Hani Alqam displays a frantic range of work in his solo show "Of Love and War" at XOL Gallery: from obliterated cityscapes riffing on abstract expressionism to rose-period-Picasso-esque portraits to near-grotesque paintings of nude women. Most of the women that he paints appear strong, assertive, or occasionally aggressive, but isolated.
One particular grouping of three paintings reinforces this. In 'Schehrazadeh,' a woman sits with her legs spread, knees bent, exposing her labia with her fingers. Her face is complacent. Next to this, the figure in 'Anemone' appears unsettlingly more like a lifeless doll than a woman, her body awkwardly leaning back against what might be a wall, arms spread wide. Her face, which is thick and distorted with so many strokes of paint, is both frightening and grotesque, resembling the bizarre world that Allison Schulnik paints. 'Oriental Night' shows a woman emerging out of a black and magenta void, her arms raised with her hands clasping something that could be a knife above her head. Of these three women, however, she's the only one completely stripped bare of any identifying features—she has no facial features because her face is a swirl of orange marks. One woman has a sheer green piece of fabric across her knees, the other has garter straps. But this one has only her body, built from a few thin but confident strokes of paint.
My guard goes up every time I see contemporary male artists depicting women like this in their art. And looking at the Jordanian artist Alqam's paintings, I found myself fighting the impulse to rail against yet another man objectifying women in his work. This impulse springs from my art school education about the male gaze and how I was taught to be sensitive to it and critique it—I was taught this through a Western feminist perspective, and with regard to primarily Western art. In Jordan, displaying nude or erotic figures is considered obscene to fundamentalists—though it is not illegal—so his paintings are also an act of protest. According to the show's curators, Alqam is gaining popularity in Jordan, and these paintings, I presume, read differently there. Women are oppressed in different ways everywhere, and it seems better for me as a white American woman to critique the objectification of women by male artists on a case by case basis.
Somewhat less heavy-handed than the paintings of these different women are a few paintings depicting vague sexual acts. 'The Temple' and 'The Witness' both show group sex, in a somewhat hesitant or light-handed manner. In 'The Temple' a web of orange, green, and yellow brush strokes compose the three people's bodies, with a deep red surrounding and giving shape to the tangle of body parts. Across the room, in 'The Witness,' there is a tumble of bodies with at least five people, their bodies intersecting, outlined in orange and black paint. In the lower-right corner, someone's face pops up awkwardly, like he's taking a selfie at an orgy. It's all kinda funny and mildly absurd; it's to-the-point, not complex.
Those paintings are strange in the company of others, such as the three 'Arab Spring' paintings which depict destroyed cities. Each of these paintings is a generalized fury of quick, short brush strokes in black, white, blues, and reds. But 'Arab Spring III' also clearly depicts a fire with a cloud of black smoke, and a series of thick, somewhat fleshlike swatches of paint on top. Where occasionally the subject matter in Alqam's work feels benign or regurgitated, there are specific moments like these that communicate the complete obliteration of cities and histories that is happening all around this region due, in part, to extremist ideology.
The portraits in 'Of Love and War,' which constitute about a third of the art on display here, are much different from the loose figure studies or landscapes. Painting someone's portrait is a noble, concentrated effort to not necessarily capture someone's likeness, but more so to illustrate and immortalize something iconic or intrinsic about the person. The subjects in 'The Psychic' and 'Zainab's Sister II,' for example, both give intense, wide-eyed eye contact, and they're clearly very distinct—'The Psychic' is an old woman whose head is covered with a red hood, while 'Sister' is a younger woman who's topless (both in the head-covering sense and in the torso-covering sense). And where the older woman is painted in a reserved, clean, and crisp manner, 'Sister' appears to have been reworked a number of times; the area where her head is on the panel appears almost meaty in texture with past layers of paint.
Many of Alqam's portraits here have the same quick-but-sure feel of the other paintings in the show, but 'The Sultan's Woman' seems slower, more deliberate. The colors are different too; instead of the glowing mint-y green he uses in much of his work, the background here is a more neutral green that complements the pinks and yellows and ochres in the woman's skin tone. Her facial features are a lovely blend of rough and soft—a reciprocal look of love between subject and viewer.