All the lonely streets in Saifi Village

BEIRUT: It’s a horror film staple: The protagonist awakes to find the city deserted. Streets are empty of people, windows dark, cars neatly parked in rows or abandoned askew in the center of the street.

In the work of Spanish artist José Mar?a Jiménez, the eerie pointlessness of a city stripped of people becomes a reflection of the loneliness and alienation of the individual among strangers.

“Unveiled City” is Jiménez’s first exhibition but the painstakingly rendered pencil drawings currently on show at Saifi Village’s Vick Vanlian Gallery are not new. Most date from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“I’ve been reluctant to show my work,” the artist says, “for a very simple reason: I’m shy and showing my work means being exposed to the gaze of others, something that makes me very nervous. In Beirut I found the optimal conditions to exhibit my work with a warm and friendly environment in which I found myself very comfortable.”

In a nod to local concerns, the artist is donating money raised from the sales of the $20 exhibition catalogue to UNHCR Lebanon, which has pledged to use it to help better the circumstances of the country’s Syrian refugee population.

Jiménez’s enigmatically titled works – “The Maltese Falcon,” “Memory is a Moment of Oblivion” – demonstrate a mastery of the often-overlooked medium of graphite. The intricate detail in his drawings – each of which can take up to a year to complete – merits a lengthy perusal of the work. New details continue to appear as the eye shifts across the surface of the paper.

Each of the works on show captures a real location, the artist says. Most are identifiably within New York City, but some scenes were inspired by the streets, buildings and bridges or Dublin, San Francisco and Jiménez’s hometown of Almer?a.

The combination of Jiménez’s precise perspective and shading and the otherworldly atmosphere of his static cityscapes create an uneasy tension between realism and the surreal. His talent with a pencil means that at first glance the drawings resemble black-and-white photographs – particularly those whose details appear blurry, as though obscured by fog or shot by a photographer with an imperfect grasp of the lens.

This is not the intended effect.

“Nothing bothers me more than my paintings being considered as photographs,” Jiménez says. “I intend to transcend the mere image. The surface, the appearance – no matter how well it is executed – should not be essential.”

Many of Jiménez’s drawings capture skyscrapers, whether towering with claustrophobia-inducing mass over a deserted street or reduced to children’s building blocks silhouetted against the sky. Others focus on industrial architecture – iron bridges whose crisscrossing girders and spider-web cables conspire to create abstract geometric patterns.

In “Words fall ill, meanwhile,” the artist captures a bristling landscape of electricity pylons with a sharpness and depth that seems to infuse them with new, ominous import – as though transformed into antenna and signal boxes, harbingers of an impending alien invasion.

“Moloch” captures a wide road divided into thin lanes by pale lines stretching away from the viewer. Towering buildings, their featureless walls punctuated by narrow slits of darkness in place of windows, create a sense of being hemmed in, which is only exacerbated by the background, where the road appears to rise straight upwards, forming a sheer wall that blocks any chance of escape.

Devoid of the people they were built to shelter, stable and support, Jiménez’s cities become monstrous prisons, stone sarcophagi in which the viewer scuttles.

“It is this contradiction, this tension between opposites [that] attracts my interest,” the artist says, “the way Kafka could see the horror hidden behind a daily routine. ... I’m not interested in architecture as technique beyond its role as the backdrop. And the city is more than architecture. I am interested in the feeling that streets transmit when [almost] stripped of passersby, who sometimes are its only natural elements.”

“Unveiled City” is up at Vick Vanlian Gallery in Saifi Village until June 30. For more information please call 78-807-880.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 20, 2014, on page 16.




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