Nature in the city as Charbel Aoun exhibits his collection in Beirut
From mixed-media sculptures inspired by trees and animals, to satirical painted caricatures inspired by electoral candidates, Aoun’s subject matter and style have varied widely from year to year.
Aoun’s latest solo exhibition, “Lost Spring,” currently up at Karantina’s SMO Gallery, returns to the theme of nature, being comprised of a series of enormous mixed-media pieces inspired by the trees and plants on his own land.
In spite of its bleak title, his latest exhibition seems more optimistic than some of his previous offerings. The twisted, repellent figures of his 2009 “Electoral Candidate” series and the scrawled, impressionistic figures of his 2011 “Pulse” series – with their tortured faces straining desperately toward the light, or turning away in shame – are nowhere to be seen in “Lost Spring.”
“In this exhibition I tried to explore the human being in the way he sees nature and how nature reflects his personal feelings and social feeling,” Aoun explains. “For me it’s a reality that has always been aside and in the same time it holds all the emotions that society holds. There is death. There is hope. There is survival. There’s blooming. When you look at nature and you’re in a certain state you can recognize yourself.”
What “Lost Spring” does have in common with Aoun’s earlier work is its emphasis on social themes: “We can talk about the relationship between my architectural point of view and this exhibition in the sense that the title is ‘Lost Spring.’ It’s because we don’t see spring in the city. We build things which are not environmentally sensitive.
“I wanted to touch the sensitivity of the society in a certain way,” he continues. “Maybe someone who will be a possible contractor or a possible architect will have more sensitivity [in] dealing with environment. Because it’s really criminal what we are seeing ... I find no logic in killing 20-year-old pines, for example, to impose a building.”
These mixed media-on-canvas pieces are complex, almost sculptural works. Drips and splatters of paint in rich autumnal or cool spring colors catch the eye from a distance, forming a semi-abstract mass of branches, leaves and sunlight. Upon closer inspection, the larger perspective of a tree or plant disappears and the viewer is drawn into the work’s bewilderingly complex texture.
“I wanted to introduce my land and nature not only emotionally but in a physical way,” Aoun says, “so I took branches and sticks off the trees and I planted some cotton that I used in the paintings ... It was an exploration of what all these [media] and materials can create, together with paint.”
The mixture of twigs, stringy clumps of cotton and the thin lines of thread that hold it all together create areas of elaborate, sculptural depth, full of hidden pockets of air like abandoned bird nests covered with spider web.
Aoun’s long-standing interest in depicting light means that the focus of almost every piece is its light source, whether that be a burst of bright sunshine or a more diffuse glow, like sunbeams filtered through spring leaves.
Though all depict trees and plants, the mood changes dramatically from one piece to the next.
Two paintings in particular form a poignant contrast to one another. “Origanum Syriacum” and “Acanthus Syriacus” – the Latin names for zaatar and a purple-and-white flowering evergreen native to the region – are similar in name, but differ vastly in mood, color palette and composition.
“Origanum Syriacum” is a serene sea of pale greens and yellows, like budding new leaves. A few darker lines – formed by clumps of twigs and cotton – delineate branches, and a bright white center creates an impression of looking up at the sun through a canopy of leafy boughs.
“Acanthus Syriacus,” by contrast, is darker. Twisted and torturous looking, the canvas is covered with a tangle of black thorns, punctuated by harsh bursts of mustard yellow and blood red.
“I treated these plants with a certain feeling of either hope or death and suffering,” Aoun explains. “There’s the Acanthus Syriacus – it’s a spiny plant that is hard, and I painted it in a bit more abstract way, with feelings of suffering.
“The difference between those two paintings – either hope or suffering – it’s because ... the changes in our society between one week and another are enormous. Sometimes we feel very positive, the day after something happens and we are really down.”
Charbel Samuel Aoun’s “Lost Spring” is up at the SMO Gallery in Karantina through Nov. 26. For more information please call 01-572-202.