Alexandrian artist Aya Tarek, best known for her street art, displayed a collection of her newest paintings at Soma Gallery in an exhibition that ran in April.
Titled Aya Tarek’s Sprezzatura, the show is inspired by this 16th century Italian concept which translates as "studied carelessness."
The art of artlessness
The term sprezzatura originated in The Book of the Courtier, penned by 16th century Italian nobleman Baldassare Castiglione, who defined it as a deliberate nonchalance that conceals all the work put into whatever one does or says, making it appear to be spontaneously on-point, without effort or pre-thought.
Sprezzatura was used in reference to fashion before it became used to describe other works of art. Most commonly it refers to the bravado an artist demonstrates in creating a piece – swift but precise.
One type of exercise in artistic sprezzatura would be to spend hours planning, calculating, or practicing the stroke of a brush in order that it looks as carefree as a perfect accident.
Not only a characteristic of contemporary abstract works, it can also be found in the work of classic renaissance painters, including those of Raphael.
For all their realism and detail, Raphael’s paintings seem like they were made lightly, with ease and barely any effort.
The statement for Aya Tarek’s exhibition explains how she applies the concept of sprezzatura to her work as her practice matures.
“This exhibition looks easy, moderate, and even imperfect, yet it is the result of long years of effort, practice, plans, seeking perfection – then, rebellion,” the statement reads.
True to Tarek’s versatile practice as a painter, illustrator and street artist, the works on display cover very different subjects, in different styles and color palettes, which are all meant to be linked with this concept.
Walking into the first room at Soma, one finds to one side on the wall a painting of a mountain depicted in white and blue dabs in layered, visible paint strokes.
Two very different types of portraits hang on the other walls. One is a monochrome evocation of the style of Jackson Pollock, and another features a male figure dressed in a bright geometric pattern against a gold leaf background.
In the next room, two other portraits echo this fashion style: geometric with bright primary colors. They share the space with an expressionistic painting of a house plant, another painting of a woman seductively reclined and a larger-than-life piece that was the result of a live-painting session Tarek held at the gallery.
In the side corridor hang a large cubist portrait and two smaller ones that appear as well-developed doodles with the titles Red Bull I and Red Bull II.
Individually, some of these paintings hit home and in terms of technique, wonderfully respond to her stated theme.
Perhaps the star of the show is a piece titled Ma Zanb El-Nabatat (What’s the Crime of the Plants) in which a house plant mingles with abstract brush strokes.
Its feels like both the attentive study of something mundane, and an expressionistic interpretation that communicates much more than just the plant’s outline, and thus strikes a balance that says “sprezzatura.”
Similar but different are the quick, dripping paint strokes of the monochromatic portrait titled Meshakes Me'akes (Teasing Flirt), which pleasantly echoes in terms of color palette and technique the abstract piece from the live performance.
In another portrait titled Ana Wa Ana (I and Myself), the subject’s face is a smudged blur, as if it were created fast, in contrast to the body and outfit that were executed more precisely.
Artworks by Aya Tarek at Soma Gallery (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
However, beyond these three notable pieces, the concept of sprezzatura seems not so much to tie everything together, but as an excuse to connect what would otherwise be a random collection of works.
While in general this mix of style and subject does not in itself undermine a show’s cohesion, the broken conversation between most of the works does.
The remaining paintings seemed inexplicably part of a different mindset, wherein the technique speaks a very different language: one studied and without the aspect of carelessness.
Announcing sprezzatura in the title already places the works in a certain proverbial box that burdens it with certain expectations. As such, works that don’t exude this concept will have to justify their presence.
Some of the works that seemed out of place include Self Portrait in a Broken Mirror. The tight composition overcomes any link to carelessness and the effort put into it is palpable instead of invisible.
In another painting, the application of gold leaf gave the artist away. As it requires very delicate handling, when applying gold leaf to completely cover a strongly-defined rectangular area, the labour and attention it required comes to the foreground.
Red Bull I and II – the only two pieces from previous shows – are even more tightly composed, and seemed to only have been included to match the color palette of the larger painting alongside them.
Femme Fatale was another oddly placed painting in this context. The technique, the subject itself, and representation of the character, even if cynical, are all a cliché that seemed out of place not only with the other works, but with the concept note, and with Tarek’s stronger work in general.
Had all the portraits shared the style and spirit which Tarek used in her piece Ana We Ana, it might have made for a more integrated collection.
Or if the display followed a different logic, grouping all those with a similar style, or tracing the artist’s development from tightly-planned compositions to ones more exemplary of sprezzatura, for example, the show might have been more cohesive.
Even while acknowledging that the underlying theme is about apparent abandon and the artist’s rebellion after reaching technical maturity, the exhibition ironically comes off as lacking intention in a way that makes it similar to a student showcase.
When the intention is abandon things gets tricky, precisely because of how self-preserving it is. The term almost protects itself against criticism, daring us to interrogate the intentions of the artist because any mistake could fall under its self-proclaimed effortlessness.
Tarek’s solo last year titled Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, also held at Soma Gallery, demonstrated a sensitivity, intelligence, and wit through an eclectic body of work. Even while the works were raw and in different styles, the exhibition held its own.
This time, it feels like the pieces were forced together in a show that played on one side of sprezzatura and not the other – effortless, but not exquisite.
Instead of serving the concept of effortlessness – as the artist probably intended with this mixed collection – we are left underwhelmed instead of charmed.
The carelessness of sprezzatura goes hand in hand with a sense of ease and comfort upon encounter. But in Tarek’s exhibition, the shifts from one painting to another felt random and abrupt in a way that made for an unsatisfying experience.
Perhaps Aya Tarek's Sprezzatura is an ongoing path on which this exhibition was but a station. The budding artist's future exhibitions could give it context, if it was the start of a highway, or a rather side road she explored.
Artworks by Aya Tarek at Soma Gallery (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
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