A woman has stretched her upper lip, turning it inside out until it almost covers her eyes. A man has knitting needles sticking out of his wasted body.
A woman’s huge mouth full of jagged teeth engulf her own neck, as though to sever her own head. For Lebanese artist Annie Kurkdjian, these images depict reality. Indeed, “reality,” she says, “is worse than that.”
Kurkdjian’s latest exhibition, “Géométrie Macabre,” which opened at Furn al-Shubbak’s La Maison du Sommelier Friday, features 29 acrylic paintings crowded on every inch and table-top of the venue’s cosy exhibition space.
Though her paintings appear to owe more to surrealism – a la Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon – than to the realism of Edgar Degas or Edward Hopper, Kurdjian maintains that “they aim to express reality. To better express it.”
The images feature simple figures, often painted with a childlike innocence, engaged in adult (often sexual) acts of suffering or humiliation. The contrast between the naive simplicity of the style and the shocking content of the images themselves creates a disturbing impression of destroyed innocence.
This contrast is suggested in the title of Kurkdjian’s show, which acknowledges the disturbing content of her work while emphasising the neat, almost minimalist, surroundings the artist gives her subjects.
“There is a symmetry in the composition and form,” she says. “It’s not chaotic. It’s very organized ... Chaos scares me a little bit.”
Aware that many people feel the same way about her nightmarish paintings, the artist admits that “there are lots of people who don’t like it and I respect that. “I don’t hang them in my house,” she says. “But there are some people – more mad than me – who buy them!”
Her paintings feature explicit images designed to shock. In one of them – all of which are untitled – a woman lies on a surgical table. The top half of her body is covered by a sheet, while her naked lower half is exposed to the viewer. Another image depicts a naked man resting his genitals on the head of a smaller man, whose head, in turn, rests on a table.
“It’s my job to shock,” says Kurkdjian. “As an artist there are no limits.”
As they are concerned not with beauty but largely with suffering, her images are certainly not for everyone. They are simultaneously fascinating and repellent, a combination that gives them an extraordinary power from which it is hard to turn away, harder still to forget.
In all of her pieces the figures are given a surreal twist. Faces are often subtly deformed. Some appear almost normal, though depicted in Kurkdjian’s distinctive style.
Other paintings are firmly placed within the surrealist school, featuring upside-down heads, babies with green skin and unbelievably sharp teeth, or an impossibly flat woman, laid across a line of corpse-like male bodies like an undulating piece of paper.
One painting shows a woman who appears to be transforming into a giant serpent, her head and legs human, her torso a thick green cylinder which curls impossibly around to join head and lower body.
Aside from her underwear, which is slipping off her inhuman body, she is naked. Along the unnatural curve of her spine a row of giant needles has pierced her skin, forming a line of reptilian spikes which appear to serve a dual function, torturing the woman while simultaneously providing her with a series of built-in weapons.
Most of the images take a few minutes to process, but after absorbing the initial shock many of them contain elements of dark humor that prevent the exhibition from becoming oppressive or depressing. “If it was only about suffering, it would be catastrophic. No one could look at it,” says Kurkdjian. “The best tragedies are always accompanied by humor.”
There are elements of this black comedy in her painting of Ara the Beautiful. The painting is based on an Armenian myth about a prince so beautiful that Assyrian Queen Semiramis waged a war to win him.
When he died, she was distraught and placed his corpse in an upper room of her palace so that he could be brought back to life by the Aralez – ancient Armenian gods who look like dogs or wolves and who were said to be able to being warriors back to life by licking their wounds.
Kurkdjian has painted her vision of this myth, depicting Ara the Beautiful, pale and thin, no longer handsome, hunched between two giant wolf-like creatures who are licking his face with enormous red tongues. The image is surreal and initially off-putting but ultimately, like most of Kurkdjian’s works, compelling and bleakly comic.
The young artist studied management before giving up her bank job to study art and psychology. She paints to communicate her view of the world, creating images which seem to come straight out of a terrifying, meaningless dream.
“A painting can express things that words cannot,” she says. “If I didn’t have painting I would have nothing left in the world.”
Annie Kurkdjian’s “Géométrie Macabre” is on show at La Maison du Sommelier in Furn al-Shubbak until March 15. For more information please call 03-352-015.