x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Beirut burning

John Jurayj talks about the creative process behind his work Untitled Lebanon (Fragments).

John Jurayj's paintings conjure images of the conflict that has been devastating Beirut on and off since 1975.
John Jurayj's paintings conjure images of the conflict that has been devastating Beirut on and off since 1975.

John Jurayj talks to Timur Moon about the creative process behind his work Untitled Lebanon (Fragments)

John Jurayj paints Beirut burning. Its incinerated buildings blaze out of his canvases, seared in an iridescent blitz of colour that explodes across the surface like a Jackson Pollock.

Vivid spatterings of paint conjure the flames, re-enacting a conflict that has devastated the city on and off since the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, the year Jurayj's parents, who are of Christian Lebanese origin, left the city for the United States, taking their six-year-old son with them.

The city of his memory is incandescent, streaked with vivid flares of orange, hot pink and acid green. And there's a hysteria amid the bombardment, so that the works become a celebration of colour, dazzling in the delirium they relive. Meanwhile, the painter's gestures live on in the mad, whirling gesticulations that dance across the surface of the works, daubed across the blitzed-out edifices of the buildings beneath them.

Pieces of smashed mirror are incorporated to fragment the surface of some of the works, in a literalist recreation of the shattered buildings, so that the paintings themselves become a kind of Kristallnacht set alight with painted explosions.

In other works, the artist has actually taken a flame to the paper, burning holes in the surface with a candle that leaves wisps of sfumato billowing across the surface.

The abstract expressionist "action painting" of Pollock and Willem de Kooning is a formative influence, with Jurayj taking his cue from Pollock's stated technique of "painting on air", laying his canvases horizontally on the floor to engage in a similar drip-painting process before resurrecting them to apply the final details.

"The work pays homage to abstract expressionism, with its gesture of spill," he says.

"I'm trying to get to the core of what motivated painters like Pollock and de Kooning."

But where Pollock's work tended towards pure abstraction amid the exuberance of its lashings of colour, Jurayj attempts to bring elements of figurative representation back into the works, most notably in his depictions of buildings, semi-obliterated as they are behind the explosive campaign of abstraction happening on the surface.

"There is a kind of spectacle to my work," he says. "I'm hoping to reveal something of death amid the frenzied life going on."

His buildings are knocked sideways, rocked diagonally by air strike and aftershock, lifted or leaning tilted on their foundations. But there's a visible love of figural representation in the way he renders them, with strips or slabs of paint reproducing the levels of each storey, and a skilled draughtsmanship in evidence in the architectural style of the depiction.

The death of Rafik Hariri, the assassinated former president, and the mourning of him, is a pervasive theme; it was a tragedy for which Lebanon still grieves, and Jurayj's work is visibly still mourning the event.

The St George hotel in downtown Beirut is the focal point of Untitled, Bomb #3, outside which Hariri was killed in February 2005 when a payload of explosives was detonated as his motorcade passed. And it is here that the work becomes an homage to the man whose life and death, perhaps more than any other, shaped Lebanon's history over the past 30 years.

Aside from his larger oils on linen, a series of smaller works on paper employ a technique of computer-generated technology reminiscent of thermal imaging, with photographs doctored in a style reminiscent of a heat-seeking camera, so that the delineation of the structure comes up white on black in negative.

Jurayj then sets to work with a blowtorch, leaving parts of his parchments charred in cinders, tattered and soot-encrusted and hung from the wall with tape.

But it's the larger oils and mirror paintings that represent his most ambitious work, and their celebration of the vibrance and the violence of colour that mark his biggest achievement.


John Jurayj, Untitled Lebanon (Fragments) at The Third Line Gallery, Dubai, until January 6