Interviewed By: Rima Rantisi
Charbel Samuel Aoun (born 1980) is an architect, sculptor and painter from Fanar, Lebanon. He finished his architectural studies in 2004; his studies also include audio-visual courses as well as theatre workshops. Between 2004 and 2009 he worked in several architectural firms as a conceptual designer. Since 2009 he has been completely devoted to his art, working on his repertoire that includes nearly 200 works.
Aoun considers himself a realist expressing the state of humanity as he sees it through his art, evoking reactions from his audience as a truth seeker as opposed to creating merely to please or amuse the viewer. His art is “thick with emotion” and “awe-inspiring.” Aoun does not consider “artist” a career choice but rather a calling that cannot be ignored. He finds inspiration in the interaction of the timeless state of humanity and the temporal reality of our society.
Aoun’s next exhibition will be on February 7, 2011 at ArtSpace Dubai Gallery in Dubai.
RR: How did your interest or experimentation with painting/art begin?
CA: When I was a little boy I found myself sitting on the ground just drawing. They would be like, ‘Where is Charbel?’ and I would be maybe in the bathroom…drawing. Why? It was so natural at the time. But then, it came with time, maybe between 12 and 18, I only drew my teachers. When I came back as an architecture student, I had many things to express, but I couldn’t do that in architecture… as in, I couldn’t build something whenever I wanted. So, I needed something to express with. I started discovering paint; I was not taught. I was still in architecture school. But each summer, I used to experiment with paint, trying to discover what I could use [to express myself]. And the funny thing is that each time I experimented with a medium, whether it was watercolor or acrylic, I was realizing that I know how to paint, but I didn’t know that before. I was discovering that I had all the technical skills, and I didn’t know. Each time I tried a medium, it was going great.
When I finished with that, I started two years of trying to paint or draw, and when I finished, I was trying to do my own things to express some feelings. In 2001, I did a small collection of war memories. [My art] was different back then. There are a lot of lines in my paintings, but now each line holds emotion. It’s not about a line; it’s not a graphic. Each line holds emotion and the form is a result of all these lines and emotions. And sometimes the form can be or cannot be. I don’t care. But when it is, it’s not only about the form. I’m not imprisoning the spectator in the form; it’s the energy behind the form – the energy that exists behind the lines or in the visual aspect that you can see through the form sometimes. You can feel the transparency that takes you to another dimension. So back then, in 2001, the lines were so different, spontaneous. I was just starting.
RR: So at the time, you were just experimenting?
CA:When you look at them, they look confident, not only experimentation. But, they were less mature and they had to be. I feel like each time I paint, each year, I feel like I discover a new dimension.
RR: What do you mean by a “new dimension”?
CA: A new dimension in painting. How to use the paint to express more and more new feelings. For example, imagine that our language is composed by 12 letters and we express with those 12 letters. And then we suddenly discover another 12 letters that can make us express in a richer way. I’m always discovering new things in the medium of painting that makes me go beyond and further and makes me paint again and again because I never paint the way I paint. I don’t think that an artist is always an artist. He can be an artist for a while and he can be an imitator for the rest of his life. I’m avoiding imitating myself.
My passion for painting began in 2001 and then I kept on painting and did some installations. Between 2005 and 2007, I only did installations. I had an exhibition at the French Cultural Center, which took me two years of preparation. Because of this work, I was accepted into a Public Arts Master’s Program at Kingston University in London as well as a PhD at RCA, but I didn’t have the money. So, I started working to make money. And when in 2009, I had the money, I figured why do I need a degree? I could paint and paint…
RR: When you talk about the emotions behind the lines, does that mean you are more concerned with emotions than ideas in your art?
CA: Actually, it was in a certain phase that I had a message in my paintings. But now I don’t have it anymore. I have no ideas, no messages. I leave things to be interpreted freely. For me, it’s easy to have an idea and to capture the viewer in an idea. It’s the easiest thing for me to capture someone with an idea versus capturing someone with only abstract things that take you emotionally. People can be easily influenced and capture an idea versus sitting in front of something that can take you to another dimension or another space without a direct idea. Ultimately, let us [visual artists] leave ideas for philosophy and art for art. In art, people are going into philosophy as if they cannot talk to the viewer in a different way anymore. I don’t like stories in art. For example, if you listen to Beethoven or Bach, there’s no idea, no philosophy. It captures you because it is a language that speaks with just human feelings. I believe that art is a language away from the language of talking. We invented verbal language to do commerce. I’m not minimizing it… but visual art came before that, it speaks with human emotion. The art scene is profiting from the way we think and talk and the ideas we share, and I feel that, in a way, we have lost the way to communicate in abstract feelings. As if communicating is only through ideas. I’m not saying I was always like this. In 2008, I had a social message to communicate.
RR: It’s part of your evolution…
CA: Yes. Listen, I am not against using an idea as long as it holds feelings. If you have an idea that you cannot talk about, but you’ve made the painting to express it, I am not against this constructed representation – as long as it holds feelings. But I am currently in a stage where I am going totally against any idea representation because I only want to focus on art as it speaks emotionally. How can colors, light, lines, and forms only speak emotions.
RR: Your current paintings are preoccupied with light…
CA: Actually, light takes me to some place I want to be. It’s like dematerialization while passing through this light. It’s like each person has his own sky, his own heaven. For me, that light is part of my heaven. When I exhibited the paintings, the feelings I had while painting were felt by the viewers. This is why I have exhibitions; I just want to see if what I am expressing as feelings, and my imaginary world – if these human feelings of mine – is interacting with the human feelings of other people. Why is art surviving? Because we share it. Art reminds us of our humanity.
RR: Are we so distracted today that we need to be reminded of our humanity?
CA: I believe we are all occupied by things that make us money. It’s such a materialistic world. In a certain way, we need art to keep the equilibrium. I am not saying we only find art in painting or music, etc. We feel it, in any of our senses. And I believe that sometimes people discover art in a relationship. For example, love is discovering art in another person. So, when you interact with feelings with another person, as love for example, it is a kind of art. And so need those things that make us feel so we remind ourselves of our humanity in this materialistic world.
RR: The first time I met you, and I asked you what you do for a living, you said “I make things”; you didn’t call yourself an artist. What do you think is an artist?
CA: This is funny. People call me an artist, but I don’t call myself one. I just paint, I do installations. I just live, I just talk, and sometimes people say, “You’re an artist.” I don’t know what is an artist. Being an artist is like being a person with personal feelings. Anyone can be an artist. Maybe the difference is that an artist knows how to translate his feelings into something other people can see.
RR: If you call yourself an artist, that means that you know you are communicating with your audience, when actually an artist cannot know how far he/she has communicated with the audience.
CA: This is why I exhibit – to see if my art is interacting. And this is why I say that I am not always an artist. I am an artist for a period, say three months, and then I’m not creating and I’m just like any other person. I’m trying to discover things. If an artist is someone who reflects his feelings in something that can be felt or seen or heard, I am an artist in the moment of creation. When I am seeing my works, I am a spectator. What’s really interesting is the moment of expression, while creating.
RR: What is next?
CA: I feel like in my recent paintings, I am getting so far into my own heaven, into my own sky. In my exhibition, Flows , I went to that space through light. Before those, I had too much misery – maybe due to the experience [in Lebanon] between 2005 and 2008, with all the explosions and war and death. I believe that whenever there is war, the art becomes more expressive and dark. During this period, I feel like my art was full of emotions from someone shouting or crying. But now, I feel like I went through this passage before reaching my light. So, in Flows I still had those feelings. The light was just appearing before me. But it included both zones – of peace and disaster.
RR: So, the feelings that arose in your paintings during 2005-2008, were reflective of the stress and political situation in the country?
CA:Yes, but I didn’t know. I was just getting to know what was inside of me when observing my paintings. I didn’t know I had such strong revolutionary or rebellious feelings because in reality, I’m a happy guy. But when I was painting, I couldn’t feel that. In a certain way, painting removes from you the most impacted areas.
…During this time, I couldn’t see anyone dancing anymore. I only saw the human face as a face of misery. But now it’s different. I’m offering heaven for the viewer, for myself. I paint what I feel like seeing. Maybe now I’m more peaceful inside. I am celebrating the peace inside of me, my heaven… that’s what’s next.
RR: Can you describe your art in one sentence?
CA: It’s my abstract human language full of thick emotions.
RR: What advice do you give to future artists?
CA: People tend to categorize their art – whether it’s ‘interactive’ or ‘conceptual’; I am with many of those artists, but I would say to them, first deal with human beings versus the conceptual. Because, art by itself is conceptual and interactive. But it is not only these things. So, if one wants to make art, I don’t advise to label oneself because it is limiting in a way. So, just do – and let critics label. Never label yourself.
I mean, the good pieces that are labeled as “conceptual” or “interactive” are good because they are not only conceptual or interactive. Art is art – stop naming it and stop giving it limitations. Just be yourself.
Charbel’s address on the web is: www.charbelsamuelaoun.com