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Caricature more than mere cartoon.

Summary: Portraits rendered in childlike style with exaggerated features and in explosive colors. This cartoonish depiction of the world is presently gracing the walls of Hamra's Art Circle gallery.

BEIRUT: Portraits rendered in childlike style with exaggerated features and in explosive colors. This cartoonish depiction of the world is presently gracing the walls of Hamra's Art Circle gallery.

There is something captivating about the carnivalesque renderings in "Bonds," the latest exhibition by Lebanese artist Mazen Khaddaj. Yet if there is something childlike in these 23 gouache-on-paper works, there is a great deal more that is adult.

There is an intriguing formal contradiction in these works. Though Khaddaj wields a palette ruled by bright reds, yellows, blues, purples and greens, the surface area of the paper on which these hues mingle is small. The biggest of them is 70x25 cm.

Most of Khaddaj's portraits feature elongated faces and necks. For some spectators, this might be reminiscent of the works of Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani. Yet, if there is a mask-like quality in the portraiture of both artists, Khaddaj's paintings announce a far more drastic break from the conventions of naturalistic representation than anything found in his early-20th-century counterpart.

It is tempting to view Khaddaj's oeuvre as an art of caricature and cartoon, portraiture designed to be amusing.

Take Khaddaj's "One Last Time," 40x30 cm, which depicts a green-eyed figure with a cigarette in its mouth. Yet the "comedy" of the figure, if indeed there is anything comic here, resides not in the "what" but the "how."

The figure's head looks like an ovoid to which someone's taken an axe and hacked two intersecting planes out of it -- with the flesh of the left and right sides, and the thin strip meant to represent the bridge of the nose, colored in three shades of pink.

The right side of his face is a healthy shade of pink. The left side -- against which the cigarette is silhouetted -- is a shade of magenta, as if to represent the discoloration of illness.

Between the two planes of the face, the figure's lips, pursed about the cigarette end, are painted blue. On each of the two planes, a disproportionately huge, green eye bursts uniquely from the frame of its eye socket in a manner that's indifferent to the laws of physics and physical anatomy.

These eyes gaze straight out of the paper at the observer, in an expression that most closely approximates panic-stricken guilt. If the observer is a smoker it will be obvious that the title captures the situation: a smoker enjoying a desperate last draw or two before quitting. "One Last Time" speaks to mortal fragility as much as it does societal intolerance.

Khaddaj's diptych "Together Forever," 2x27x27 cm, suggests a romantic vista. Framed by the edges of their respective media, a pair of figures -- a man and a woman -- lean toward one another, indifferent to the material barrier separating them.

The background is filled with colorful, star-shaped geometrical patterns, making the tableau similar to a comic book depiction of a love scene. Here Khaddaj's technique is evocative of that of stained glass. As this medium has certain ecclesiastical associations, some may find in "Together Forever" a contemporary representation of Adam and Eve.

Apparently pitched at society, "Dreams," 55x24 cm, depicts nine mask-like faces. Unlike the other works discussed, these figures -- each a different size and hue, as if to convey the impression of a human mosaic -- aren't addressing the viewer but one another.

The ensemble resembles a cross between a nightmare fantasia and something totemic.

A more fantastical, possibly disturbing, work is "Always in my Dreams," 30x40 cm. The piece depicts a human figure and a cat, perhaps his cat.

The skin on the human figure's face is red, green and blue -- like a Star Trek character -- with the green lines on the forehead emphasizing the frowning savageness of its gaze. The almond-shaped eyes are so huge they actually determine the shape of the head.

The cat, on the other hand is represented in relatively "human" terms -- inasmuch as Khaddaj's style allows this -- gazing back at onlookers with something like amused compassion.

It's as though the artist reversed the polarities of the two figures -- making the cat more human and the human more beast-like.

Khaddaj's "Bonds" is now up at Art Circle until April 25. For more information, please call 03-027-776.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Apr 19, 2013
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