Celebrating the urge to paint it black

BEIRUT: If roses symbolize love, desire and beauty, it follows that dead roses should symbolize their absence. In Gilbert Hage’s “Roses 1-4,” however, the flowers’ shriveled petals are made beautiful in their own right. Shot in 1999, Hage’s series of four monochrome photos capture a decaying bloom whose crisp petals resemble desiccated labia, their frills and whorls now brittle, their surface pitted and sandy-looking.

The photographer captures the flower in extreme close-up, set against a black background. The black blooms stand out subtly from their surroundings, the edges in sharp focus and accented with white highlights, the rest fading to a blur.

“Nine Shades of Black,” the collective exhibition at Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth where Hage’s works currently hang, is an exercise in color – or lack of it. The show aims to celebrate creative uses of the shade so many artists have deemed not to be a color.

Hage’s still-life explorations of death are the most effective in revisiting monochrome in an inventive, unusual and undeniably effective way, along with his four portraits.

Dating from 2002 and entitled “Anonymes” (anonymous), Hage’s second series is yet another exercise in subtlety.

For a century, photographers have captured the world using black-and-white film, conveying a colorful reality in various shades of gray. In “Anonymes,” Hage photographs his subjects in low lighting against a black backdrop, abandoning black-and-white in favor of gray-on-black.

The glossy portraits use minuscule variations in tone to play with viewers’ perceptions. From a distance, the four framed shots appear to be reflective blanks. Close up, they demonstrate how little contrast is needed to convey an image with perfect clarity.

Four middle-aged men stare directly into the lens. Their skin tones blend into that of the black backdrop but every detail of their features – from the stubble on one subject’s chin to the fine wrinkles that crisscross the face of another, to the spattering of freckles across the nose and cheeks of a third – is sharply delineated, thanks to the minute play of light and shadow.

In keeping with Hage’s photographs are Nadim Asfar’s “Nocturnes No. 1-8.” These eight enlarged negatives of black-and-white floral shots capture fronds of fern, sprigs of leaves and a clump of delicate blossom.

Adhering to the theme of the exhibition by virtue of their experimental approach to monochrome, the photos lack the power of Hage’s work but encourage thoughts on the photographic process, digital and analogue techniques and the relationship of light and shadow.

An enormous tableau by Jean Marc Nahas, measuring two by ten meters, is covered with his signature cartoon-like scrawls. These tiny sketches capture the artist’s unique interpretation of daily life in Beirut.

Anonymous figures talk, kiss or stare back at the viewer. A cup of coffee in a saucer sits on a table top. Strange dog-like creatures – their long snouts bristling with teeth – scrap and snarl. Dead animals lie on their backs, their legs in the air. Couples engage in a variety of joyless sexual acts.

In this context, the most interesting facet of Nahas’ composition are the few scattered squares in which the artist has added a backdrop of sky blue, provoking reflection on the effects of a single splash of color on the black-and-white panels that surround it.

Also noteworthy is Swiss artist Michael Biberstein’s minimalist, abstract work “Attracter L2.” A canvas splattered with watery acrylic in various shades of gray resembles exploding fireworks drained of color.

It seems to undulate beneath the viewer’s gaze – thanks to the air current from an AC unit directed at the canvas, which has been loosely stretched over the frame, allowing it to vibrate in the draft.

The rest of the works on show seem to have been included because they happen to be black-and-white, instead of their profound statements about working with these shades.

A piece by Swiss multidisciplinary artist John Armleder, entitled “Black Cat,” for example, consists of a thick layer of black-and-silver glitter covering a sheet of paper, nominally fulfilling the exhibition’s criteria.

Around the corner in the back section of the gallery, where works not included in the scope of the current exhibition are routinely hung, two matching works in gold and purple attest to Armleder’s indifference to the exhibition’s theme.

The addition of sculptures by Syrian artist Fadi Yazigi provide a third dimension to the exhibition. His bronze sculptures with their black finish – most exploring the horror of the Syrian conflict – are accomplished works in their own right but don’t gel effectively with the rest of the world on show.

“Nine Shades of Black” may not be a particularly cohesive exhibition, but the breadth of work means it is likely to cater to a wide range of tastes and interests. For those who missed seeing Hage’s work the first time round, that alone makes it worth a visit.

“Nine Shades of Black” is up at Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth until June 14. For more information please call 70-557-662.





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