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Emile Azar: A Painter Whose Work is Full of Surprises

Chelsea, January 2 through January 23
Reception takes place on January 4, from 6 to 8 PM

Among those artists who make the distinction between mainstream and so-called outsider art irrelevant, one of the most interesting of them is Emile Azar, whose work can be seen at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from January 2nd through 23rd. (Reception: Thursday, January 4, 6 to 8 PM.)

Born into a large Lebanese Christian family, Azar has been painting since early childhood, and his work retains a childlike freshness of vision. At the same time, however, Azar's acrylic paintings on canvas possess an innate sophistication that comes across both in his color choices and his unerring sense of composition. The combination is especially appealing in paintings such as "Kaleidoscope 1," where the face and bust of a ruby-lipped blond who looks as though she would look right at home on a Coney Island burlesque poster is enmeshed in a welter of red, white, and blue abstract forms.

Azar's unique way of  painting the figure as a discrete entity, yet merging it with abstract elements can also be seen in a canvas called "French Gathering," where a simplified couple whose faces appear to merge occupy the center of the canvas, surrounded by bold rhythmical strokes of blue, white, and yellow that read as energy lines emanating from the two figures. Similarly, in "Rendez-vous," another truly unique composition, a small image of a couple holding hands at a table occupies the center of a composition dominated by much larger red, blue, and yellow abstract forms that seem to swirl around all four sides of the canvas.

Figure and abstract form, however, are more thoroughly integrated in other paintings such as "Nautilus" and "Redemption," in which the outline of the human form is enveloped by a jazzy array of colorful stripes. In the latter painting, especially, these linear elements create an environment that almost suggests that the figure is en uturo (but symbolically, since its proportions suggest an adult human rather than an embryo!).

By contrast, abstract elements are absent from the acrylic on canvas that Azar calls "Swinging Life," which appears to be a mature outsider's wistful meditation on the freewheeling sexual mores of today's youth. For here, a vigorous-looking couple, the young woman's long yellow hair blowing in the breeze, her midriff bare below a green halter, strolls along while another young man wearing a bathing suit appears to crawl on his hands and knees like an animal. The sky is filled with swirling forms resembling those in van Gogh's "The Starry Night," and two tall trees on either side of the passing couple sway in the breeze. That the elements in the composition of "The Swinging Life" are so specific, yet their exact meanings or relationships remain somewhat obscure, is what makes this canvas so intriguing, just as the stylistic disparity between the quaintly primitive figure in the elaborate tutu, sandwiched between billowing stripe curtains in "Ballerine" and the anatomically correct levitating female nude in “The Flying Woman” can only produce a sense of wonder in the viewer.

Indeed, that each painting seems to be a new adventure, subject only to its own inner laws, is what makes the art of Emile Azar so endlessly fascinating.

-- Peter Wiley

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