Culture

Playing tricks on the eyes at Mark Hachem Gallery

BEIRUT: “You can’t depend on your eyes,” American author Mark Twain once said, “when your imagination is out of focus.” You can’t depend on them when the artwork you’re looking at is out of focus either. The ubiquitous summer collective show at Mark Hachem Gallery this year features the work of 10 international artists, loosely united by the exhibition’s theme – and title – “Out of Focus.”

The work of U.S. artist Cheryl Maeder and U.K. photographer Philip Letts most obviously chime with this concept.

Maedar’s series of photographs are artfully shot with just the right amount of blur to obscure the detail while allowing the viewer to make sense of the scene. Nondescript landscapes capturing unidentifiable figures lounging at the beach or wading into the sea are paired with pastoral shots of meadows and fields, in which the blurring of the details accentuates the range of colors.

With nothing to distract the eye, block shapes and stark contrast become the overriding impressions. In “Dreamscapes – Beach Series VI,” red sun loungers protrude startlingly from the uniformity of a sandy beach like exotic birds. The blurred shapes of distant office blocks provide context, tying the image to an urban scene.

Maeder’s subject matter is not particularly interesting in its own right, but her approach to the medium allows her to revisit clichéd, holiday snap imagery from an experimental standpoint.

Letts, meanwhile, focuses on the human form, perhaps the oldest of all artistic subject matter. Like that of Maedar, it is his experimental approach that helps these photographs stand out.

Shots of human silhouettes, their forms distorted by backlighting, play with the viewer’s ability to find a recognizable form in an abstract image. A series of close-up portraits, meanwhile, use light and shadow to simultaneously emphasize the uniformity of the human face and highlight the feature that make each of us unique.

A single photograph capturing the work of Bulgarian artist Christo and his Moroccan wife Jeanne-Claude, featuring a building wrapped in synthetic fabric and rope, ties loosely into the exhibition’s theme by virtue of obscuring the details of the architecture and in so doing accentuating its overall form.

A second Bulgarian artist, Ognian Zekoff, works in a manner that inverts the processes employed by Maeder and Letts. Hanging next to Letts’ series of portraits, his trio of paintings of a man’s hands tricks the eye by presenting hyper-detailed painting as photography.

A photo collage capturing three identical portraits of Marilyn Monroe, by U.S. artist Robert Silvers, employs a mosaic technique to play with viewers’ focus. From afar, each tiny tile is too small to distinguish, allowing the bigger picture to emerge. But approach the printed sheet of aluminum, and each dot resolves itself into a tiny portrait of the actress.

Harder to tie into the exhibition’s theme are sculptural works by Canadian artist Johanne Allard, American sculptor Barbara Bisgyer and three French and Italian artists working in glass. Allard’s evocative mixed-media works are abstracts that succeed in conjuring up strange creatures, part mammal, part bird.

One untitled work pairs a spiky bronze form – its textured limbs calling to mind antlers or twigs on a dead branch – with stones, colorful embroidery and feathers to create an exotic whole. A large, nondescript stone in the center of the piece suggests a body, from which multi-jointed legs sprout, the embroidered fabric that encircles it resembling the creatures plume and mating call, like a peacock’s tail feathers. Alternatively, the stone might be an egg, the trappings around it a nest perched in a desiccated tree.

Bisgyer’s bronze steed uses traditional techniques to pull apart the animal’s form. Her horse, poised in motion with all four legs ahead of it, as though screeching to a stop before some horror, is missing sections of its flanks. Its ribs are exposed, its innards missing, allowing viewers to see right through its skeletal body.

A selection of ugly glass works, resembling overgrown paperweights, takes the show in an even more traditional direction.

It may not be the most cohesive exhibition, but “Out of Focus” presents a selection of new artists to Beirut audiences and its lighthearted works provide respite from the gallery’s recent focus on conflict-driven Syrian art.

“Out of Focus” is up at Mark Hachem Gallery in Downtown until Aug. 31. For more information please call 01-999-313.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 18, 2014, on page 16.

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