The art of painting a ‘selfie’

Sunday 16/10/2016
Self-portraits of Lebanese artist Christopher Rizkallah inspired by mobile phone selfies.

Beirut - It is safe to say that the internet has come of age. It is ingrained in our daily experience and has permeated contemporary culture. For some artists, it has even become a tool to experiment with new modes of expression.
“We have to realise that we’re millennial,” Lebanese artist Chris­topher Rizkallah said. “We have this opportunity to be employ­ing all of these techniques and all these new ways of looking at life, which I think we don’t fully under­stand yet.”
Belonging to a generation of art­ists born after 1990, Rizkallah’s paintings echo the digital age in which he grew up. His first solo ex­hibition Aftertaste, at the non-prof­it Beirut Art Residency (BAR), con­sisted of a series of self-portraits, which in digital terms are referred to as “selfies”.
BAR Director Amar Zahr said: “Christopher’s work tackles the very classical subject of a self-portrait in a very non-classical approach. As part of a generation born after the universal availability of the internet, his approach holds a very strong relationship to tech­nology.”
Zahr posits that artists are find­ing modern methods to revisit more traditional media. “With to­day’s commonplace acceptance of ‘selfies’ comes self-obsession, al­lowing a full circle to use technol­ogy as a means back to the ageless self-portrait,” she said.
Close-ups of bloody gums, con­torted body parts and odd erotic mouth gestures elicit a jarring first impression. Further inspection of the fervent brush strokes betrays an idiosyncratic quality to the work, one that Rizkallah said was initiated when he was brushing his teeth a little too hard and his gums began to bleed. He described it as “a moment of both disgust and in­trigue”. What is typically regarded as an ordinary occurrence served as an opportunity for self-exami­nation.
“It is becoming more popular,” he said of the shift that many art­ists have made towards integrat­ing technology into their practices but Rizkallah is steadfast that more traditional media will remain just as relevant.
“To me there isn’t an art that will ever become less relevant. This is something that is happening right now. It is current. It’s the way to go for some people. It’s nice to be able to experiment with all these differ­ent mediums,” he said.
The process involved Rizkallah taking pictures of himself with his phone and using the images as the foundation for the portraits, while working in sporadic spurts be­tween 8pm and 4am.
“Had I sat in front of a mirror the outcome would have not been the same,” he said. “The fact is that I had these pictures on my phone and I only looked at them on my phone. I never expanded or pro­jected these images… It [helped] to get the feel of the images and then take that to the canvas.
“Having access to the internet, and [with] photography being so readily available, you’re able to merge the older arts with the new­er ones… It’s an interesting way where you can come up with out­comes that are not seen before… It’s a way to make more interesting art. I think it has become an op­tion for artists to use technology in their practice.”
Rather than shy away from hap­hazard lapses that can accompany the use of cell phone cameras, Rizkallah embraced the imperfect instances he encountered to con­struct his paintings. In doing so, he managed to illustrate the intrica­cies of how flawed technology can be. This attention to detail charac­terises the aesthetic of the work, as the slightest blur, glitch or discol­ouration is incorporated on canvas.
He emphasises what he calls “the in-between moments” as he fuses the mundane with the grotesque.
“That is just my art style I would say; it’s always been a kind of iden­tifier. Even back when I was study­ing, there was always this darker edge to my work. At the same time, I’m very much aware that it shouldn’t be too dark in a way. It’s not just about portraying the gro­tesque. There’s always a beauty be­hind it, which is very important to me, so with my work I merge both,” Rizkallah said.
“Since all the paintings are por­traits of myself it was very much about learning different aspects of your personality and seeing how my mood affected the outcomes of these paintings.”
What emerges from Rizkallah’s works extends beyond mere pro­vocative visual accounts of cell phone pictures but rather a reflec­tion on one’s obsession to create a digital identity. His approach stands in contrast to the criticisms many have cast on his generation’s propensity to document every triv­ial aspect of their lives, as his mo­tivations appear less of an exercise in narcissism and more of a layered introspective exploration.
After completing a degree in stu­dio arts at the American University of Beirut, Rizkallah was awarded the M&C Saatchi MENA Award, which is granted to the student displaying the most creative po­tential.