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Syrian Artist Thaier Helal On Landmarks from Memory and Exploring Abstraction

posted on: Jul 28, 2018

Syrian artist Thaier Helal works on large-scale paintings that evoke imagery of nature and memories of his homeland. Maie El-Hage speaks to the artist about abstraction and what he considers to be the value of artwork.

Syrian Artist Thaier Helal On Landmarks from Memory and Exploring Abstraction



Artists turn to nonrepresentational art for many reasons. Such is the case of Syrian artist Thaier Helal who was attracted to abstract art during his formative years and has been working in a non-representational style ever since. Helal trained at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus where he studied works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and other important Abstract Expressionists who experimented with characteristic trends. These artists inspired him, as did local and regional artists, teachers and colleagues such as the Syrian artists Fateh el Mudaress, Mahmoud Hammad, Marwan Kassabbachi and Milad el Shayeb. “I found myself here,” says the artist of his move towards abstraction. Helal feels he could say more with less. For the artist, abstraction serves as a high standard of language, like poetry. Abstraction also offers a reduction and refinement of artistic language. “We can say many things without there being a surplus of words,” says the artist.

Syrian Artist Thaier Helal On Landmarks from Memory and Exploring Abstraction
TH145 Thaier Helal ‘Mirage’ 120 x 120 cm. Mixed media on canvas 2016

In Dubai Thaier Helal is represented by Ayyam Gallery. In January 2017, he displayed his seriesLandmarks II, an evolution from the previous series Landmarks. The main subject matter of these series is nature, and the mode of expression is once again abstraction. The artist uses mixed media to create physically laboured over surfaces and textures incorporating specific colour palettes, contributing both consistency and continuity to his series. Helal’s work uniquely combines two different characteristic styles of the Abstract Expressionism movement born in New York during the 1940s: the gesturalism of action painting and the broad sweeps of  colour-field painting – to create landscapes that extend beyond the canvas. As a result, his paintings have no edges and no real limits. “You can see my painting flipped, upside down. I have no problem in this regard.” he says.

“Memory is a very important part of my work,” says Helal. “I do not paint a landscape that is in front of me nor do I copy a photograph.” Memories of Helal’s native Syria, of his village, the land, the nature, Maaloula and Al Assi River have instilled themselves as images in the artist’s mind. He then translates their memory into large scale paintings.

Syrian Artist Thaier Helal On Landmarks from Memory and Exploring Abstraction
Thaier Helal. Throne Water 2. 2016. Mixed media on canvas. 183 x 304 cm.

To the artist, memory is not only visual, but “a complex part of things.” He continues, “It is first and foremost an image, but it is also feelings, emotions, smells, nostalgia. There is nostalgia for this place as much as there is loyalty to it partly, well largely, due to sadness. There is something happening there. Like a tragedy, you cannot but remember it.”

The emblematic value of Landmarks and Landmarks II cannot be overlooked. Although inspired by memories of Helal’s Syrian homeland,  it is a series that relates to all.“Landmarks can be a place for any one of us,” says the artist. “Landmarks is not only the place I was born. It is also the place you dream of, the place you were born, the place you wish to see, or the place you hope to never encounter. Many ideas can take you. My artwork carries all these meanings.”

In Helal’s work there is always room for coincidence. “I do not go into a different mode of experimentation,” he says. ” I experiment with all materials then decide what research or project to focus on. So basically, I work on a project after I experiment with it and decide on all the end-results. From painting to painting to painting, there are many differences and sometimes also important coincidences that makes the work more developed, at a higher level of technique and expertise. I protect the work as much as I can, so that the project neither emerges as a coincidence nor is created by it. The artwork created carries value, the value of little coincidences that come out inside the lab.”

The artist then partakes in a strenuous and physical artistic process which is actively executed on the canvas, making his gestural brustrokes and thick impasto visually apparent. “You see a white painting but you see many layers,” he says. “You see traces of the first touch on the painting. You see the canvas itself in the surface of the painting, as part of the meaning and as part of the concept. You sense things. You see time. You see the accumulation that took place on the surface of the painting. You see how much effort it takes to work, as well as the effort that has been erased or eliminated. You see that a painting was red, then white, then grey, then red or white again. The degree of white may change. It was one degree that became a second or fourth or tenth degree – piled degrees of colour that could be white. White on white on white. This to me is a kind of goal, a kind of torment, a kind of expression. A kind of insistence on sculpting meanings or carving them as if one is carving rock. You get layers and layers and layers. Maybe the act of carving has no meaning. Maybe it is merely an act, or rather a kind of suicide, a kind of punishment, a kind of pain that the artist performs on the surface of this painting. It might not necessarily have a meaning, but it is an act of carving or deletion or erasing or etching or sanding.  I consider all these procedures are part of the value of the artwork. Regardless of what it means, procedure is in itself a value.”

Landmarks to Landmarks II are two mature series that incorporate a wide range of palettes and patterns in order to explore colours, textures and imagery. Ultimately, they are the result of combining artistic concept and physical labour. The artist believes in the evolution between the two series. He explains how his thinking evolved in between the creation of Landmarksand Landmarks II. “I presented many new touches and I changed the surface,” he says. “I changed the colour. There used to be more colour. Colour is less. Imagery or meaning or expression is more. A shorter rhetoric developed. The stories I was telling were no longer told in the same way.”

The artist views his forms of reduction as refinement, as poetry. They are the merits of abstraction. Indeed, the pieces have achieved a level of maturity after years of experimentation with media, concepts and techniques. The artist is relentless in his pursuit of the creative process, powered by the persistence of memories of his homeland, the longing not to forget his heritage and the desire to transfer the imagery of these sacred places to others. By finding value in concept and performance, the artist creates pieces that are different and individual, yet attest to a collective intention and execution. Helal’s work is a new breed of Abstract Expressionism – relevant just as much to our contemporary world as it is our inner reflections.

tem art world and to its place in each of our inner worlds.Syrian Artist Thaier Helal On Landmarks from Memory and Exploring Abstraction

TH141 Thaier Helal ‘Earth’ 190 cm. in diameter Mixed media on canvas 2016

Helal’s work is currently being exhibited at Ayyam Gallery Dubai-DIFC as part of the Summer Collective Dialogue. The exhibition runs until 10 September 2018.