Choucair At Tate Modern

Yesterday I went to see the Saloua Raouda Choucair show at the Tate Modern. As it was quite small, I went to see the Lichtenstein show again as well.

Choucair is an underrated Lebanese artist and many of the paintings and sculptures shown were created in the fifties and sixties. Her sculptures in particular are amazing.

The first room is lined with paintings that were nearly all gouache on paper, about 40cm by 30cm. These paintings were vibrant and abstract. I prefer larger oil paintings and it took me a while to get to grips with the small format and the bright colours, but they are really quite wonderful: the colours swim and dance in front of you. I thought the nudes were particularly interesting, mainly because nudes are executed by almost every artist at some stage (there are some rather spotty ones by Lichtenstein for example) and are usually quite memorable – so seeing an artist’s nudes can give you a point of relation to other artists. Choucair’s nudes are pink and ample and altogether the more charming for it.

In the second room there were four large sculptures and some larger oil paintings that I liked a great deal: particularly Composition in Red, which was probably my favourite painting in the show. There was also a plinth showing off ten exquisite medium-sized sculptures (here “medium-sized” is in terms of the show, I mean about 15 by 15 by 20cm) with a few more small gauche paintings hung behind them, mostly experiments with calligraphy.

The larger sculptures in the room resemble tower blocks, particularly Infinite Structure 1963-5 and Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces. The first is on the cover of the exhibition guide, a wonderfully dry yet aesthetically pleasing brick tower consisting of pieces that look deformed (if you think of how bricks should look like) or completely natural (like vertebrae), depending on how you look. The latter really does seem to be made from a thousand pieces and looks even more like a tower block, complete with levels and windows. The piece is not uniform so the detail within it changes with your perspective, hence “a thousand pieces” I guess.

Another of the larger pieces in this room is Poem, which is similar to the Poem Wall. This, and similar sculptures, are inspired by arabic poetry, which unfortunately I don’t really know enough about to comment on exactly but according to the exhibition notes Sufi poetry has a unique modular stanza style wherein each stanza must read as an independent poem while interlocking with the others. This interlocking structure of independent components is a common motif in many of Choucair’s sculptures (and, it could be argued, in some of her paintings).

Returning to the plinth of smaller sculptures, these were the cause the alarm going off a number of times while I was there: people (myself included) would lean in past the line to examine these wonderful pieces in wood and fibreglass because they are simply marvellous. There was a real sensuality and vivaciousness to these pieces - my particular favourite was Secret of a Cube, a cube of wood hollowed out with a heart-like structure remaining within it that is so alive that it almost seems to be caught mid-beat. Many of these pieces are in parts and explore the meaning of forms that go together and complement one another. The sculptures take forms that are simultaneously natural and yet created with artistic intent, they seem to have resolved from their materials without the intervention of the artist and yet are works of art.

The third room contains lots of miniature sculptures and maquettes (preliminary models for larger sculptures), along with plans for fountains and other architectural features. A lot of Choucair’s work was interrupted by the civil war in the Lebanon. This can be seen in Two=one (the only painting in this room), which has holes in it and shrapnel embedded in it from when the gallery in which it was being shown was bombed. Rather than restore the painting, the artist chose to leave it in its new state in order to demonstrate the ways in which war impacts on cultural life.

The fourth and final room is the jewel in the crown, at least for me (though that second room does come very close). There are six sculptures and involve components in either plexiglass or metal that are combined together with strands of plastic. The pieces either hang in mid-air or from a frame. All seem architecturally inspired and very geometric. The one I found most inspiring was Trajectory Of One Line, which looks like a spirograph drawing rendered in three dimensions. The threads that hold it together, much like the colours in her gauche paintings, begin to blur and sing at you. When you lean in closer (no alarms this time thankfully) you see the very precise nature of the piece’s construction, where the needle has threaded the piece together: in through there and out through there, it almost becomes a performance that you imagine happening in front of you.

In conclusion, this is a short but entertaining show that will introduce you to a talented and underrated artist. This is as important thing to see in the Tate Modern as the greats and I highly recommend it. The book that accompanies the show is fairly expensive but it is a good read and I think I will go back for another look when I have finished it.

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· Art, Tate Modern, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Thirteen

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