Art and office: the aesthetics of AUB

BEIRUT: Sometimes a color is not just a color. Deciding what shade to paint the lobby of Jesup Hall, a building at the American University of Beirut, necessitated an entire committee.

“After endless debates about various colors,” recalls Octavian Esanu, “and their political associations – ‘red is communist,’ ‘brown is fascist,’ ‘black is anarchist’ and so forth – the committee voted and opted for maroon (a sort of brownish red).”

Esanu is the curator of the exhibition of work currently up at Hamra’s AUB Art Gallery, “Art in Office: Artworks from around the AUB Campus.” His interest in quirky but revealing little tales like this one is evident in the deployment of a show with what might initially sound like a rather dull premise.

Thanks to Esanu’s inspired approach to selecting and showcasing the works, however, “Art in Office” is entertaining as well as informative. What is on display here is not so much the art as the context that lends it meaning.

In contrast to the academic approach Esanu and gallery director Rico Franses took toward the gallery’s previous exhibition – a selection of works by classical painter Georges Daoud Corm – “Art in Office” is an experimental, often humorous, exploration of the stories behind the pieces on show, which include such media as posters, comic books and catalogues.

The works are grouped not according to media, style or chronology, but according to faculty.

Esanu has chosen to situate each piece among a selection of the everyday objects that ordinarily surround it in situ – painting the section of wall behind each grouping of works the approximate hue of the walls from which they’ve been liberated for this show.

Such functional use of color has ... made this picture accidentally beautiful to me

Accompanying each work is an exhibition tag that includes the usual technical information, where available, as well as a short interview with someone working in the academic or administrative building or the office in which the work was hung.

Next to a reproduction of Renaissance painter Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” a short text by Esanu explains the origin of the idea for the exhibition.

The reproduction usually hangs at the entrance to the offices of the Civilizations Sequence Program, he writes, on a wall decorated with an Islamic motif.

The proximity of Renaissance fresco and abstract arabesque captured his imagination as an unlikely symbol of East meets West, prompting him to further explore the relationship between an artwork and its surroundings.

Esanu hoped to draw some sociological conclusions regarding the way the work on display differed from one department or faculty to another, and to what extent this might reflect links between a particular field of knowledge and an artistic style or genre.

In line with this aim, the works on show are not necessarily the most valuable or aesthetically pleasing in AUB’s collection. The effect resides, rather, in the whimsical counterpoint the surrounding objects often form to the pieces themselves.

A classical bronze sculpture, “Angel of Learning” (1926), is exhibited beside a plastic “No Smoking” sign, as it is usually displayed in the lobby of the Jafet Library.

A bare wooden coat hanger dangles from one of two metal hooks set into a piece of wood screwed to an off-white strip of wall, borrowed from the office of Professor of English and Creative Writing Robert Myers. Below it is the catalogue from an exhibition entitled “Re-Orientations: Islamic Art and the West in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.”

A strangely proportioned anonymous painting of a sad looking lion against a green background was sourced from the office of Rola Al Mekkawi-Farhat, USAID University Scholarship Program Coordinator. It’s accompanied by a text in which she explains that the painting ended up in her office after her husband refused to allow it in the bedroom.

The Department of Psychology’s Nadiya Slobodenyuk explains that a vibrant abstract, an accumulation of feathery strands of color, is in fact a picture from a scientific journal portraying the connections between different areas of the human brain.

“Such functional use of color,” she explains, “has ... made this picture accidentally beautiful to me.”

Individual works aside, the major conclusions Esanu was able to draw from the experiment probably won’t come as a surprise to most visitors: the overall “function” of the works on display across AUB campus is for the most part either commemorative or decorative.

There are other, more obscure but no less interesting conclusions to be drawn, however.

“One thing that I find interesting is the color of the walls at AUB,” Esanu says. “In the offices of the administration or in the School of Business the walls tend to be painted slightly yellowish, whereas in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences [especially in the humanities] the walls are white, grey or dirty blue ...

“Part of the explanation is that the walls in some of these departments haven’t been renovated in a long time. In other words, the color of the walls or the aesthetic and chromatic choices often reflect broader policies, for instance lesser funding available for some of the humanities.

“Regarding the association between certain professions or disciplines and the choice of art ... the exhibition has shown that the humanities at AUB, in such departments as Sociology, History, Philosophy, Architecture and the Art department, of course, have a more sophisticated approach to art. In their offices professors from these disciplines tend to hang works of art made by professionals and often by very known Lebanese or international artists.

“It was also very interesting to discover that some sciences – Chemistry, Biology, Engineering – don’t really have works of art in their offices or laboratories. When asked if they have works of art they often answered: ‘If you want art go to the artists or the architects. We’re making science here,’ as if art were less serious than science.”

“Art in Office: Artworks from around the AUB Campus” is up at the AUB Art Gallery in Hamra until Sept. 30. For more information please call 01-350-000, ext. 4345.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 28, 2014, on page 16.




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