‘Labyrinths’ by Aref El Rayess at Sfeir Semler Down Town Beirut

Sfeir-Semler Gallery presents the solo exhibition of Aref El Rayess at its downtown Beirut location, from December 14, 2023, until March 16, 2024. This showcase unveils a collection of artworks dating back to 1999, originally presented at the UNESCO palace in Beirut but unseen since. The exhibition features paintings that exist on the cusp of informality, construction, and abstraction, creating a cohesive series distinguished by the artist’s consistent style—a remarkable trait for such a prolific and versatile creator.

Untitled, 1999, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 120 cm. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

Initially titled “Labyrinths” when introduced by Joseph Tarrab, these works were described as intricate networks mirroring those found in nature, science, and industry. Tarrab characterised them as spaces where humanity grapples with an identity crisis prompted by the forces of globalisation. Simultaneously, he saw them as talismans and mandalas offering a means to exorcise fundamental contradictions.

Across the series, organic forms traverse from one piece to the next, giving rise to abstract landscapes and human shadows. Aref El Rayess integrates elements from his various artistic periods, incorporating figuration such as a portrait of a man with a crowd at the base of his neck and silhouetted women reminiscent of his earlier works.

Despite their structured and sculptural nature, the paintings emit a seamless flow, as if conceived in a single burst, rejecting a central perspective. Geometric shapes sprawl across the entire surface in vivid and intense colours, extending beyond the canvas to encompass the frames, which become integral to the overall composition. Although the works may initially appear spontaneous and automated, El Rayess’s careful construction of compositions is evident.

Depicting organisms employing prisms and geometric motifs to fashion cheerful surrealistic cityscapes, these artworks reveal discernible silhouettes within. Originating from the 1990s and inspired by the psychedelic era of the 1960s, the exhibited paintings retain a contemporary freshness, as if they had just been completed in the studio.

Exhibition view, Labyrinths, Paintings from 1999, 2023, Sfeir-Semler Downtown, Beirut, Lebanon Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

About Aref El Rayess

Born in Aley, Lebanon, in 1928, Aref El Rayess began his artistic journey at eleven. His inaugural exhibition occurred in 1948 at the American University of Beirut. Between 1948 and 1957, El Rayess traversed Senegal and Paris, studying at the Academy of Fine Arts and under masters such as Fernand Leger. Returning to Lebanon in 1957, he established his studio in Aley. A scholarship led him to Italy in 1959, spending four years in Florence and Rome. The Lebanese government commissioned him for sculptures representing Lebanon at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. El Rayess, marked by Arab World events, co-founded the Fine Arts Department at the Lebanese University. His career encompassed teaching, collaboration with Dar el Fan, engagement in political and artistic conferences, and notable publications like the 1972 manifesto “With Whom and Against Whom.” In 1975, he depicted the Lebanese civil war in drawings compiled in the book “The Road to Peace,” and in 1978, he contributed to the International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine. El Rayess spent time in Saudi Arabia, creating 13 sculptures in Jeddah, Tabuk, and Riyadh until 1987. His return to Aley in 1992 marked the final chapter of his life, as he continued his artistic legacy until his passing in 2005.

Location: Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Downtown Beirut

Dates: December 14, 2023 – March 16, 2024.

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