Omar Koubâa - Documentations
Abstract painters: in contemporary painting, you might call them a voluntary minority. Over the past five years, the number of people who entered their work in the competition for the Royal Awards for Painting lay roughly between 210 and 280 per year, and while the jury never actually counted which share of the artists had entered abstract work, sometimes you could almost see our ears prick up when we encountered an isolated example. We wouldn’t be able to give you any percentages: the jury wasn’t interested in statistics. And abstract or figurative, or a mixture of the two, aren’t a mark of quality in their own right. But as soon as Omar Koubâa’s work emerged from the large number of paintings vying for our attention – most of which dropped from our view just as quickly – we reacted as if we’d seen a unicorn umping by in the fog: did our eyes deceive us?! T our surprise, a second look confirmed that the paintings in question did indeed possess a delicate, fairylike charm, which to an extent might explain our feeling that our minds were playing tricks on us. The other abstract paintings we saw on that occasion were mostly dominated by clean lines, cool monochromes and other echoes of Minimalism. However you put it, this lyrical abstraction presented itself as an anomaly.
Omar Koubâa’s was exotic, it caught our attention, and even after looking at it for an extended period, it continued to hold our gaze.
There’s no way we could ignore his work – nor did we want to.
You could say that on a small scale, the jury of the Royal Awards
for Painting, which with the inclusion of the jury chair consists of
seven people, reflects the full breadth of styles, tastes and temperaments
found among the competition’s many, many entrants.
But on this we all agreed: Omar Koubâa was a winner.
For the catalogue that accompanied the 2011 edition of the Royal Awards for Painting, I wrote the following about Omar Koubâa’s work – and today, in late 2012, I am still firmly convinced that we made the right choice; or rather, that he has a special talent: “The whirling landscapes by Omar Koubâa (1979, Hengelo) offer no place for the eye to rest – no horizon or vanishing point. They unlock a dream world in which idiosyncratic colours drive each other on – generous, warm and fuzzy, yet neither limp nor cloying. The jury admires the balance between lyrical turbulence and tranquillity achieved in these works. Koubâa’s compositions offer both expansiveness and equilibrium, with a lovely, rugged surface of paint – like a flying carpet that takes us on a journey halfway between the earth and the vault of heaven.”
Chair of the 2011 Royal Awards for Painting
Curator of Modern and
Working with Dark Soil
One doesn’t paint to convey movement – usually. But Omar
Koubâa’s canvases sometimes do give you this feeling: as if
something is moving under those layers of paint, just beyond
your field of vision. His paintings, the result of the constant application
of new forms in paint, are almost hallucinogenic.
And it has to be acrylic paint, because Koubâa, a tall young man
with medium-brown doe eyes, doesn’t want his work to crash
and scream. Acrylics are brightly-coloured but fast-drying.
This allows Koubâa to treat the paint in such a way that the bold
hues are toned down a bit. He ‘detoxicates’ them.
We are in his studio in an old school building in Hengelo.
White paint on the windows keeps the world outside at bay, but allows the light in.
Koubâa is racking his brains, trying to explain to me what he hopes to achieve,
and how it works. He grabs one painting
after the other with his long arms, hanging them on the wall
– and even then, he can barely extend far enough to hold them by
the edges, and some canvases are simply too big. One painting
nearly slips off: he deftly catches it.
These paintings show a strange interaction of shapes, on the
brink of recognisability. The canvases – filled to the brim with soft,
hazy hues and organic forms, in which you occasionally come
across something prickly, on a surface, a transition – demand
time and dedication of the viewer. And if you lend them the
attention they require, you are rewarded with an arrangement
of softly shimmering colours, with the rhythm of an atonal
Once the layers of paint have let you in, there is a strong chance
they will never truly let you go again.
In fact, Koubâa hopes to achieve this effect – he consciously
aims for it. Describing this process, his words are searching,
careful: “I have no idea beforehand what will happen exactly on
the canvas. When I’m painting, I focus on my visual intuition.
I then continue transforming that painted surface until a place
develops that belongs to neither external reality nor internal
reality, but nevertheless manages to find a form.
And I also challenge this visual intuition: sometimes I violently
interrupt what is going on on the canvas.”
For the artist, seeing these paintings again – the oldest of which was made in 2008,
for his final exhibition at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Enschede –
is also a voyage of discovery.
He can work on a painting for two, three months on end, sometimes even
longer. In the morning, he reviews his work, prepares his palette and applies
layer after layer of paint. This creates the seedbed for the ultimate work:
in his interventions, Koubâa responds to what emerges from all those earlier layers of paint.
He can perfectly recall how some of the details came about.
How he wanted to handle a form that had loomed up on the plane
Occasionally, his eye catches something that is new to him.
Compared to a few years ago, a remarkable suppleness has
developed in his work. Whether purposely or unintentionally,
lines have been succeeded by colour as the main characteristic
of the curious shapes on his canvases. Sometimes, it seems as
if the forms are made of fluctuating northern lights. “I’m quite
pleased with that association,” says the artist. The northern
lights, aurora borealis, have a poetic significance to him.
The titles he gives his work are equally poetic. They convey a
certain feeling, without becoming too literal. Koubâa’s first
series of works is entitled Cortex contact. In 2010, he started on
the series Working with dark soil in a magnetic arena. Koubâa:
“The dream that put me on to this series is very dear to me, due to
the sense of wonder I felt about the unearthly situation of a
magnetic arena. It turned out to be extremely relevant to how
I work. The dark soil is the paint; the magnetic arena is the space
where everything revolves around the interaction between me
and the canvas, and after that, between the canvas and the
viewer. Paint is also literally dark: red paint only reflects red and
absorbs the other colours of the visible spectrum. I have linked
this quality – its capacity to absorb light – to dark soil; dark earth
that absorbs colour. When we look at colours, the fact that we’re
looking at a process of obfuscation is overshadowed by the light
hitting our retina.”
There are a number of recurring visual elements, like the
segment shapes that twist through a number of paintings.
Nor do the visual illusions disappear. What appears to be a
spyhole that offers you a look through, suddenly starts to bulge
outwards when you blink. And it seems as if certain parts are
dancing in the corners of your field of vision. Koubâa is fond of
high-contrast areas, in which he uses short, small strokes to build
up a contrast that reminds you of the paintings of Cézanne:
“The layers that he applies with his brush seem to slide over each
other, creating a kind of polychromatic fields.” Now and then,
he affectionately strokes one of these spots, which actually don’t
even catch your attention at first glance in the overfull paintings.
“The essence is that you look because you’re challenged to look.”
What you see, is painting itself, the paint, the form that has been
built up from colour. His work is totally abstract, although it
occasionally feels, along the edges of your consciousness,
as if you can make out something recognisable. Like a visual
sorcerer, the artist kneads the forms that sprout from his mind
and palette. But he always keeps things in check. Take that
landscape- like quality that occasionally glimmers through in his
work. If a horizon threatens to emerge too clearly from the
painted surface, he immediately makes sure that there are more
of such points on the canvas, skilfully manipulating the effect.
The painter, who is also a poet, experiences the world through
associations: he takes notes whenever he has a new insight.
But often, when he reads his thoughts back the next day they
don’t seem to apply anymore. Like his paintings, his thoughts are
difficult to grasp. Koubâa: “There’s the external and internal world.
The external world can be seen with our eyes;
the internal world consists of dreams and thoughts,
the light and the minute particles. It’s difficult to determine where they come
from exactly, and where they go. The two worlds are strongly intertwined.”
With a fitting sense of the dramatic, he quotes a line from one of his own poems:
“It’s difficult to look inwards with eyes that look out.”
When Koubâa was seventeen, he started drawing on sheets of
paper of 70x70 cm in the attic of his father’s studio. As a young
and talented painter from Tunisia, his father had ended up in the
Netherlands after meeting his future wife, Omar’s Dutch mother,
in Paris. Koubâa senior was studying there at the Académie des
Beaux-Arts. Omar Koubâa noticed that he went into a light trance
when he painted. He wanted to see this trance reflected in his
work: “Making it was ten times more fun than the end result.
This sense of anticipating the image pointed me on my way.
Today, I’ve come closer to my goal.”
Koubâa grew up in Hengelo. After his final exams, he took a
job to save up some money for his plan: to live in isolation in the
south-east of Ireland for six months, like a hermit. He rented
a little wooden house by the sea, just outside a tiny Irish village
– a street with a pub, a shop and a filling station. He had brought a
suitcase full of books with him, read Dostoyevsky, took walks and
looked out over the sea. He wanted to find out whether he could
do without the regular patterns and routines of daily life, whether
he could handle a profession in which he would be forced to
work in solitude, and to see whether he wanted to be a painter, a
musician or a writer. Besides books, he had also brought along
his guitar, recording equipment and painting materials. “I stayed
to the end – I had a great time, actually.”
After his introspective episode in Ireland, Koubâa moved
to Amsterdam to study: philosophy during the day, the Gerrit
Rietveld Academie in the evenings. Although he enjoyed the
hustle and bustle of the capital, after 18 months he had seen
enough. He decided to move back to Hengelo and continue
his studies at ArtEZ. He stayed on in Hengelo after graduating
from the Institute of the Arts, and was offered a studio. He feels
comfortable there, in the periphery: it offers him the peace and
quiet he needs to contemplate his many recent impressions.
Eventually, everything ends up in his paintings some way or
other, including the poems that he is working on at the moment
or that are already finished: “I enter into a different dynamic
– I call it my visual intuition – I get the feeling I’m translating
something. I’m not a channel: it doesn’t relate to a spiritual
dimension. I do sometimes struggle with things that cross my path,
with the world around me. This struggle is internalised, and then
expressed through my work.” It remains difficult to explain, although
he doesn’t really mind: “You can’t retrieve it through words...”
Even though Koubâa’s points of departure are not spiritual, the
ideas of Kandinsky, as formulated in Concerning the Spiritual in Art
(1911), do reverberate in the younger artist’s work. Our spiritual
existence can be captured in abstract forms; shapes can resonate
in the viewer’s soul. Kandinsky also states that there is no form
– indeed, nothing on earth – that is meaningless per se. Form is the
expression of an inner content. Formal harmony can only be based
on the purposeful stirring of the human soul. Kandinsky called it
‘the principle of inner necessity’. Koubâa: “You can see Kandinsky’s
spiritual element as an inner voice that can be compared to the
visual intuition that I work from. Kandinsky once said that he has
an intensive capacity to absorb sensations. This sensitivity was so
highly developed that he felt overwhelmed by his impressions.
On the other hand, these deep perceptions form the motor for
Kandinsky’s creativity. I recognise both sides.”
In Koubâa’s own, overfull paintings, these sensations leave the
impression of a kind of mild insanity. Each part of the painting, each
surface, needs to be approved, needs to fulfil a certain function in
an internal equilibrium. Koubâa: “This is only becoming
stronger in my most recent work – which also makes it more difficult.”
The artist’s experiences and thoughts, the books he has read, the
journeys he has made and the poems he has written all mature
to become a fertile soil for his paintings. They never lead to literal
references or the representation of an event. The impalpable
nature of his method of working gives him the freedom he needs
and makes sure that his work resists immediate interpretation.
Of course, Koubâa’s paintings are simply paint on canvas, static
and rounded off. But they have no trouble transcending these
actualities. Long after the artist has applied his last brush stroke,
they continue to shimmer with their own rhythm.
Machteld Leij, October 2012
Freelance art critic Machteld Leij is a regular contributor to the magazines Kunstbeeld and HART.
On the work of Omar Koubâa
The work is both a visual and a mental journey. The activities are
part of a unique history. They involve participation in an event that
exceeds the self on all sides. What we are witnessing
is a process of constant regeneration. It is a process of appropriation and
relinquishing, of following trails and voices in a shifting space in
which you are constantly presented with new perspectives.
Any lasting insight – any resolution – is repeatedly postponed.
And in this ambiguous, undulating fabric, in this shimmering
interaction of tentative instances, a different dimension manifests
itself: something of the other.
At some point in his essay ‘Eye and Mind’, Merleau-Ponty writes: “We must take literally what vision teaches us: namely, that through it we touch the sun and the stars, that we are everywhere at once, as close to things that are far as to those that are nearby, and that even our power to imagine ourselves elsewhere
– I am in Petersburg in my bed; in Paris, my eyes see the sun – or freely to envision real beings, wherever they are, borrows from vision and employs means we owe to it. Vision alone teaches us that beings that are different, ‘exterior’, foreign to one another, are
yet absolutely together: it shows us ‘simultaneity’.”
Omar Koubâa’s work has an intangible presence, an instance of matter, which as a trail formed by the artist’s hand and eye invites me to keep looking. Its sensual and tactile activity reflects the light-hearted to-and-fro of dissonance and harmony. I see how the image emerges from the plane – how it literally ‘grabs its place’. How it chooses me even before I am able to choose it…
It is travelling in new light through another space. The colours, the elusive nuances of the work, are a landscape that works as a provocation. This presence has the quality of the living instance.
It is receptive to becoming one: I become highly aware of my act of viewing. The eye meets with something visible whose meaning has not yet crystallised, and this state of ‘not yet’ is stretched, spread and spun out in time and space, in a journey that at first
glance promises to be endless. Through the act of viewing, I participate: my viewing also becomes action. The work as a technical extension of physicality embodies expression.
The image is an animate body. A connection of subject and object. Time and time again, it forms the beginning of something new, and each time round, there’s the question: “Which effect does it have?” I wander through the known and unknown – and
back again – and sense the unbridled energy, an ode to the unprejudiced gaze.
My eye travels across the interface between the painter’s experience and my own. What I see hovers between life and imagery. The state of being presses; portrays; speaks to me; spins its tale – in other words: the work contains it. A joy forever.
Omar Koubâa has discovered that it is all about the moment when appearance becomes aware of itself and as a result starts referring to something greater than appearance. To express this moment of ‘more’, he employs (almost as a strategy) elements of the
Romantic experience. The Romantics did not content themselves with a purely
intellectual conception of reality. In their view, reality cannot be
known solely through intuition and conception: it can only be experienced in a unity of subject and object (we can find the description of such an intuitive and mystical union in the works of Novalis). The Romantics set store by the powers of creative imagination and the importance of feelings and intuition, contrasting such pathways with the limitations of scientific knowledge.
Each individual work is an experience. Each time round, I am immersed in an experience that cannot be captured in words.
My expectations are thwarted, and I become entangled in a state of optical alertness, in the manifestation of the image that tells
me something about the viewing experience. But not just my own
viewing experience. Omar Koubâa’s perspective touches on the
abrupt and overwhelming insight that the image always lies just in
front or just beyond the point one is looking at, like something from
a world that simultaneously exists in a space behind our own and
one in front of it. Indeed, something that stems from a process in
which everything that has gone before is intuitively preserved and regenerated in the next work. And the work does not so much imitate visible reality as ‘make visible’, while simultaneously remaining close to its own genesis. It seems to constantly rematerialise
from its own elements. The work appears to be developing a means by which it can actively expand into the surrounding space. It is precisely the simultaneity of all those connections – the convergence of all those different moments – that makes me change position and that delights me so. It is a presence that exceeds the surrounding space. I see the light of a falling star; I ponder the smell of silence; I become aware of
the metamorphosis of time and discern the many different moments that are embedded in the image. Each work is a bold venture: a process of integrating an abundance of real
and visual data – and the image adds itself as another fact to this multitude.
Omar Koubâa’s work is like an experience in which the other is still unknown. It cautiously invites us to approach its mystery with a tentative caress (a kind of heightened perception).
This caress is intended to establish a relationship with this other entity – the painting – an entity that actually aims to withdraw from such ties. But at the same time, the
image continues to encourage this caress. It is an indiscrete fondling, an attempt to forcefully penetrate the mystery.
An attempt to see the impossible – in other words, ‘picture it’. In fact, such a caress desecrates the mystery. However, in its impotence (the discovery that one will never be able to really fathom the depths of this mystery), this indiscrete caress may yet
transform into an experience of the mystery as mystery.
The Truth of supreme Beauty lies beyond the dictionary
meanings of words. Alfred North Whitehead: Adventures of Ideas