Western thought is fond of dualities – the brain and the heart, body and soul, conscience and cruelty, the reality and the fictive.
Different as these categories are, our decision to allot lived experience to one category or another is largely a matter of perception. Whether a thing is real or illusory, physical or spiritual, whether a response to it is rational or overwrought – all are informed, or deceived, by perception.
We are free to change our perception of things, and it’s this freedom that Lebanese artist Antoine Mansour explores in his exhibition “The Free Choice of an Enlightened Reality” nowadays on display at the Cynthia Nouhra Art Gallery in Furn al-Shubbak.
Mansour’s solo show is comprised of 28 mixed-media-on-canvas works, all of them delving into the multiplicity of interpretation. These paintings confront viewers with a world that is surrealistic, metaphysical and visually and mentally titillating.
Mansour’s sand-and-oil-on-canvas “A Step in the Void” (219 x 62 cm) frames a nude man from above, standing at the edge of a precipice facing the light. The nude’s shadow extends behind him and is the dominant feature of the work. A smaller nude seems to step out of the larger figure’s head, as though the artist were representing the stationary figure’s imagining itself as stepping off the cliff edge.
It isn’t hard to imagine that the work depicts a dichotomy. The similarity in the hues of the central figure’s flesh and the ground underlines the physicality of that figure, as if anchored to the ground by his shadow. The more daring smaller figure, meanwhile, could be seen to represent some convenient Other – whether it be spirituality to the central form’s physicality, or adventurous to his stationary aspect.
The figure might be afraid of stepping into the unknown, while his sense of adventure moves boldly forward. Alternatively, the large figure might be attached to his world, while the wee fellow on his head embraces personal extinction. It’s all a matter of perception.
Several of Mansour’s pieces depict nudity but the spirit of these works is far from obscene or pornographic, being closer to simplicity and innocence.
In his sand-and-oils on canvas entitled “Raphael Watering the Concrete Pillars” (111.5 x 234 cm), the onlooker finds a child – named after the Archangel Raphael, though the figure is bereft of wings – standing (nude), hose in hand, in a forest of concrete pylons.
The artist uses sand to convey the concrete’s rough texture. Stark lines of metal rebar emerge from the concrete and reach skyward, like the branches of alien trees. As to Raphael’s apparently nonsensical gesture – the act of watering a concrete pillar in a construction site – a small glimmer of meaning can be found in the branches of rebar emerging from the nude’s pillar, which protrude more like branches than the others, and support a few tentative leaves.
It may be tough to get blood from a stone but it seems a little life can be coaxed from concrete.
There’s something amusing in Mansour’s “Two Thinkers Discussing the Melting Tomato” (Oils on canvas, 130 x 130 cm). It finds a pair of nude intellectuals sitting in a cell on a pair of boxes. One is fixed in a contemplative pose that approximates Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” while the other gestures argumentatively.
Behind them, meanwhile, a ludicrously large fruit, apparently suspended in the air, is melting, leaving the nude intellectuals up to their calves in the unwholesome-looking ooze of tomato pulp. Evidently the artist wants to say something about intellectuals being so focused on argument that they fall out of touch witt their surroundings.
Mansour’s mixed media-on-canvas work “Apple Tree” (170 x 109 cm) depicts a many armed nude woman, her face utterly obscured by her array of branch-like arms, each of which clutches an apple as if she were presenting offering it to a passerby.
The artist appears to be alluding to the Book of Genesis’ story of Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, yet his conflation of Eve with the garden’s apple tree is highly evocative of the Hindu temple’s representations of curvaceous, multiply armed goddesses.
In her shadow, a child can be seen kneeling, as if playing with a toy. Evidently sampling the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge does have consequences.
Antoine Mansour’s “Free Choice of an Enlightened Reality” is on show at Furn al-Shubbak’s Cynthia Nouhra Art Gallery until Feb. 16. For information call 01-281-755.