After a particularly heavy storm in 1991, the artist Nabil Nahas took a walk along Southampton Beach in Long Island, New York, and found it littered with starfish, spewed out by the recently tumultuous sea. According to William Lawrie, who wrote an essay on the seminal Lebanese artist many years later, it was the turning point in his career. “Fascinated by the random composition they made against the wet sand, Nahas attached a starfish body to one of the panels of a diptych, itself part of the Circle series,” writes Lawrie. “This was a pivotal work and he knew it, thus entitling it Eureka.”
The starfish, with its pentagonal form that can be linked to Islamic architecture and geometry, is something that Nahas has since become well known for. He made casts from the creature out of acrylic paint and began to use them as the base for many of his abstract works, in which he uses many layers of paint over the casts and creates masterfully deep pieces of work that have earned him international acclaim.
It also led him to a later series, Landscapes, which focused on the architectural contours of palm tree trunks and the intricate details of cedars. This series was an attempt to reconnect Nahas, who has lived in New York since he studied at Yale in 1973, to Lebanon and to Egypt, where he spent his childhood years. Paintings from this series also formed the inaugural show at Lawrie Shabibi gallery when it opened in March 2011.
Now, almost three years later, Lawrie Shabibi is showing Nahas again with its current show.
Asmaa Shabibi, the co-founder of the gallery, says that while she enjoys the conceptual shows and those heavily loaded with political undertones, she also enjoys the traditional and highly talented painterly aspects of Nahas’s work.
“What I like about his work is that it is so different,” she explains. “Sometimes the whole region gets a bit obsessed with politics and this work is just about art – the material, the medium and the aesthetic value.
“Paint is a medium that artists have been using since the beginning of time and the challenge today is how can you make it different.”
Look hard enough and you will see the acrylic paint casts of starfish hidden beneath many layers in Nahas’s Fractals series that is hanging in the gallery until next month.
The artist has started with the starfish and then layered paint and pumice on the canvas in a contoured effect that resembles coral or perhaps a brightly coloured fungus. The works are all new, especially created for the show and, while really beautiful from afar, they reveal the artist’s obsession with the medium of paint when seen up close.
Alongside the Fractals are some works from the Galactic series, where the repetition of natural objects is made – this time shell shapes are giving the canvas a contour – but instead of solid colour leaving the patterns to emerge, the lines and shapes are swirling on gold backgrounds to create a hypnotic effect.
“They can work on a microscopic and macroscopic level,” explains Shabibi. “They almost look like what the universe looks like and embody planetary movement but they could also be the inside of a cell. It is expansive, universal pattern-making and as pieces of art, they are quite fabulous.”
This is all most visible in Inka Dinka Doo, the largest work in the exhibition that is both flat and three-dimensional, tactile and remote. It is not often that you leave an exhibition these days without carrying with you a story or a message. With Nabil Nahas, you will simply want to return to look at the paintings.
• The exhibition runs until January 9 at Lawrie Shabibi gallery, Alserkal Avenue. Call 04 346 9906 for details