Critics’ Picks

Tammam Azzam, Untitled, 2019, paper on canvas, 63 x 94 1/2".

Tammam Azzam, Untitled, 2019, paper on canvas, 63 x 94 1/2".

San Francisco

Tammam Azzam

Haines Gallery
49 Geary Street Suite 540
September 4–November 2, 2019

The medium of collage seems eerily appropriate for Tammam Azzam’s cryptic, hypnotic images of fragmented cityscapes. Torn pieces of paper—wrinkled tissue, newsprint, even wallpaper—are adhered to canvas or board and combined, at times, with rapid strokes of paint, creating the illusion of crumbling buildings and desolate vistas of rubble. In 2011, Azzam, already a successful painter and graphic designer in his early thirties, was forced to flee Syria with his family, settling eventually in Berlin. Since the start of his exile, his practice has moved from propagandistic digital works featuring Western masterpieces superimposed on ruins to monumental paintings of destroyed sites based on news photographs. Devastation fills the frames.

With “Forgotten Cities,” the images on which Azzam's landscapes are based are as much recollections as actual photographs. Transformed by memory, distance, and time, the resulting compositions can only easily be read as representational if one steps back. Up close, scenes depicting an abandoned bus or a single figure silhouetted against a sea of crumbling concrete break apart into restless, gestural abstractions. The cities of the show’s title are ancient sites in northwest Syria that have been abandoned since the tenth century, but Azzam could just as well be referring to the West’s unwillingness to confront the destruction of Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs.

None of Azzam’s works are titled, a decision that forces viewers to figure out what they are seeing. Perhaps by projecting our own memories of loss, we can begin to understand his.