The Split of Life Paintings 1974-1994
Imagine a painting with the scale and chaos of Picasso's Guernica mixed with the super populated torment of the apocalypse panel of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Delights, all painted with a dark, fiery palette and frantic, almost panicked brushstrokes, and you'll have an idea of Nabil Kanso's paintings. While far from a complete retrospective of his career, these three oversized books present more than 230 reproductions and are the best way to see Kanso's work if you don't live in Atlanta (where he maintains his studio) or Latin America (where he has exhibited extensively).
The Split of Life focuses on his large-format paintings (many around 30 feet long and 10 feet tall) done between 1974 and 1994. Massive bodies -tangled, distorted- dominate these paintings, filling almost every space... Chaos and torment burst from the paintings with little to contextualize them but the paintings' title: Eleven Seconds (Nagasaki), Vietnam, Lebanon. But even this context is hardly necessary because these paintings are not so much about events as about raw emotional expression; Kanso isn't interested in narrating or mediating these nightmarish explosions for us. If all this sounds overwhelming, it can be. But just when this dark energy begins to constrict around the viewer unbearably, Kanso surprises. The unique perspective of his Crucifixion sets us behind Christ's Cross witnessing, along with many other hollow faces, an indistinct Jesus set off from the chaotic background by a searing white aura. Lebanon, full of the tumultuous panic of innocents caught in war, is reminiscent of Picasso's Guernica in composition and theme without seeming imitative. Amid the horror, two women reach out toward a tiny pearl of white light at the center of the canvas, for protection, or to protect it, I don't know, but the image is moving. Kanso' sparing use of white distinguishes the best of these paintings. So stunning against the black, yellow, red, and orange that flow over these works, this white seems to pierce the canvas and gives the paintings the balance and strength they need to grasp the emotions Kanso tries to portray.
The Bloomsbury Review
July / August 1998