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French Version

Raouf Rifai tailors abstract aesthetic to war-damaged urban fabric

Lebanese painter's new work draws inspiration from summer conflict and its aftermath

It's a trying life for the Lebanese visual artist. Of course, artists everywhere have never had an easy time of it.

Whether they forage for funding, endeavor to exhibit or struggle to find inspiration, their profession is simultaneously one of deeply private creation and necessarily public promotion.

The Lebanese art scene is no exception, though the small scale of the local market as well as its uncompetitive spirit may spare artists a life of commercial coups and calculations.

But there is the problem of culture. Who is truly interested in Lebanese contemporary art? Can a community of visual artists survive without the presence of serious art collectors? And how may a collective understanding of contemporary art develop without the presence of institutions to memorialize such work?

Despite an impoverished cultural climate - not to mention debilitating war and postwar economies - Raouf Rifai has done well. He has exhibited his paintings in France, Japan, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Bangladesh and the United States. He has steadily shown his work in numerous Lebanese galleries since 1973. His paintings sell at robust prices and please the obligingly critical eye.

"The artist visibly follows a process of formal simplification and qualification that leads him to create compositions that are, without a doubt, a most compelling mix of figuration and abstraction tending toward the definition of a new visual language," says the exhibition announcement for Rifai's current show at the French Cultural Center, on view until December 22.

Such long-winded praise elevates Rifai's colorful compositions to groundbreaking innovations of the medium itself. Although his work does indeed mix figuration and abstraction, there is little in the mid-sized canvases, layered as they are in dense blocks of acrylic color, to indicate that Rifai has developed a new visual language.

Complementary color pairs characterize most of the paintings currently on show: bright orange and electric blue, olive green and brick red, mustard yellow and magenta. Accenting tones of white, black, gray and beige serve to detail and outline each block of color. Instead of using brush strokes, Rifai drips and rolls his paint, layering saturated surfaces with grids of wavering lines. What emerges is a visual language between print patterns, abstract landscapes and primitive figuration - neither entirely developed nor notably individualized.

If anything, Rifai's work most calls to mind myriad swatches of stylish furniture fabric. His paintings are striking in their color but merely decorative in their even geometries. And if they are paintings most suited to compliment swanky interiors, Rifai is qualified to produce such work, given his position as a professor of interior design at the Lebanese University.

Also an urbanist and a staunch environmentalist, Rifai considers his current exhibition to be an expression of spatial vision. Having previously produced paintings in a more primitive style - depicting stick figures amongst trees in cluttered, childish interiors - Rifai's move to formal abstraction was propelled to completion by this past summer's war.

"I was affected by pollution - the pollution of the environment and of the city," says Rifai.

Inspired by the urban destruction of Beirut's southern suburbs and the villages of South Lebanon, Rifai wanted to depict the unexpected beauty of such a deconstructed urban landscape. "This is how my work has developed - more toward abstraction and urban space, and because of the war, I began to see how destruction can inspire. I wanted to paint all of this urban confusion," he explains.

As to his choice of acrylic paint, Rifai says: "I like to work quickly, impulsively. My work is emotional painting, and oil takes too long to dry. It makes me lose the feeling. So I work with acrylic to make it look like oil paint."

Perhaps he works too quickly. Rifai's paintings are immediately appealing, like attractive hothouse flowers. But they lack the unsettling detail and raw emotion of more substantially "felt" compositions.

In an art scene where a grounding history and an active community have yet to evolve, the question remains: Who is truly interested in Lebanese contemporary art?

If Rifai paints by himself and essentially for himself, it is understandable that his paintings may lack conceptual substance. Perhaps he is inspired by the work of some distant masters, as in the colors of painter Mark Rothko and the lines of architect Zaha Hadid, but for whom does he paint?

With which local artists does he exchange ideas? What works does he set his own against?

Although it may be said that a genius creates beauty under any circumstances, cultural value can only be attributed to work that is validated by a favorable context. Genius or not, art is nothing but private expression until it is recognized and fit into a community of artistic endeavor.

Rifai's previous work is more firmly anchored in what may be called a Mediterranean tradition. His childish drawings are charming, each one portraying some aspect of a sunny childhood spent amidst the happy disarray of an old-time Lebanon.

It may be said that his current work is more "mature." But according to what standards? Does a move from simple figuration to simple abstraction immediately indicate artistic maturity? And why has Rifai made this move?

As there is no cultural context through which Rifai's move to decorative abstraction may be understood, his paintings remain the results of private whim.

It is not so much that Rifai's colorful urban landscapes are uninteresting, but rather, that they are culturally powerless.

Raouf Rifai's paintings are on view at the French Cultural Center on Damascus Road in Achrafieh through December 22. For more information, please call +961 1 966 179.

Beirut 19-11-2006
Zeina Nasr
The Daily Star

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