Middle worlds

Omar El Lahib’s artwork exists between the liminality of night and day
By Ella Joyce | Art | 9 February 2023

In the heart of St James, Phoebe Saatchi Yates and Arthur Yates have unveiled a brand-spanking new home for their eponymous gallery. Always ones to mark an occasion in style, eighteen large-scale paintings of Omar El Lahib’s hypnotic dreamlike scenes adorn the freshly-designed white-walled space. Drawn in by the artist’s “mysterious and unsettling power,” as soon as they stumbled upon his work on Instagram, Phoebe and Arthur knew he was the right person to set the tone for their new chapter.

El Lahib’s practice meditates on the symbiotic, blurring lines between light and dark, figuration and abstraction, time and space. Within these abstract worlds, striking hues articulate a technicolour vision of darkness, inviting our subconsciousness to relinquish inhibitions and revel in the opportunity to make itself heard. Uncanny figures recur throughout, reminiscent of post-impressionistic character work, crafted in distinctive brush strokes, distorted forms and exaggerated proportions. Continually feeding off the environment in which he finds himself, the Lebanon-born, Cologne-based artist fuses Lebanese landscapes with German intensity, all housed within Saatchi Yates’ new home at the epicentre of both the past and present of British art.

‘Weddings’ by Omar El Lahib, 2022

Ella Joyce: Your solo show at Saatchi Yates celebrates the opening of the new gallery space in the heart of St James, how does it feel to be the artist chosen to mark such an occasion?
Omar El Lhabib: It feels really good, the new rooms are very spacious. The pictures come into their own here and they’ve given me the honour of being part of a large and daring community. In the words of Arthur Yates, “it’s a triumph.”

EJ: Blurring the boundaries between figuration and abstraction is integral to your practice, where did the initial idea for this series begin?
OEL: It honestly came from the love of work and painting. For me, it’s primarily about painting and not about telling stories or creating contemporary documents.

EJ: The nocturnal world forms the backdrop for the majority of your works, where does that fascination come from? 
OEL: At night I love the quiet and the different kind of perception the day drowns out. During the night other things become visible, and many things which were separated during the day merge together. Losing yourself in a huge dark sky with all its stars and at the same time having a street corner or a house in view is indescribable.

Losing yourself in a huge dark sky with all its stars and at the same time having a street corner or a house in view is indescribable.”

‘Between Dimensions’ by Omar El Lahib, 2021 – 2022

EJ: I’m interested to know more about your relationship with day and night, does it also affect your creative practice? Do you find a difference in working during the day or night?
OEL: I prefer to work during the day and with natural light. However, working very often extends into the night, so I also work in the evenings but I am very aware it is more difficult for me to recognise certain colour nuances at this time. As for the attitude towards painting, it doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night, it’s less about feelings and more about capturing the big picture.

EJ: A woman-like figure with long hair is a recurring motif in your paintings, can you give us some insight into this character?
OEL: In addition to my art studies, I also studied art history and I really enjoy going to museums. At the time I was fascinated by works from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edvard Munch, Francisco Goya, Diego Velazquez and many others. The long falling hair stands for many attributes – loneliness, forlornness, shyness, eroticism, or even anger hidden by the hair. But there are also many things that arise spontaneously in the painting process, and these are the things that increasingly interest me. On one hand, I love the line and the figuration in painting, on the other hand, the colour and combination of both elements, so it remains very exciting for me to see how my style will develop.

EJ: Over eighteen large-scale paintings hang around the gallery, how do you go about curating a show such as this one? Did you collaborate with Phoebe and Arthur?
OEL: Phoebe Saatchi Yates and Arthur Yates are wonderful people with great vision, they are just so easy and very stimulating to work with. The curation of this exhibition was led by Phoebe and Arthur, they chose the pictures and put them on display. They did a wonderful job and I was amazed by how well my pictures turned out, they also have a brilliant professional team at their side who understands their craft very well.

“At night I love the quiet and the different kind of perception the day drowns out”

‘Honeymoon’ by Omar El Lahib, 2020 – 2022

EJ: Are there any artists who were particularly important in forming your artistic style?
OEL: For a long time, I have been working with artists who are very free with form and colour. These include Bonnard and Vuillard, who belonged to the artist group Nabis. I can understand this direct language very well, the bold application of colour and the unusual shapes – however it feels very natural and not academic.

EJ: You were born in Lebanon but studied and now live in Germany, do these environments influence your practice? Does your work differ depending on your surroundings?
OEL: Yes absolutely. I now live and work in Cologne and I’ve already noticed how the Rhine has crept into my work. However, it is very important to me these aspects of the place are only to be located in the background or not at all. The place where I work and live is very formative for me, my impressions are then concentrated in the painting. There are also very inconspicuous things like stars or fireflies which sometimes take up the entire picture space.

EJ: Was there an overarching idea or emotion you had in mind that you were aiming to articulate through this showcase? 
OEL: The worst thing a painter can have is to have an overarching idea that dominates their work. In my paintings, I just tried to create a painting revolving around people and the environment in which they live. I am an avid observer and love creating images with colour nuances and shapes. I have no idea what the visitors see through their eyes in my pictures and take with them, I don’t mean for anyone to find anything about it. I believe it is an indirect yet very present language that I, the space, the visitor and the image share with one another. Art is about the conversation which goes unsaid yet still resonates with someone somehow.

Omar El Lhabib’s solo exhibition runs at Saatchi Yates until March 15th, more info here

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