“So much of Kaari’s thinking was about folds and pockets, insides turning outside, outsides in. Walls glisten and dissolve.
She discovered ways to cast the holes in things and pull them out into objecthood, crumpled hollows. The inside of buckets, the skin of a fireplace, obverse dollhouses, imaginary lovers. Absence was at hand, able to be touched, held, dragged, kissed.”
— Audrey Wollen on Kaari Upson, Art Forum, October 2021 print
Words by: Nadine Khalil
I’ve often thought of the late American artist Kaari Upson when encountering Chafa Ghaddar’s work. In Ghaddar’s corporeal architectures an intimate preoccupation with the body and its mortality is revealed through acts of layering and decay. I can imagine the artist on the ground hovering over her canvasses overlaid with lace. She wrinkles the fabric and uses a knife to layer in the mural stucco she has mixed with colour. The stucco, which infiltrates the gaps and patterns in the folds of fabric, dries over several hours. The lace is peeled off, leaving imprints. Her process is a whole-body experience that in a sense ‘peers’ through the ornate art histories of mural-making, interiors and fresco architectures, like the gaps in the lace she uses. It also disrupts these histories.
Ghaddar’s training in fresco techniques and mural painting have moved from a density of spatial containment to a breaking through of the frame and its boundaries, sometimes by creating apertures or pictorial window-like interjections that look out onto the ultramarine skies — or seas — of elsewhere. In her Beneath Latent Skies series of mixed media works are slivers of sky, at times interrupted by a cloud, windows of night or long strips of the ocean. In Bodyscapes, her smaller works on paper, are interrupted lines that index a natural vista or bodily contours coming into formation.Flow is a fresco on wood that sees a map of burgundy vein-like dots emanating from a central column, like a spine.
She works on an expanded sense of the body via tears, cracks and subtle, gestural movements in shifts and cuts. A luscious diptych in Bodyscapes juxtaposes an image of her midriff, put together like a collage of separate parts, sliced by a dark black shadow, next to swathes of shiny pink situated between wetness and movement. Elsewhere body parts intimate undulating forms. In a return to self-portraiture, fragments of the artist’s body offer a blown-up view of motherhood and change. It’s a coming to terms with oneself, with an interiority that is situated and subject to the demands of time, zoomed in to generate an almost unsettling proximity to surface and skin. In her material experiments, Ghaddar works with scale, texture and pliability to evoke a certain fragility; the passing of time is like a gravitational shift — the sagging of skin.
There’s an impulse to fix time in the moment. Ghaddar uses either matte or satin varnish for the larger pieces and a glossy oil-based varnish for the smaller ones. While both incorporate stucco, the different finishes act divergently on surface — breaking it in parts or preventing the colour from holding.
For Ghaddar, colors are always linked to the evocation of surface — the blue of the flat outside, the peach of flesh, the bordeau of wounds. Propped against the wall on an angle, her pinkish soft sculpture, Exhausted Forms (2022), recently exhibited at the Lyon Biennale, falls into folds that appear frozen in motion. Taking the form of an uprooted monument, it is also a ruin or on the verge of becoming one. Here is not only the formalist expression of tension between monumentality and its near-collapse, but also a body of work that has sometimes taken shape through material strains that navigate states of balance and suspension. A closer look at her degradations of colour also point towards the specter of meditative color field paintings, as with her mossy Studies on Grass series, segmented by tone.
Ghaddar’s visual vocabulary draws from her professional background in decorative painting and fresco, an industry that can be separated from her education in the fine arts even while she has merged the two. Early memories that pulled her towards this field include how physical traces of humidity manifested on the walls of her childhood home in Lebanon and the need for constant repair against contamination. While she has translated this understanding of transformative surfaces in an embodied way, through attempts at capture, her process of accruing sediments and consequently stripping them away gesture towards abstract expressionism, albeit in a more controlled manner than action painting.
Where the practice of sensuality has emerged in the artist’s process — the fresco technique involves a kind of ‘soft’ painting within layers of wetness in order to mould the mural work — the fluidity is transmitted in form. With her new work, The Cave, two huddled figures are discernible in a fog of hair, skin and red lips. When compared to her earlier work Corps (2018), the lines are less defined, less cutting. They are the contamination of surfaces contained on the body as lingering residues. Milk, one of the last frescoes she made, points to the beginning of a nipple in a dusty swirl, but the mastery of gesture is such that it could also read as corrosive remnants on a surface. Soft is the Night are mixed media works whose lacy patterns are punctuated by black and petrol-blue lines — both feminine and measured. Ghaddar’s excavation of fresco — as methodology and language — has become a compelling excavation of the body in and through surrounding space.