Channeling childhood and Pollock

BEIRUT: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing,” explained Jackson Pollock before his death in 1956. “It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about.”

This sentiment is echoed – whether consciously or not – by Lebanese artist Joseph Harb.

“I don’t prepare anything when I work,” the artist tells The Daily Star. “I allow myself to let everything go and empty my mind. ... I’m a very simple painter. ... I just work on the surface of my painting. Any idea I have, I try to use it, without any conscious decision.”

Harb has been exhibiting in Beirut with gallerist Nadine Begdache for 20 years, and “Under Construction” – currently on show at Raouche’s Galerie Janine Rubeiz – is his eighth solo show.

The exhibition consists of 23 mixed-media works from a series of 75 produced over the past two and a half years.

Eight shallow white boxes containing fragments of paintings and incongruous selections of found and fabricated objects are reminiscent of the famed sculptures of U.S. artist Joseph Cornell, which consist of old photographs, antique paraphernalia and the scavenged remains of once-beautiful objects, housed in simple glass-framed wooden boxes.

Harb’s pieces echo something of the surrealism of Cornell’s work, juxtaposing unexpected objects and imagery, but they do not focus on a particular subject or theme. The artist is not interested in symbolism, he avers, but is driven solely by the aesthetic of the objects he selects.

His paintings are colorful abstracts imbued with figurative elements, seemingly random selections of numbers and paper clock faces cut out and glued to the canvas. Formal experiments, they ask how Jackson Pollock’s work would look if he’d gone further.

Having studied Pollock’s drip painting technique – in which the U.S. master of abstraction poured or dribbled color onto canvasses laid on the floor, using hardened brushes, sticks and experimental items such as basting syringes to disperse the paint across the surface of the canvas – Harb found himself wondering what Pollock’s work would have looked like if he’d used mechanical tools to apply his paint.

“I worked on the idea of Jackson Pollock and how he poured paint on the canvas without touching it with his hands,” Harb explains, “and I had the idea to attach a drill to the brush and work with it to see what would happen. I paint with the machine, which is faster than my mind and faster than my hands.”

Using a spinning brush attached to a drill bit, Harb has accented his abstract canvasses with circular daubs of paint in which the swirling movement of the rotating bristles can just be discerned. The need to work quickly with the drill devours any element of premeditation in the equation, the artist explained, forcing him to adapt and reassess his compositions from one second to the next.

Pollock worked with house paint, finding its viscosity better suited to his needs than conventional artists’ paint, and augmenting it with the addition of gritty materials such as sand or broken glass. Harb achieves a similarly textural finish to his paintings. The artist paints with acrylic, but gritty lumps of earth or sand have cracked the surface of some works. In one piece, he has punctured the canvas in multiple places, leaving a series of circular holes, ringed by ragged strands of fiber.

A text accompanying the exhibition, written by friend and fellow artist Hanibal Srouji after a discussion with the artist, suggests that in making his boxes Harb has been influenced by his childhood experiences during the Civil War, when his parents were repeatedly forced to pack the bare essentials into boxes and flee, leaving their child’s possessions behind.

The artist hazards that his boxes may have their roots in an attempt to reassert control over his own destiny, but he seems doubtful.

“When we tried to analyze a little bit what happened during the war, we came up with a subconscious explanation for my work,” he says. “I tried to come up with an explanation about my paintings, but actually my interest in the work is line and shape and color.

“I simply [want] to ask the question: ‘What would happen if Jackson Pollock used a machine?’ To answer this kind of question you need to work on it – to [analyze] the result. Anyway, I didn’t come up with an answer. It’s not easy.”

Joseph Harb’s “Under Construction” is up at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche until April 26. For more information please call 01-868-290.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 10, 2014, on page 16.




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