Getting beneath the layers

Beirut, The Daily Star, 1997

Getting beneath the layers (extract)
by Helen Khal

“About Chahfe,s work: the exhibition consist of nine large paintings in mixed media, 140 by 152 centimetres insize, plus 11-minute film installation. Big paintings increase the magnetic power of art: in their larger-than-body-size dimensions, they invite more than the eye to enter –they insist on total human habitation.

On both the paintings and the film, Chahfé conceives and executes his art in layers.
Follow me, as I explain.

First, the canvas is coated with a layer of polyurethane plaster. Over this mixture of cement and acrylic medium is applied to create texture, with the addition here and there of patches of burlap. At this stage, Chahfe carves into the thick, wet surface the vertical and horizontal divisions that define the distinctive structure underlying all compositions.

Then comes brushing on of acrylic color, in hues of blue, red, ochre and black, all quiet and somber. Finally, in quick scumbling strokes of white plaster, he scars the color to produce a unified tableau of time-worn graffiti.

When asked about this last layer, which to me seemed like a destructive gesture, Chahfe explained it is an impulse to skin the surface, to tear it away as one would with plaster to flesh.

Painful, I said. He smiled.

Close examination of these highly-textured surfaces tell us that Chahfe loves material, loves exploring its expressive potential.

He says that material is very important, that it has its own expression and that his contact with each material provokes a different emotion. “I have no preference,” he comments.
“I love them all – paper, canvas, wood, metal, even raw material like cement. My engagement with each is exclusive and leads me into searching for whatever of myself I can find in it.”

Chahfe’s film, which is titled Autoportrait and is his homage to George Orwell’s 1984, comprises four levels of overlaying images. The screen itself is a large digital color printout of one of his paintings, in front of which in free-floating suspension hangs a film transparency of his self-portrait.

On this screen, two layers of moving images are projected simultaneously.

First, still photos of old Montreal walls, hen film clips selected from a movie of Orwell’s novel produced decades ago. I can’t describe it; you’ll have to see it. Stereoscopy in the abstract maybe, except thaht we keep seeing Chahfe’s sober face, and we keep catching disturbing fragments of Orwell’s world.
What does it all mean? Here is where, in my conversation with Chahfe, art and life merged into one.

About his painting, he says:
“The horizontal-vertical character if division in my painting relates to windows and doors and the texture to walls and graffiti, because I feel time and history, the spirit of people living ad departing generation after generation.

Imagine, if walls could talk, how many stories the would tell… The notion of time makes us think about the notion of dead. We are passing through life in time, so how ca we not be aware of death?”