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Etel Adnan A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun a blue sun

 

  • Exhibition

  • On view April 7, 2018
  • MASS MoCA

How does the experience of reading poetry differ from the experience of looking at a painting? What reveries can a poem evoke that a painting cannot, and vice versa? Presenting a selection of paintings in oil and ink by the prolific Arab-American artist Etel Adnan, alongside a small reading room with her written works, A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun a blue sun focuses on the possibility of expression within and beyond the limits of communication. For Adnan, painting and poetry are two languages of many that she has mastered over a lifetime. Like a translator, she moves between them in pursuit of pure meaning.

The title — A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun a blue sun — is borrowed from the opening line of one of Adnan’s best-known books, The Arab Apocalypse, which was published in French in 1980, before Adnan translated the work into English in 1989. Begun at the outset of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the epic poem is a disavowal of political, religious, and environmental violence. In it, the chaos and brutality of civil war exceed the written word — Adnan studded the work with hand-drawn symbols that interrupt sentences and float between lines. Where these small hieroglyphs overtake the text, language has opened up into possibility, though it also seems to have broken into incoherence.

Folding out to as long as fourteen feet in length, the leporellos (accordion-folded works on paper) in the exhibition show this fluid movement between writing and mark-making across their pages. Adnan merges multiple mediums and languages in these handmade books, filling some with poems and fragments copied in Arabic. In others, she covers the entire surface in continuous ink drawings, upending the linear structure of the book format.

The evocative first words from The Arab Apocalypse also describe the abstract landscapes in her oil paintings. These works are inspired by places that are dear to her, from the Lebanese seaside to Mount Tamalpais in northern California, where she lived intermittently beginning in 1955. Each canvas contains a harmonic composition of vivid hues applied confidently from the tube with a palette knife. Their small-scale makes each work deeply personal, but their iterative quality hints at the universal. When shown together, these paintings seem to articulate many facets of the same world.

Untitled, 2017
Oil on canvas, 13 × 9 1/2 inches (33 × 24 cm)
© Etel Adnan, courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

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