“Dream (Rêve),” 2002, by the Egyptian artist Wassef Boutros-Ghali, was among my favorite works from the entirety of The Armory Show 2023 — and there was a lot! (Check out an image here.)
It’s a square canvas nearly four feet on each side that communicates, without establishing any precise scene, an immersive peace. The combination of colors that comprises the picture mirrors the natural world, with sand (the color, not an image) meeting a rich green that suggests a clearly vibrant forest scene. When you look at a tree and somehow just know that it’s doing well, whatever that means for a tree — that’s the color. The angled portions containing these gently gradated colors meet but don’t appear to overlap, and though the creation of the painting is evident here — softly sweeping brush strokes are visible in the green section — Boutros-Ghali is consistently precise across this work. It’s stable, even if unknowable.
In the section suggesting sand, there’s a radiant portion of white and light blue suggesting — only in passing — a window, and towards the base of the canvas, another area of white is painted to communicate downward depth. That sense, though, sits at odds with the surrounding colors, as the meeting point of that earthy, muted yellow and the lush green mostly suggests simple flatness, at least in one perspective — which (in theory) wouldn’t leave room for the foregrounded depth. This slight contrast elevates the experience of the painting into something you know isn’t strictly representational, though it’s easily ensnaring. It’s physical, yet something beyond.
Albertz Benda at The Armory Show
Boutros-Ghali had a series of canvas works presented as part of Armory this year by Albertz Benda, a gallery with presences in New York and Los Angeles.
The gallery paired Boutros-Ghali with Devon DeJardin — a truly fascinating artist whose canvases are complex. Standing in front of these large paintings (one is six feet wide), you instantly begin to see just how sprawling in conceptual scope they are.
His work, like “Embrace,” 2023, features surreal assemblages of shapes that blend the natural and what’s less recognizably natural. “Embrace” features third dimension-evoking shapes that, though assertive in presence and bright in color to the point of clearly suggesting something entirely artificial, also move as though they’re alive — or just coming alive. “Embrace” is awash with light from an unseen source, with the undefinable items joined in physically difficult patterns including what’s apparently just levitation. The scene transpires on what looks like a stage, with the often bright colors of purple and gold filling in the foreground and backdrop, respectively, though the actual hues are more muted — brightly lit, but slightly offset from what you’d expect if you imagined the glittering glamour of show biz.
The light also seems somewhat communicative of alienation considering the force inherent to its intensity. It’s important to note, though, that the work doesn’t go completely off the rhetorical rails. (On or off the rails, I like it, and that’s not a value judgment.) There’s still some strange, perhaps even otherworldly feeling of stillness. (See the painting right here.) Standing in the booth for Albertz Benda when the in-person edition of The Armory Show was still active, it struck me rather quickly how well the two painters seemed to coexist.
More from Wassef Boutros-Ghali
The canvases from Boutros-Ghali were all somewhat similar in artistic approach. “Horizon VII,” 2000, more clearly resembled an actual, physical scene. (An image is viewable here.) Even before the title, Boutros-Ghali established a horizon line on the canvas, and a mountain-like shape arises from that point. “Untitled,” 2013, also from Boutros-Ghali, reminds me of the energy of a dance routine, with shapes splayed across the canvas in an overlapping and slightly offset but still rhythmically unified pattern. (That one’s at this link.) The colors are quite attention-grabbing, from the ensnaring but light blue that fills most of the background to the bright yellow, maroon, and other colors that comprise the individual shapes that sit against this background.
General Thoughts to Close Out
It’s central to remember when looking at abstract art that it’s not just about finding some underlying meaning. It’s not automatically something else or holding a secret pattern. Though the subject may be esoteric and difficult to verbalize, what’s on the canvas is, in fact, the focus of the painting or similar artwork unless it’s contextually evident otherwise. (That’s my argument at least.) There are specific elements to our physically and mentally lived environments that find expression in some of the most compelling abstract art.
For Boutros-Ghali, these paintings — created decades into his career — also all deliver a distinct surety of execution. No matter the often incomparable nature of the shapes and other illustrative elements, you get a sense of precision, which in turn provides these accessible yet dreamlike states with the feeling that there’s some unifying, creative force establishing these worlds as — even if just for a moment — real. The consistency in tone with these individual paintings means you’re immersed.
Check out the online viewing room made available by Albertz Benda at this link. Despite The Armory Show 2023 having ended, I wanted to put this up because of my abiding interest in the work and to create essentially a record.