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Light From the East

'Hello Freedom!," by Serwan Baran
(Courtesy of XOL Gallery)

There is something almost clandestine about XOL Art Gallery, which is hidden in a small warehouse between Park Avenue and Tyson Alley in Mount Vernon. To get there from Park, we have to push open a gate and walk down a narrow rocky path through a fenced yard leading to the unassuming, brick structure that has, over the last year and a half, quietly become a gallery. The main house that was once in this yard burned down some time ago, but the warehouse remained. "Is this it?" we ask each other before knocking on the door of the bunker-looking building.

Through a window we see a Lebanese woman with long, curly black hair get up from a black leather couch. There are bookshelves and a locker along the wall by the door. To the left, there is a stylish, modern kitchen, gleaming with stainless steel and black marble. But when we step inside, greeted by the woman, Mayssa Zeidan, one of the curators of the gallery, we are surrounded by dozens of paintings, hung salon-style, in a wide variety of sizes, palettes, and manners. Normally this feels overwhelming and makes it hard to really see the work, but the gallery's high ceilings, natural light, and homey atmosphere help the work breathe.

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It's becoming a familiar story. Gallerists from more expensive cities decamp to Baltimore where real estate is cheap. What makes XOL's move to Baltimore different from, say, Randall Scott's is what they are doing with that space. Instead of showing artists from New York or Washington, D.C., or even Paris, XOL, which stands for Ex Oriente Lux (Latin for "light from the East"), has brought the work of around a dozen different Middle Eastern artists to Baltimore. When Joshua Abelow of Freddy, a new gallery on the west side, claims in ARTnews that he is going to bring shows to Baltimore that wouldn't otherwise be here, it sounds condescending. But when Salameh Nematt, the owner and other curator of XOL, says it, he really means it. He brings art that people should come down from New York to see.

Indeed, the work in "ISIS," the second show at XOL, which opened last month, makes most of the other galleries in town feel somehow either provincial or crass. Many of the pieces in the show are prohibited from being shown in the artists' own countries and the show is intended as a protest against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, playing on the similarity between the acronym of the terrorist group and the name of Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility and love. "I'm showing artists from the region expressing their reaction to the sad realities of the region in which they live," says Nematt, a tall man with dark serious eyes, a bald head, and a mustache. He is preparing to take a flight to Amman, Jordan, in a couple of hours. "Some of it is documentary, some of it is rebellious, and some is mockingly bitter and expressively shocking. All in all, it is a cry for freedom, the underlying theme of everything art seeks to express."

The work can't be exhibited in the Middle East not only because of government prohibition but also on account of the popular outrage that would arise from a painting such as Hani Alqam's 'The Phoenix of the Temple,' which depicts a reclining nude in expressionist colors reminiscent of Kirchner, her face veiled in mockery of the Islamic tradition of covering women. "This is my favorite because it makes a statement," Zeidan says, pointing at the veiled nude. "Because these crazy Islamic extremists, they want to veil our minds."

For other artists, such as Rana Sunaij, a Syrian woman, the protest isn't quite as obvious. "Her country is in civil war, and she paints fruits," says Nematt. "But she does not paint them like she did before the war."

Nematt, who is from Jordan, began his career as an art critic. But because politics was nearly unavoidable in the region, he soon became a political reporter. He says that Tina Brown liked to have him on her podcasts because he wasn't saying the same thing as all the other political reporters and she eventually hired him as a senior political correspondent in the Middle East for the Daily Beast. Eventually, he grew tired of "the news," but he was still passionate about the political activity in the region. A skilled abstract painter himself, he decided to open a gallery. He was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, but knew he couldn't afford gallery space there. "I couldn't get a studio apartment for what I paid for this space," says Nematt, who lives in the gallery building.

"From a personal perspective, this is a huge gamble, considering that I've invested my lifetime savings into this project, without seeking any support from anybody in the city or anybody else for that matter," he writes in a follow-up email.

Nematt knows the power of the image. ISIS, the fundamentalist group whose name his show mocks, spreads its message through a masterful manipulation of images. But Nematt also talks about how the Arab Spring was kicked off by one person taking a picture with a cellphone and how the Arab Spring led to the Occupy Movement. "The suffering of people in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, not to mention Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere in the region, is felt across the globe," he says. "What I'm trying to do is a small attempt at doing my part in showing how artists in that part of the world are communicating what is taking place for the world to see. I'm just [using] another means of communication."

Zeidan, who grew up in Lebanon, also has a background in journalism, and commutes to Baltimore from Washington, D.C., adds, "We didn't want art for the sake of beautiful paintings hanging on walls; we wanted art that tells the story of what is happening in our region."

Each of the artists in the show communicates this in a different manner. Ammar Khammash is a trained architect but his landscapes are light and impressionistic, with tones and marks that recall Cézanne and Guston. On a sepia canvas, light, flowing pencil marks describe an equally spare landscape. Stacked, staggered brushstrokes rise up as a white plume of smoke in the middle of the composition, complementing what looks like a small series of steps (white, painted with the same brush) or bricks. Creeping into the composition on the left and right sides are black gestural marks, closing in on the smoke—maybe they're shrubs, maybe they're just abstract marks.

A good complement to Khammash on the opposite wall is a large triptych on wood panels by Dina Haddadin, who is also a trained architect. 'Occupied Omissions' combines her architect draughtsmanship with the language of the painted landscape. A large, white architectural model—which could be anything, with nondescript empty "rooms"—is encapsulated or engulfed by this abstracted landscape, which at times looks like a close-up of a branch, or perhaps the trunk of a tree at a riverbank. This is all rendered with thinned white and black paint, concrete powder, and coffee, and much of the wood shows through or remains untouched. We are constantly reminded of the raw materials.

Structural yet gestural paintings by Hassan Kanaan are a surprising link among the architectural, landscape, and figure paintings. Columns of Arabic script form structures and shapes like a candle ('Proverb') and a drop of blood ('a-Shahadatan [The Two Testimonials]'). Are they decipherable to one who can read Arabic? Or is that the point—the scrambling of language and the scrambling of meaning, while still holding onto it or repurposing it as structure. Several of his other paintings hang out in the rafters, butted up against each other. From the Tyson street entrance to the gallery, you'd see five or so of these paintings on one of the rafters, with ribbon-y text abstracting and flowing into one another, while on the next beam the paintings are more zoomed out and become a longer, overwhelming continuum of script that to an outsider becomes more meaningless and arbitrary, as any language feels to an outsider.

Fadi Daoud's 'Flirting with Disaster' is what Nematt calls "an Arab Guernica" with its overtly political and symbolic imagery and Picasso-esque slashes of paint. A woman hangs crucified, while an Islamist wraps his arm around her head and holds a knife to her. Another woman's body appears to be emerging from this body, giving birth to bomber planes controlled like a marionette by a man looming over the woman. From the lower half of the composition emerges a large but faint portrait and green swords, which is supposed to represent the leader of Hezbollah.

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The painting, a departure for Daoud, was painted during a monthlong residency at the gallery in Baltimore. Late this year, or early next year, they will host Serwan Baran, a 46-year-old Kurdish Iraqi painter who splits his time between Jordan and Beirut and works in a wide variety of styles, ranging from 'Elected' (this week's cover) to facial profiles that emerge from abstract color patches on round canvases, to a traditionally realist painting of the king of Jordan with the head of the tribes. "The head of intelligence in Jordan was very close with the king," Zeidan explains. "So he commissioned this painting. But the king imprisoned him for corruption before the painting was done. So when he finished it, he didn't know what to do with it, because the guy was in jail, so we decided to exhibit it here." Baran's refusal to stick to a style recalls a similar refusal by Gerhard Richter, who sees style as a kind of ideology. "Serwan is the most diverse artist out of these," Zeidan says. "He has a style he's been doing a few years now, but he is experimenting with expressionism and realism."

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Though this show specifically sought artists from the Middle East and Nematt is about to leave for a flight to Jordan to visit new artists, he says that the gallery is moving away from the idea of solely regional representation. "I'm from the Middle East myself and I thought I'm better equipped showing art from that region as both a collector and a gallerist. But I'm increasingly convinced that art should no longer have geographical borders," he says.

After we finish looking at the show, Nematt and Zeidan offer us wine. In its spirit of secularism, hospitality, pleasure, and love of life, this magnanimous gesture captures the spirit of the gallery. "I am a citizen of Jordan, but I am above all a human, a citizen of the world," Nematt says.  "I have no religious convictions, and I feel that the whole world should be my homeland and everybody else's. Where you were born is an accident, but where you are today should be your home. At least, this is why I am here today. I feel at home."

There will be a closing reception for "ISIS" on Oct. 30. For more information, please visit xolgallery.com.

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