young Madonna’s saints and maids.”
There is something intriguing about Alwan’s characters. Whether fleeing some unknown fear, hallucinating or simply moving from one place to another, the figures Alwan depicts are filled with mystery, but not of the terrifying sort. Male or female, their faces are indistinct, as though to provoke questions about their identities. They seem on the verge of metamorphosing into something evil, or vice versa.
In “Expelled” (2012), viewers find a curiously elongated fellow moving forward, looking over his shoulder – presumably to the place from which he’s been expelled. The figure’s belongings – rendered as dapples of bright color and a suitcase-shaped object – appear to be hanging from his forearms.
The titles of other paintings ponder other states of mind – “Hallucination,” “Unexpected Shower,” “Balle’s Insane,” “Thoughts,” “To the Unknown.” The purported subject of each work is mundane, yet there is this something in the Alwan’s representation that can leave the onlooker with goose bumps.
Several of these works evince musical themes, and there are a number of formal differences in the way they are addressed.
Pianists, saxophonist and violinists are mainly depicted against a bright red background. In “Color of Music,” one of several works representing a woman playing the accordion, the figure is unfurling the instrument to its furthest extent, to the point of distorting her form.
Atop the keyboard – to a lesser extent the buttons beneath her left hand – colorful scratches and blots of color seem to represent the music tumbling from the accordion. Set upon a brooding background, Alwan’s visual depiction of cultured sound is a fanciful chiaroscuro.
It is appropriate that Alwan (“colors” in Arabic) has an outstanding eye for color. Art lovers casually strolling into the BEC may find these figures to be comfortingly familiar. The women’s poses are reminiscent of those employed by French painters who labored during the Renaissance. The slender, angular features are highly evocative of Amedeo Modigliani’s oeuvre.
Cafe scenes, orchestral performances and nudes are pretty common subjects in European art history. Alwan seeks to deploy these classic forms to embody the phases or states of mind of the exhibition title.
Poses suggestive of seduction, leisure, dancing and other profane moments make this exhibition an earthy reflection upon mankind. Although he dwells especially upon female forms, Alwan’s art is less a catalogue of archetypes than a highly aesthetic documentation of the states of women. The palette that Alwan has so assiduously mastered infuses his female figures, regardless the phase they’re undergoing, with unique eroticism.
Jaber Alwan’s “Phases” are now on show at the Beirut Exhibition Center until Feb. 23. For more information, please visit www.beirutexhibitioncenter.com.