Culture

Hatem Imam’s abstract landscapes

BEIRUT: “Threshold,” the first Beirut solo of Sidon-born artist and designer Hatem Imam, is comprised completely of monochrome works, all devised explicitly for this exhibition.

Curated by Amanda Abi Khalil and hosted by Letitia gallery, the show is preoccupied by landscapes - some more or less plausible reproductions of place, others veering toward abstraction.Some could be read as conventional landscapes.

One appears to depict a snow-drifted hollow in a mountainside. Other readings draw upon a casual exposure to photography - like one work that might be a reproduction of a low-resolution nighttime photo of bulrushes caught in the headlights of a parked car.

Still others might be afterimages of television. It’s easy to imagine that one metallic work renders a fresh snowfall upon a field of melted snow and gravel - but it’s monochrome, so it might also be lava flows from a volcano that’s won a minute or two of exposure on Al-Jazeera.

Imam’s works are monotypes on paper and zinc plates the medium that’s engraved and painted to make monotypes. The media may not be the message in this show, but it’s clear that what you’re looking at is as important as whatever landscape or abstract field a work may conjure up for you.

Printmaking is a classic artisanal technique for producing unique figurative images and series. As such, it straddles the historical divide between manual and mechanical (and digital) means of production.

Frequently contemporary art practice has been interested in forms that are ephemeral (performance) or easily copied (video), which defy the art market’s dictums of commodification.

A number of contemporary artists have explored various printmaking practices - whether to embrace the incongruous pairing of artisanal practice and the contemporary condition, or the allure of sales.

For perhaps a decade Imam’s been exploring printmaking as a medium for works critical of Beirut’s Wild West real-estate market. “Vicarious Dreams,” 2010-11, his series of etched landscapes derived from photos of Beirut construction sites, was shown at Sharjah Biennial 10.

A more recent landscape-inspired work, “The Spectator,” which Imam contributed to “Geographie,” the 2015 edition of the comic Samandal, has been reproduced in the “Thresholds” exhibition guide, right after Abi Khalil’s curatorial essay.

“Threshold” aspires to be more than the sum of inked zinc plates and monotypes on show. Its preoccupations with printmaking practices give it a nostalgic air, and artist and curator have worked hard to assure the public they’re aware of the show’s place in art history and theory.

This exhibition marks the latest in Imam’s creative collaborations. A co-founder and onetime editor of Samandal, he’s been associated with the 98Weeks research project and Annihaya records. With his partner Maya Mounme, he’s been working on a range of design projects including graphic design, a la Studio Safar, and furniture restoration.

Atfal Ahdath (variously translated as “children of the events” and “juvenile delinquents,”) an artist collective co-founded by Imam, Vartan Avakian and Raed Yassin, is known for its cleverly ironic photographic works and objects as well as “Cooking Liberty,” a surrealist-flavored culinary performance.

Imam’s collaboration with Abi Khalil is a modular sort of affair. The work’s subject matter and form stand in a self-conscious relationship to how the series is deployed within Letitia’s single hall and, thanks to the exhibition guide, critical discussions of landscape art from last century.

Rather than hanging the work from the gallery walls, individual pieces have been suspended from the ceiling. Instead of putting their backs to the gallery’s four walls, Imam’s hung all his etchings with their backs to the gallery’s shop-front window (a blue line of tape, which the public must cross to actually see the work, has been laid down parallel to the window).

To visit “Threshold” is to join anyone else present in facing the front of the gallery. Individual works hang in the air before the urban landscape squatting at the lower end of Roosevelt Street as it empties onto Hamra. The public is meant to appreciate Imam’s landscape plates and monotypes against a cityscape that, since the show opened, has been tarted up with layers of seasonal bling as Hamra merchants conjured up Christmas.

Any members of the public who know they dig this business but can’t quite express why, for instance, are invited to peruse W.J.T. Mitchell’s “Imperial Landscape.” Reproduced in the exhibition guide, Mitchell’s incisive critique of European landscape painting as the cultural bunting of its transcontinental adventures was first published in 1994.

Whether you’re rereading Mitchell or discovering him, this guided tour of the history of landscape painting can be great fun. His tentative association of abstraction with the last gasps of landscape painting as a serious form is intriguing. His thoughts on the export and adaptation of landscape in the colonies is all the more resonant for the energy with which he pulls his punches about Israeli artists’ efforts at landscape art in occupied Palestine.

Mitchell’s essay first emerged as an academic paper at a 1987 conference in Israel, just as a resistance movement later called the first intifada was getting started. As the author remarks near the end of his essay, at that time it was difficult to have a rational discussion of landscape aesthetics and politics.

A great deal of flame and smoke has arisen from the Palestinian landscape in the past three decades or so. Gazing at Imam’s zinc and paper works at once redolent of rural landscape and abstraction - hanging, still, against the daily theater and shifting decor of Hamra Street, you may wonder what’s become of landscape art here.

“Threshold” is up at Letitia gallery through Jan. 19.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 08, 2019, on page 12.

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