John Jurayj (Lebanese, born 1968)
Night Time, 1997 signed, dated and titled ‘John S.
Jurayj / 1997′ (on the reverse) casein, acrylex, ink and watercolor on canvas
46 x 40in.
Obelisk Gallery, Boston.
John Jurayj (b. 1968) received his B.A. in Architecture from Washington University and his MFA from Bard College. His work has appeared in New York and nationwide group exhibitions for over a decade. In 2000, Jurayj had his first solo exhibition, “White Room,” at the non-profit gallery White Columns in New York City.
Watching the news coming out of Lebanon, one can easily conclude that the place is always smoldering, that its capital Beirut is a living, breathing ruin of buildings burned and besieged. This isn’t the case, of course, but given the visuals that have accompanied the Hizbullah-led opposition’s latest and most demonstrative putsch, Lebanon these days certainly looks like the charred carcass of a failed state. Topic Art reviews The Review
There are at least three times more Lebanese living abroad than at home. Most of those who have left over the past half-century have done so in the midst of a war or in anticipation of the next one, and fury over the country’s facility for self-destruction is scorched into the diaspora’s collective memory. Many first generation emigrants don’t look back. They dismiss Lebanon, deny its promise and embrace their adopted homeland instead. But a few second and third generation immigrants suffer an incorrigible curiosity that is passed down through family rather than experienced firsthand. It is their unique and perhaps unfortunate inheritance to long for Lebanon in the abstract even as they wonder, in concrete terms, if its conflagration will ever cease to burn. The painter John Jurayj was born in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, in 1968. His parents met on a compound in Saudi Arabia when they were both working for the oil company Aramco – he was a surgeon, she was a nurse. They married in the United States after they were unable to wed either in Lebanon or in Italy – he is Greek Orthodox, she is Roman Catholic.
“Remember this was 1961,” Jurayj says. They never expected to stay in the US. Rather, they planned to return to Lebanon and school their children there. But by the time John was seven, the outbreak of civil war made an American education a much preferable option. By the time fifteen years of fighting had passed, the hope of returning home for anything more than a visit was gone. Still, since the early 1990s, Jurayj has been returning to Lebanon regularly. He studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and started painting in Rome during a junior year abroad. He has been exhibiting his work steadily since 1995, and earned a degree in fine art from Bard College in New York, three years ago. He lives and works in Brooklyn, but he finds much of his inspiration in Beirut. It would be trite to say that Jurayj discovered his roots through his paintings.
He translates his relationship with Lebanon into art, certainly, but it is a complicated process mediated by time, distance, family, culture, violence, sexual identity and political circumstance. His paintings explore “the complex space between exile and immigration”, he says, and they delve into a notion of an identity that is constantly shifting between the Arab world and the West. But they are also a means of “asserting authority over my father, honestly”, says Jurayj, who is gay and considers his sexuality an important factor in the cultural equation that defines his artwork. Jurayj’s paintings explore beauty and destruction in the same pictorial frame. They are as engaged with the history of Lebanon as they are with post-war American and European art. As such, they create an unusual but highly valuable link between a generation of artists in Beirut and their counterparts in the West. Jurayj’s treatment of trauma and remembrance tethers him to the works of Lebanese artists such as Walid Raad, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (who despite the spelling difference bears the same name as Jurayj, though the two artists are not, to their knowledge, related). It also places him, and by extension them, in a much longer, cross-disciplinary lineage that includes the painter Gerhard Richter, the writer W. G. Sebald and the master of memory himself, Marcel Proust.
ASpecialKind ofWasteland:JohnJurayj’sPaintings ofBeirut
The sun has gone under. The desertis atmymental door because Beirutis a special
kind of a wasteland.It defies ourmeans, belittles our intelligence, defeatsthe will….
Once thisissaid, itsmystery unfolds, its beauty too.
John Jurayj paints landscapes of war‐torn Beirut. His canvases feature ghosts of the
city’s bombed buildings—the destruction overlaid with drips and streaks of luridly
vivid neon paint. Strife has scarred the city, torn asunder its historical memory,
created flows of emigrants from its ports. By estimates, more Lebanese live in exile
than in the country itself. “This is my concrete reality; I was born in America,” Jurayj
explains. “It is this diasporic distance that informs my art.”ii This interstitial space of
exile creates a distance that permits “ways of seeing” that suffuse Jurayj’s
Exile produces complicated geographies that disrupt one’s sense of place, shape
one’s identity, and color one’s experiences. Despite the distance of time and space,
trauma creates ties that bind. “Trauma is a productive experience,” Jurayj told me as
he walked me through an exhibition of his paintings in Chelsea in 2007. “I read the
images of Lebanon from a space of trauma, an inherently emotional and personal
trauma that creates a space—between myself and Lebanon, between myself and my
father. They both remain, in a sense, inaccessible to me.” Jurayj’s cultural politics,
then, are deeply personal. He is an Arab‐American; he is an artist; he is a gay man
whose father was born and raised in Lebanon. The weight of a war‐torn homeland,
of familial expectations, of different registers of masculinity bears down. Edward
Said, whose work has deeply influenced Jurayj’s art, spoke of the “need to
reassemble an identity out of the refractions and discontinuities of exile…”iv In a
sense, Jurayj reassembles his identity in his paintings.
Jurayj mines photographs of Lebanon from his family albums and press archives.
“My work is a translation of these images through different aspects of art history—
abstract expressionism, large‐scale landscape paintings.” The formal aspect of his
painting is referential, showing influences of Gustave Courbet and Gerhard Richter.
“Courbet is a god to me,” Jurayj says. “He showed the materiality of paint.” Richter’s
formal experimentation stems from his own personal history—split between
representational painting and modernist abstraction, each affiliated with the
ideologies of the divided postwar Germany.v Jurayj’s artistic approach embraces
both strategies of painting. Through the layers of neon abstractionism, one sees the
skeletal remains of buildings—the U.S. Marine barracks bombed in 1983, the site of
the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005, the buildings pierced by missiles
in 2006. This is Jurayj’s concrete reality. Though he lives and paints in New York City, his
aze is directed at Beirut—and within the rubble, he has found its insidious beauty
nd his own sense of self.
Etel Adnan, i
“Time Desire Fog,” (2004). www.blithe.com/bhq8.1/8.1.04.html.
ii Jurayj’s quotes are from interviews with the author in December 2007 and March
009. Much of my own thinking about art and exile, which appears in other writing,
sations with Ju
has been informed by my profoundly revealing conver rayj.
iii The term is borrowed from Berger; see John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London:
Penguin, 1972). Jurayj was born in Chicago to a Lebanese father and American
mother (see artist’s bio).
Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” Reflections on Exile andOther Essays
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 179.
v The influence of Richter on Jurayj became clearer to me as I viewed the excellent
exhibition “Gerhard Richter Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery in London in
winter 2009. For an erudite discussion of the connections between form and
history in Richter’s work, see Benjamin H. D. Buchloch, “Divided memory and Post‐
Traditional Identity: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning,” October 75 (Winter