Walid El-Masri quickly became synonymous with the dramatic paintings of chairs that formed his expansive Seat of Perception series. In them, the central object– a chair – would often appear as if floating through the top of the canvas, its top cropped out as if already in the process of ascending out of the frame, yet the object as a whole dripping down the canvas in visceral daubs, at once rising above and sinking, an object in a strange state of stasis. These chairs, like other images found in his works – peacocks, cocoons – have become objects through which El-Masri parses through a thought process or event, the repetition and re-visiting of the image creating a leitmotif that serves to act as a visual and thematic crescendo, a philosophical inquiry that takes shape in a swelling and gaining of momentum. Born in Syria with Lebanese heritage, El-Masri relocated to France in 2011, where he has been based ever since.
Though not portraiture in the strict sense, you create portraits of objects that are then abstracted. How do you choose them?
I take an approach of austerity both in the subject I choose, as well as in form and colour, so that none of them lose their serenity. I begin by drawing objects from my surroundings. It is how I process things around me; to be able to disassemble it completely and then re-install them in my brain, as it were. Previously, I only examined elements in a strict physical sense, seeking to understand their formal features in order to study their impact on their surroundings and subsequent visual and psychological impressions in a precise way. The Seat of Perception series belongs to this period.
After contemplation and experimentation over the years with different rhythms of working, many topics have found their place in my world and in my painting, and the role of intuition in the development of my practice has grown, as has as a wider range of topics. This is how the motif for Peacocks began two years ago and I still assume that ‘it’ searched for me and found me and not the other way around.
There have been series with recurring motifs – chairs, peacocks, butterfly cocoons and so on – what do they represent? How do you know when you are finished with a series?
To date I haven’t considered my work complete on any of these series. I tend to move away from one to work on the next, but I leave the door open – sometimes I work on five or more different series at the same time.
The subject/motif is part of the work, but it is also its justification. I often adopt simple configurations, for I find overly complex interventions unnecessary, as they can only serve to obfuscate rather than clarify. The result is that this may highlight the repetition that has become a feature of my painting: I use the word ‘repetition’ here in the sense of filtering and focusing on a path and giving up everything that creates confusion or distraction from the subject I want to explore. Only then does each painting become a step that elevates me. A work is not a mere repetition or re-do of its predecessors (even if it shares with them the same composition), rather, it becomes an accumulation and diversity that progresses that line of thought to a consistent rhythm. It is an ongoing thought process and exploration that leads to ever-greater clarity of thought and message with each work.
Furthermore, my long years of work in mosaics, in addition to my readings on the concept of repetition (e.g. Gilles Deleuze) have allowed me to distinguish between congruence, on the one hand, and repetition and multiplicity on the other. They have also allowed me to recognise the subtle differences between art as a language of expression and craft as a product for consumption, which is not devoid of artistic value. Art can be transformed into a craft when it relies on pre-established rules and framework.
As an example, take the cocoon tree I paint. It represents remaining both within Syria and outside it. It is a tree without roots and carries across its huge trunk a lot of beauty and ruin as well as death and life. A cocoon is a moment of transformation from pupa to butterfly, and for me, links life and death. As for the peacock, which also appears in my work, this have given me the opportunity to reflect on my father and understand the pain that has been in my soul since his murder in Syria in 2017.
You became very well known for your series of chairs, symbolic of calm amongst the storm and unrest – has this series come to define you? Do you find people are quick to categorise an artist as "the one who paints this or the one who does that"?
The reason that Seat of Perception became so widely recognisable was due to my choice to focus on exhibiting it for more than seven consecutive years, and the presence of those who marketed it appropriately (Ayyam Gallery). I have never painted with the goal of preparing for an exhibition – for me, painting is a necessity. I do not think that this has restricted me, as I worked on other large series in parallel to Seat of Perception, such as the Ostrich and Elephant series, the latter of which has included canvas and ceramic works.
People may be quick to categorise, but the fame of a series or of a work establishes the beginning of engagement and communication between the audience and the artist and helps arouse their curiosity. Think of the many artists you know who are associated with one very famous work, yet it does not define their practice, and in fact, piques your interest to learn more about them: Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and so on.
Why the decision to move to France?
France and the stability it promised carries with it many advantages, but what ultimately motivated me was the fact that it was impossible to continue in Syria and build a future without the influence of its government. I was unable to accept all the corruption, injustice and the systematic sabotage of all aspects of life. On top of it all, we were powerless to change anything. I made the decision to leave in 2009 and my desire was to be able to divide my time between France and Syria. I actually left in mid-2011 but, unfortunately, I have not been able to return yet.
How has this manifested in your work?
In Paris, I find the world in all its diversity and contradictions: its beauty and ugliness, as well as its fairness and injustice. It is certain that my proximity to major art events and museums, and the fact that for a time my studio was but a few metres from the Louvre, has made art more ordinary and less exotic to me. In addition, the presence of artistic masterpieces from different eras all displayed side-by-side allows us to compare and scrutinise the philosophy and ideas of these eras as well as their many contradictions. All of this has strengthened my liberation from the rules, and of previous ideas and prejudices of art. This is from an art perspective. From a human perspective, the diversity here has strengthened my belonging to humanity away from any pre-determined geographical frameworks.
What has been the effect of the Syrian conflict on your work – does living out of Syria give you more clarity to see the situation or does it create frustration? Is it important for you to process it through your work or is it too soon to tell?
The demonstrations against the regime had started just three months before I left Syria. The horror of what was going on and the violence changed my perception of everything around me, including art. Yet I never stopped painting. If anything, I may have started painting more intensely, but with great distress. I could not continue to work like I was working before March 2011. I could not turn a blind eye to all this hell. I painted images of corpses and destruction in order to absorb what was going on. I loaded into my paintings everything I could no longer take in, no longer process, and the results were the series The Missing and Under the Roof of the Homeland. I also created a huge installation that was to hang on the trunks of 2000 trees, to draw attention to what was happening in Syria, but this project was never realised. However, it did have a role in the crystallisation of my series Cocoons later on, as well as the series Children. These series carried all the details of Syrian pain inside me without imposing any specific literal messages: they carried the language of painting.
I did not need to be in France to understand what was going on in Syria, for this was clear to any Syrian who had a memory and had lived through this regime since the 1980s. I understood that society was on one side and rulers were on the other. It opened my eyes to the sad fact that injustice is universal and happens in every country. Yet, in seeing Syria from the outside, it also brought into sharp relief the fact that the Syrian regime has been guilty of misleading its people, and has itself been the most prominent tool in the chaos that currently reigns there.
Let’s talk about your use of colour – what’s your relationship with it?
The effects of water, its movement, and its mixing with matter are the biggest influences in the development of my works from start to finish. Colour and shape are great energies that I interact with freely. Life is full of colour and painting is the parallel spirit to life and not a mimicry of it, which is why the colours may appear a bit austere, but this only gives it its sweetness. I have never really had any fixed formula in how I begin a work, for each has different properties. There are works I finish in a matter of hours, and those which remain under construction and revision for years as if they were ongoing experiments in a laboratory.
What are you working on at the moment?
In my studio, I am working on Peacock, in addition to which I am working on a large project that consists of 14 large-sized joint works with 222 children in cooperation with the Regional Directorate for Cultural Activities in Normandy (LA DRAC) and the Center for Contemporary Art in Normandy (Le SHED). These works will be exhibited once completed. We have already completed half of them and are waiting for the epidemic to subside in order to continue.