Silent Screen by Bashar Alhroub
Sunday 29, November 2015 - Thursday 7th of January 2016
Bashar Alhroub’s new paintings may conventionally be seen as windows onto a world (and, no doubt, into the interior world of the artist’s consciousness and even unconsciousness). They may also be understood, less conventionally, however, as figurative walls or barriers that actually work creatively to block off the reality of occupation that succeeds daily in invading his life and that of all Palestinians. I propose that the massed ranks of the ghoulish dead or dying facing up to us in his paintings 1# and 2#, though they may seem to offer or solicit a silent scream, really act as complex kinds of screens.
They are so, literally, of course, in that, as paintings – whatever else they are – they are material objects: decorative furniture of a kind. As decorative objects they will have to be placed somewhere, from where they will be viewed and enjoyed: both as material objects and as visions (of silent screams as well as other things). These paintings may also go on literally to block the view of something else, if it’s only the walls behind where they hang. Alhroub’s ranked, emaciated, hairless bodies tapering to nothingness form a kind of multi-coloured veil: another kind of ‘screen’ or ‘divider’ whose psychosomatic effect is somehow here much more comic than tragic. Paintings 3# and 4# give the game away: these would be concentration or refugee camp small group victim portraits are really more comic book aliens, floating away into an inanimate, abstracted, airless space. These paintings also lift us up and away from reality as much – more actually – than they appear to drop us down into its grubby depths.
Think of the surfaces of these paintings as rigid structures or boards. As such, they offer some resistance: ‘screen’ in the late-nineteenth century also meant any thin extended surface set up to intercept shot in gunnery trials. Screens over door frames also stop invaders from entering our houses – mosquitoes, flies and other swarming creatures that would seek to monopolise our resources and living room.
Though painting 5# might be thought to throw some historical detail onto these distracted alien bodies, given that the central figure unmistakably wears a Second World War-era soldier’s helmet, but the ‘mini-me’ he is carrying is more Austin Powers than Allied Powers. Think of the ‘screen effect’ here as a kind of partition: the division of a space (an actual space, a pictorial space or a mental space) into different areas, creating here an unlikely space for joviality. In painting 6# the squashed alien inhabitants bear on their heads the weight of what looks like a densely heterogeneous sediment of bedding materials – bringing to mind the mid-nineteenth century sense of a screen meaning a roughly tabular body of older rock separating two intrusions. ‘Soft’ in Liverpudlian dialect means silly or stupid: the depicted bedding/rock in painting 6# looks soft and light, tending once more to light-heartedness rather than despondency. In painting 8# an even lighter alien floats above the group of four below, in contrast with the grounded chickens suspended above the group in painting 11#.
Alhroub’s paintings are also kinds of ‘sight screens.’ They present an image but they also filter out others, necessarily. In that sense they are kinds of witty shields against pernicious visual distractions. Painting 14# most clearly pictures this: the yellow alien here, open-mouthed, has a head and shoulders surrounded by a hovering picture frame or postage stamp edge. The picture stands as a meta-commentary on itself as image, on the cutting out process that any figuration necessarily involves.
The frame here within the painting also figures the idea of screen meaning tube or monitor for the projection of film or television images. Perhaps the cartoon-like quality to all these paintings derives from this trace of the TV picture – vehicle for the emanation of ‘Tom and Jerry’ and ‘Top Cat’ in my own childhood. The faces of the aliens in paintings 16#, 17# and 18# offer little real specific, irreducible detail – they are more simulacra for the idea or vision of individual identity as such. While this could be interpreted, again, as tragic it more realistically suggests the strong tendency toward caricature in satirical and comic illustration. Perhaps this is why these portraits (and their lurid colourings) remind us of Picasso’s darkly comic excursions into monster-anthropoid physiognomy in his paintings from the 1920s and early 1930s (and again during his last decade of work from the mid-1960s).
‘Screen’ also means to check or examine something. In medicine this refers to the search for the presence or absence of disease. Several of Alhroub’s paintings appear to show the insides of the alien bodies and the trace there of organs or less likely things (an apple appears in the belly of the alien in painting 15#). These works are a kind of anatomy lesson and bring to mind the famous fake alien dissection film made at Roswell in New Mexico in the late 1940s. Painting 13# even suggests a kind of X-ray process in a darkroom setting – one of only two paintings in the show with this background colour. The black here is also a kind of figurative device suggesting the attempt, or the capacity, to hide something. In psychology the idea of a ‘screen memory’ is telling: it means a childhood memory of an insignificant event recalled to block the recall of a significant emotional event. Colour, more than any other element, has a similar function in Alhroub’s paintings: it is at once background, cloak, space, depicted depth and literal surface flatness. Painting 4# most concisely embodies this use of colour and the subterranean humour bursting to the surface in all these works despite the well-worn apocalyptic iconography he utilizes. The wobbly yet groovy alien in this painting might be taking part in a screen test to play a drunken Martian.
To screen means simultaneously ‘to show’ and ‘to check’ and ‘to hide’ – as such it contains its own opposite sense and the sense of revaluation. Alhroub’s witty new paintings manage to perform the same trick.
Jonathan Harris, Jonathan Harris PhD, is Professor in Global Art & Design Studies and Director of Research at Birmingham City University, UK