A retrospective of works by the Beirut-based artist Mohammad El Rawas is not intended for visitors who aspire to look at visually mild artworks, nor for viewers who prefer their art experience to be an easily digestible one.
The show, Mohammad El Rawas: Recent Works, is the retrospective of an artist who serves his art in a style that visually and intellectually challenges viewers, asking them to confront notions of portraiture and composition and ostensibly the very history of the global art canon.
El Rawas is a technically adroit painter, sculptor and graphic artist. The retrospective, at Saleh Barakat Gallery in Beirut, contains numerous works which are a testament to his lifelong commitment to teaching visual arts and exploring the deeper theoretical parameters of the field in his own artwork. The exhibition highlights his skills of construction and technique in addition to his keen eye for color with works that were made as early as his school days.
The exhibition encompasses four different stages of the artist’s oeuvre. The first chapter on display includes black crayon and ink drawings of sculptures and still lifes executed while El Rawas was still in middle school. These works highlight a continuity of themes that reappear in his recent compositions. In addition, pencil and charcoal sketches reveal an artist who was forming the technical skills of strong draftsmanship, and a keen eye to unearth intriguing subjects.
The second stage of El Rawas’s career is represented by his art-school graduation project: a painting titled Train I, executed during his final year at the Lebanese University’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1975. This large painting of abstract female figures was recovered in recent years after it disappeared and was thought to have been destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. For decades, the only proof of the painting’s existence was a grainy photograph of the young artist standing next to it upon completion.
“Had it not been for my colleague who had offered to take a picture, the work might have disappeared forever,” says the artist.
When the painting was found, El Rawas committed to restoring the work to bring back the original intensity of its colors, imbuing fresh spirit into its subjects: lithe, long-limbed women, each abstractly painted in a different style, in various positions of seduction, intrigue and insouciance. The artist cites the work of Arshile Gorky as a major influence on him at the time he produced the picture. Certainly, there is also a visual connection to the work which most famously launched abstract figuration: Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This indirect reference highlights not only El Rawas’s academic training, but also the multiplicity of historical visual arts references he uses and which reappear in his later works.
The third period presented is a series of graphic prints executed while El Rawas was in Morocco for two years after having left Beirut to escape the war. It was there that he learned how to produce rudimentary prints and what helped propel him to undertaking an master of fine arts degree in printmaking at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College, London.
The fourth stage is his more recent paintings, many of which are displayed also.
Interestingly, after restoring Train I, El Rawas painted a new iteration titled Train II in 2016 as a project to reconsider the creative experience and challenge of the earlier work. Being able to view both paintings in the exhibition reveals an artist who in the span of 40 years gave much thought to the purpose of painting, and has evolved conceptually and technically.
In his recent work, El Rawas divides his paintings’ composition into different overlapping planes. This allows him to work on assorted themes simultaneously, such as current affairs, art history and contemporary pop culture. He juxtaposes figures and landscapes with architectonic forms to create worlds in which time periods clash. His ability to execute what seems like several paintings in one forces the viewer to pause to decipher the various vignettes.
Embedded in these compositions are statements both metaphoric and literal about contemporary matters—such as ISIS militants, whom he once placed in a painting as pigs fleeing from a scene, and about history.
In Train II, a male figure reminiscent of Dutch Golden Age subjects looks out both at the viewer and at a Japanese manga character posing in the foreground. Art is in dialogue with itself, as one subject contemplates the other.
By extension, El Rawas’s intricate layering in a painting reveals both his ability to paint female subjects in multiple forms and the very dialogue he is having with himself about different styles of portraiture and drawing.
Male subjects are merely supporting characters in each painting. Female forms are El Rawas’s focus. The manga characters—forms familiar from Japanese graphic novels—represent both the idealization of strong female characters and the excitement such characters create for male readers of manga comics, and also show how the genre allows for these characters to be presented as astoundingly formidable and sexually alluring, brazen in their overt sexuality yet emblematic of the power of women.
The paintings are not meant to titillate, but rather express the breadth of female power and beauty. This is evident in the centerpiece and sole sculptural work on display: An Accident in a Manga Girls’ Colony, which encapsulates El Rawas’s fascination with architectural forms. This physical rendition highlights the artist’s ability to compose individual vignettes once again on different dimensions and planes. The characters are placed in mid-pose in varying stages of reacting to the accident of a ruptured building.
“I really enjoyed working on this piece from both a physical aspect—of creating something with my hands from discarded material that I found—and considering the structure of a building and questions related to the architecture of form,” says El Rawas.
“I think that I’m going to try and work more on sculpture now,” he adds. “I find it very satisfying.”
Mohammad El Rawas: Recent Works is showing at Saleh Barakat Gallery in Beirut until April 23.