Conceptualizing Materiality
the Work of Ali Kaaf,
 by Sarah A. Rogers

The work of Ali Kaaf visualizes the simultaneous emergence and dissolution of form, depth, and light. In the series Aswad (2002-03), thick lines of black ink bulldoze across white paper. Sometimes only a corner of the surface is left untouched so that the thin paper curls under the weight of the pigment. In the series Triangle (2002-04), the artist uses charcoal, china ink, and spray paint to create a visual play of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines which hint at triangular formations. Setting the lines against and among clots of ink and spray paint, Kaaf alludes to a sense of depth. The materials accumulate onto the surface, as if transpiring with the paper. More recently, he has begun to experiment with photography and video art, yet this formal interest in visual contradictions- black and white, negative and positive space, depth and surface- holds strong; each project complements and complicates his previous explorations. I use the word, 'explorations' intentionally because, unlike many contemporary artists, Kaaf does not profess a specific agenda – political or otherwise – in his work. Instead, he views his art as a series of ongoing discoveries of the ways in which the material puts forth the concept of the work.

Born in Algeria of Syrian descent, Kaaf spent his childhood in Syria where he moved as a young boy. At the age of eighteen, he left to study art at the Lebanese University in Beirut. Completing his studies five years later, he traveled to Amman to participate in Darat al-Funun’s summer art academy for young artists. There, Kaaf had the opportunity to work with the internationally renown, Berlin-based, painter Marwan Kassab- often known simply as Marwan. The established artist took Kaaf under his wing, encouraging the young man to return to Germany with him to study at the Hochschule der Kunste. Kaaf would spend the next five years in Berlin, first under the tutelage of Marwan and later under Rebecca Horn at the Universitat der Kunste. It was during this period that Kaaf's work came into its own, winning the Daad-Preis from the Universitat der Kunste in 2004.

What Kaaf labels as his 'radical transformation' came during the planning stages for his large scale paintings. Working on a smaller scale, Kaaf came to realize that he was more engaged with the preparatory sketches than the final painting. For him, the process was the outcome of the work. This aesthetic embrace of the sketch shares its genealogy with the nineteenth century French Impressionists and 20th century Abstract Expressionism, yet the relationship ends there. Despite the materiality of Kaaf's work, the delicate, thoughtful compositions share little with the aggressive, masculine language of the American action painters. According to Kaaf, his formal investment in 'the preliminary stages' stems from his interest in the fragility of the materials. In making his sketches, for example, he would work with tracing paper, sometimes drenching it in pigment; the tenuous materiality offered up the possibility of a sustainable art and the freedom for poetic expression.

Although Kaaf's choice of scale differs from his mentor, traces of influence remain nonetheless. This is most identifiable in the series, Triangle III (2003). With charcoal, Kaaf works fat, wavy lines into triangular formations. These lines visually recall those often employed by Marwan in his depiction of the human face- for which he is now famous. Moreover, Kaaf's body of work continually investigates and develops the visual tension between abstraction and representation. In that way, Kaaf shares much with Marwan whose depictions of the human face ebb and flow from identifiable representation. In certain works, the face is clearly discernible, whereas in others the materiality of the paint pushes itself to the forefront. As such, both artists grapple with the legacy of modernism, yet Marwan through the human face and Kaaf through abstracted geometric form.

Despite this concurrent interest, the work of the two artists differs in its visual product. Marwan works in color, which is built up, lending a more composed effect. Kaaf's black and white work, on the other hand, is somewhat more whimsical. In part, this is due to the freedom offered up by the preparatory process. Yet this is not to say that Kaaf's work appears less finished, but rather to hit upon the work's informal, poetic effectiveness. And still the work- individually and collectively- retains a consistency, a compositional balance. Each bold stroke and circular pool of black ink finds its echo outlined on the page.

Kaaf recently returned to Beirut, where he has been an artist in residence for the previous six months. Like many artists of the Arab world, he finds in Beirut a flourishing artistic community and an audience receptive to his work. To my mind, he has also produced some of his most successful work in Beirut Series (2005). Working with pigment, charcoal, and ink on paper, Kaaf creates transparent, interweaving layers of white and black. What marks this series as different from previous ones however is its forceful dynamism and vitality: delicate cobwebs of pigment sprawl out; short, diagonal lines centrally concentrated explode out to the page’s edge like a firecracker against a white sky. In one vertically oriented work, Kaaf paints ten black horizontal rectangles. Allowing paint to vertically drip down from each rectangle, Kaaf visualizes- and to a certain degree simulates- gravity as the drips pull the rectangles from their places, ever so slightly morphing their linearity. He has also begun to burn holes into paper; ironically the destruction further layers the work’s depth as the viewer looks through the representation to another visual field.

Kaaf's language of materiality and aesthetics of form presents a welcome relief in a contemporary art world which sometimes seems inundated with political manifestoes. This is not to claim however that Kaaf's work represents a return to Greenbergian Modernism with each medium’s retreat into its own specificity. Taken as a body of work, Kaaf's continuing exploration into different media- ink on paper, photography, and video- deny that. In his work on paper, for example, depth and surface move through one another, thereby creating and abstracting the visualization of movement. In his photographs, a brilliant light disrupts the image. Thus the light which produces the image is made to hinder its readability as a complete, encapsulated world. In each of these projects, the medium's representational limits, rather than its capabilities, are pushed to the surface. The explicit sociopolitical and historical probing currently fashionable in today's art world has been replaced by an implicit semiotic and artistic one in Kaaf’s work. Choosing to work in a series only reinforces this persistent endeavor. And as his most recent work demonstrates, the simplicity of materials, and choice of subject- form itself- is paradoxical to the visual complexity and tension produced. In Beirut Series, Kaaf mixes the density of black and the transparency of white pigment to produce forms which pulsate across the paper. In a world where media technologies can simulate just about any physical experience, Kaaf’s studied, thoughtful approach and dynamic creations- once again- hold tight to their artistic relevancy.

By Sarah A. Rogers
Department of Architecture, MIT