Much to reflect upon

From childhood memories of dinner guests to the expansive skies of Jerusalem, inspiration comes in many forms for the artist Fares Rizk

While much is made of the way in which Picasso and Matisse have influenced the New York-based Palestinian-Jordanian artist Fares Rizk, ask him to cite the on his art and the response is both telling and wide-ranging. 

“My work is often inspired by a memory or a moment in time from my childhood, perhaps the society ladies at my parents’ dinner parties in Amman or the movie stars whose photographs appeared in the Paris Matches that were lying around the house then,” he said. 

Fares also cites the sights and sounds of the cities in which he spent his youth, from the bright colours of the outfits worn to celebrate special holidays in Cairo to the café culture in Beirut and the incredible Jordanian landscapes. “Then, there’s the grey Manhattan skyline which I’ve become so accustomed to, so I think it’s fair to say that art is very autobiographical in many ways,” he reflected “In fact, I often feel that I carry the East and West with me wherever I go.” 

That’s not to say Fares’ fascination with the artists whose work he explored extensively while studying for his MFA at Parsons School of Design hasn’t found its way into his work; he is the first to voice his admiration for Picasso’s hunger to create and use of colour to Matisse’s meticulousness and the arabesque vibe found in key works. “Aspects of other artists’ work have also long intrigued me – Cezanne’s depiction of nature, for example, and the way Bonnard’s brush arrives so mysteriously on the canvas, not forgetting Kooning and Pollock,” said. “There’s so much to admire, but like all painters, I like to think of my art as my own.”

That individuality is inevitably complex, deeply rooted in Fares’ multi-layered identity, carved from time spent as a child in what he describes as an authentic Palestinian household in Jordan and boarding school in Lebanon, where he was educated in French, before moving to the US. 

Today he works out of his small studio in New York, but describes Jordan as his great escape where he can truly immerse himself in his art. “I love so much about Jordan - the topography, especially the mountains, the sunrises and of course the people,” he said. 

Jordan has reciprocated and shown its appreciation of Fares’ work, with several of his paintings installed in the country’s museums and his first show at Wadi Finan For Art Gallery, Amman, which represents him, selling out. Fares credits much of what he has accomplished in Amman to the influence of Suha Lallas, Wadi Finan’s gallerist, and the guidance she has given him over the years. 

That success has also been mirrored in New York; his most recent show – a large-scale retrospective at the Riverfront Art Gallery, Yonkers, titled ‘From New York to Amman: The Lifeworks of Fares Rizk’, took place to great acclaim, something Fares puts down in part to the hard work of its curator, Haifa Bint-Kadi.

“The way she hung the show and organised the lighting was incredible – it was definitely a career highlight and gave me the confidence to believe in myself,” he said.

Aside from showing the diversity of Fares’ work, which encompasses stylised, intimate portraits, western cityscapes, Middle Eastern villages, complete with houses tumbling on top of each other, and peaceful rural scenes in vibrant colours, the Yonkers show also reflected the artist’s shift in way or working. “I’ve recently begun experimenting with acrylic gels,” he explained. “I love the way they provide reflection and transparency – they’re fantastic for relaying the endlessness of the Jerusalem sky, for example.”

Like so many artists, Fares values his privacy when painting, admitting that his mother is one of the only people he allows to watch him work. “I think it’s because she and my aunt always encouraged me in my art even when I was a child,” he said.

His mother has also supported Fares in his other work as the drag queen Sultana, well known on the New York entertainment scene. While he doesn’t see an immediate connection between his art and drag performances, describing his painting as “serious” and drag as “fun escapism”, Fares is aware that there is some common ground shared by these two aspects of his life, such as the elegant couture and glamour of the old movies. “My mother also appreciates the style of these bygone days – she always takes pride in her appearance and still wears makeup at the age of 87!” he said with a smile. There is, of course, a kindred spirit in the form of the artist Marcel Duchamp, who also dressed in drag. “To me, it feels a natural part of the creative process and that may well have been how it was for him,” he said.

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