Sfeir-Semler Gallery is happy to present in its downtown Beirut space the solo exhibition of Aref El Rayess, opening on December 14, 2023.
The exhibition features a body of work from 1999 initially showcased at the Unesco palace in Beirut that year, only to remain unseen since. Vibrant paintings, simultaneously informal, constructed, and abstract, come together to create a series marked by a consistent handwriting, an uncommon trait for the prolific and versatile artist.
First presented under the title Labyrinths, they are described at the time by Joseph Tarrab as “networks, which duplicate those of nature, science and industry [and in which] man is prisoner, as he struggles with an unprecedented identity crisis triggered by processes of globalization”; but also as “talismans, mandalas that allow to exorcise these fundamental contradictions”.
Throughout the series, organic shapes travel from one work to the next, forming abstract landscapes or human shadows. Elements from the many “periods” of El Rayess emerge sporadically, with references to figuration such as the portrait of a man with a crowd at the base of his neck or silhouetted women all reminiscent of earlier works.
While extremely structured and sculptural, the paintings exude a seamless flow, as if created in a single burst, dismissing central perspective. Geometrical shapes spread over the whole surface of the work in bright and intense colors. They sprawl across the canvas, and beyond, covering the frames which become an integral component of the work. Although appearing spontaneous and automated at first glance, El Rayess had clearly carefully constructed his compositions.
The depicted organisms use prisms and geometric motifs to form cheerful surrealistic cityscapes revealing discernible silhouettes within. Produced in the 1990s and drawing inspiration from the psychedelic era of the 1960s, the paintings on show still possess a contemporary freshness as though they had just dried at the studio.
Born in Aley (Lebanon) in 1928, Aref El Rayess started painting at the age of eleven. In 1948 his first exhibition was held at the American University of Beirut.
From 1948 to 1957 El Rayess travelled between Senegal and Paris where he studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts, and the free studios of Fernand Leger, Andre Lhôte, and La Grande Chaumière among others. In 1957 he returned to Lebanon and opened his studio in his hometown, Aley. In 1959 he was offered a scholarship to study in Italy and spent four years between Florence and Rome; and in 1963 the Lebanese government commissioned him to produce two sculptures to represent Lebanon at the New York World Fair. El Rayess spent two years in the USA meeting with Expressionists painters and intellectuals.
In 1967 he returned to Lebanon, marked by the events in the Arab World. He was a Founding member of the Fine Arts Department at the Lebanese University where he taught, and Dar el Fan (The House of Art and Culture) with his close friend Janine Rubeiz. From that moment on, El Rayess organized, attended and participated in conferences and exhibitions on politics and arts in the Arab World. In 1972 he published a manifesto titled With Whom and Against Whom. In 1975 he was invited to Algeria where he produced a series of drawings depicting the Lebanese civil war, published as the book The Road to Peace; and in 1978 he participated in the International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine. He started working in Saudi Arabia around this time, and produced around 13 sculptures between Jeddah, Tabuk and Riyad. He stayed in Jeddah until 1987 and returned to Aley, Lebanon, in 1992, where he lived until he passed away in 2005.