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Trans-Oriental Monochrome: John Carswell (AUB Art Galleries, Beirut)

(Oriental Primary Structures :)

 

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This exhibition familiarizes the public with a series of monochrome works produced by John Carswell: the art historian, artist, teacher, explorer, curator and scholar of Near, Middle, and Far Eastern art and culture. Carswell graduated in 1951 from the Royal College of Art in London, and instead of setting out to conquer the British art world, ruled at the time by local social realists, he embarked on a steamboat and entered the Middle East through the port of Beirut. For almost six decades now, John Carswell has been studying this region, following on the heels of his lifelong source of inspiration, the medieval Islamic explorer Ibn Battuta. Instead of tracing the routes of the sacred hajj, however, Carswell has been closely observing the pilgrimage of artistic ideas, the circulation of cultural currents within and beyond an area that gave the world its earliest great civilizations. His interest in the art, culture and history of the Fertile Crescent has led him to various places and positions: from archaeological excavations in Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine, to teaching fine arts at the American University of Beirut, to following in the footsteps of the first Western explorers of Central Asia, to becoming the Curator of the Oriental Institute and then Director of the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, and later moving back to London to become the Director of the Islamic and South Asian Department of Sotheby’s, London. His passion for the Orient has taken various forms: from art works, graphics and design for various political activist campaigns and scholarly treatises, to curating exhibitions or writing scholarly books and articles. Carswell has written on such topics as Chinese blue-and-white porcelain in the Near East; Armenian architecture in seventeenth-century Isfahan; Kütahya tiles and pottery in the Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem; Islamic book binding and book making; Arab seafaring; Coptic tattoo designs; metalworking in the streets of Beirut; painting in the Islamic world; and the history of Lebanese painting—to mention only a few.

This exhibition, however, deals primarily with John Carswell’s art, and only secondarily with his writings and scholarly or curatorial projects. It can be difficult to draw a clear line between “Carswell the artist” and “Carswell the everything else”: a result of his refusal to specialize, in a world that demands narrow specialization and linear thinking. This aspect of Carwell’s personality – the rich combination of interests and skills that sets him apart from many contemporary artists as well as scholars – has inspired and motivated this project. In this exhibition, we come to suggest that perhaps the traveler-artist-draftsman-scholar-researcher-curator-activist model proposed and personified by John Carswell over the course of six decades may be regarded as an epitome of what is today called the “global artist.” In other words, perhaps today an artist might earn this title not on the basis of accumulated frequent flyer miles, but on how comprehensively, far-reachingly and truly globally he or she can integrate a wide array of knowledge and experiences into the laws of artistic form, scholarly research, or curatorial practice.

In the exhibition – which runs simultaneously in the AUB Art Gallery and AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery – we show a series of monochrome objects made by John Carswell in the 1960s. Most of these solid white, or black and white, artworks were made in the heat of a creative fever during one hot summer, in the upper studios of the Nicely Hall building at AUB. At that time, monochrome was becoming a common artistic phenomenon of late modernism; but what makes Carswell’s monochromes stand out is the place of their genesis. His self-imposed chromatic limitation has interesting origins, which it seems to us relate in some ways to the discourse of Orientalism. One example is Carswell’s extensive use of black ink drawings, when he worked in the early 1950s as draftsman for Kathleen Kenyon’s archeological expedition in Jericho. In one of his statements, as well, Carswell maintains that the intense and rich color of the Mediterranean sky causes brilliantly emblazoned painting to look slightly vulgar, hence his complete renunciation of color. In this, Carswell’s work distinguishes itself not only from that of his modernist post-World War II contemporaries but also from that of generations of artists before him, artists whose engagement with the Orient, both as place and as concept, modified their work formally or chromatically. With this series of monochrome two- and three-dimensional works, Carswell seems to have come to challenge the very core of painterly Orientalism: the rich colorfulness, luminance and chromatic brightness that it is believed to be the result of the European painters’ encounter with intense Mediterranean or Near Eastern sunlight. Carswell, then, works against the grain, or against the palettes, of the romantic, realist, naturalist, impressionist and modernist Orientalists and other painters who have worked in or have been influenced by the idea of the Orient over the course of almost two hundred years. Carswell’s chromatic reductionism, his monochrome Orientalism or “trans-Oriental monochrome” – which originates in Beirut and then travels during the 1960s and 1970s to various venues in Western Europe and North America – together with his constructivist aesthetics is an important statement in the art, aesthetics and politics of the ongoing dialogue between Western and Eastern art.

We take an opportunity presented to us by John Carswell to raise a series of questions with regard to the painterly trajectory of this dialogue during the second half of the last century.

Octavian Esanu

 


Stills from Trans-Oriental Monochrome: John Carswell