On the Surface of Nature: The Materiality of Chaouki Chamoun’s Painting
One of the most significant Lebanese painters of the intermediate generation between the revered old masters and the emerging artists of today, Chaouki Chamoun, can easily be said to have been painting for 40 years. His exhibition, “Peace in Waiting,” held at Mark Hachem Gallery, brings together a number of recent paintings that echo the substantial development and consolidation of his pictorial eye through the last fifteen years. Over that time, he has moved away from the pure abstraction of his days in the United States, in a distinct relationship with post-expressionist academia, to a softer and more contemporary place of idiosyncrasy and re-assessment; a kind of re-enactment of memories, in a seamless topography of sites and stories, woven into an infinite thread of lost references.
The exhibition is centered around a number of paintings featuring Mount Sannine, in the Mount Lebanon range, with its characteristic white tapestry of snow, recreated on the canvas not in a naturalist and vitalist manner, but as a surface overlapping between abstraction and miniature. Trained initially at the Lebanese University under local artists and professors such as Ivette Achkar, Chafic Abboud and Aref Rayes, Chamoun was also involved in the American avant-garde with artists such as Angela Churchill and Darryl Hughto, before moving on to develop a style that would encompass his academic background – which he acquired after nearly half a lifetime of wanderings and adventures – with the particular experiences of exile and war.
The visual language deployed here is nowhere near naive, as it is built on experimentation and color-fields, but seems primarily interested in transporting the spectator to a place which is physical and not transcendental, while perhaps altogether lost; an attempted recollection. Two distinct elements appear in the work that have been a signature of the mature Chamoun since the early 2000s: the desert, and the small people at the slope of a mountain or a hill. The desert theme can be traced back to his first experience at tribal tents in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, experiencing the infinity of the desert. The caricaturesque small figurines, representing persons at the mercy of a superlative world, were first introduced around the same period in reference to the miracles in the Gospel of St. John.
Although not strictly conforming to the original structure of his metaphors, the new paintings unfold as an elaborate syncretism that speaks loud volumes for the narrative sincerity of an artist that has been at the forefront of conceptual experimentation in Lebanese painting through long periods of research and immersion. The obvious difference of scale between the human figures and a ruthless, if otherwise beautiful nature, operate in the same manner of his streams of consciousness from the 1980s: it attempts to map a trajectory between conflict and war, between ascent and serenity, between remembrance and loss. The logical impossibility of asymmetry is turned into perspective, opening a vast field between illusion and direction; completely perceptible to the naked eye.
The formal quality of Chaouki Chamoun’s painting, however, is never one of association or simile. This is crystal clear to whoever has seen his tributes to the impressionist painters dating back to the 1990s. Chamoun has always espoused the singular theory that the most important thing in a painting is its surface: “The surface of the painting is the invitation as well as the event. It is not there to be bypassed, forgotten or used to recall another experience; it is there because it the most important thing in the painting.”
A closer look at his work, across time, reveals the loyalty of the artist to this idea; a style of painting which is entirely material and materiality itself. “Peace in Waiting” is a call to precisely that, the serenity of the painter for whom ultimately there are no subject matters; only paintings.
Chaouki Chamoun’s “Peace in Waiting” was on show at Mark Hachem, October 31 – November 15.