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By Ayman Baalbaki
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A decade had passed since my first encounter with Ayman Baalbaki’s work, during that period, what was taking place in the Beirut art scene occupied much of my attention, awareness and curiosity, since it was an extremely turbulent decade that saw the precipitated end of a twenty year occupation; a sequence of assassinations that left the country in an unprecedented state of political polarization; that, in addition to another devastating war waged on the country, leaving parts of it, and its national infrastructure in an unprecedented state of destruction.
Paradoxically, the art scene was still growing and flourishing on at an amazing pace. Galleries were opening at unprecedented rates, reconstructed museums re opening to their public, new public collections inaugurating their space, new museums in their final planning and realization stages; and all that … in a state of deteriorating economy that some pessimist analysts may call collapse.
Ayman’s steady inroads into the regional and international art scenes provoked much of my inquisitive curiosity. Invited to visit his Hamra studio, I thought was a rare opportunity to explore this phenomenal artist’s creative process. Over three long visits to his space, while he was putting the last touches to his forthcoming solo exhibition “Blowback”, our conversations covered a myriad of topics ranging from mundane daily life issues to those that trigger and provoke his creative work. Roaming around that large open plan space, surrounded by these recent works that leave no wall space uncovered by layers of neatly stacked large canvases, one is in the center of an unmistakable energy source.
In answer to my question about the speed and tempo of brushwork needed for the coverage of works as large as that of the carcass of the Israeli bombed MEA carrier, he candidly replied that in his current work mood he is testing the limits of relying on his intuitive rapid pace of work, that besides brushwork, embraced all instantaneous impulses to shear or over paint whenever intuition guides him… “I need to transmit the immediate impulse…”
Memory was an unavoidable central theme in Baalbaki’s work, especially that most of his iconic subjects are of moments that took place in time, in his earlier childhood like the Embassy subjects – bombed 1983 when he was an 8-year child; even some events that took place before he was born, like the airport bombing of December 1968 … For me memory is a cumulative heritage, as I was raised into a culturally and politically engaged family… The image that now dominates our knowledge process is central to my work… even the physical image itself is central to my aesthetic awareness and my work… It can be an active stored memory element, or even a medium in my preparation for work, exactly like foundation brushwork...
The magnificent Barakat Building work intrigued me… composed of a depiction of the scaffold image of that emblematic building destroyed during the Civil War when it was well known as a notorious sniper’s nest… the precision interpretation of the scaffold in contrast to his intuitive and evident fast brush work made me pose the question … His comment was revealing … I finished the work without the scaffold, I was aware of a sense of incompletion. I let it rest… I never release a work that does not pass my own critical evaluation… the solution was adding the scaffold work, and I proceeded in rendering its finishing required to blend into its completion… I let it rest… I never release a work that does not pass my own critical evaluation…
Strewn around were a collection of works on flags, some in a fairly large format and painted on “Shader” – water proofed tent canvas; others in uniform smaller formats depicting different international identities, all were with fire burning through them, in a reflection on the raging modern conflict of identities, some to illustrate his current exhibition title: Blowback.
I did not need to elaborate any further on their evident lesson that dates back to creation as a central moral theme that Newton* had elegantly summed up in our modern era in his Third Law of Physics:
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.