Walid Sadek, untitled, 2020–22, acrylic and spray paint on aluminum plate, 9 7⁄8 × 7 7⁄8 × 1 1⁄8".

Walid Sadek, untitled, 2020–22, acrylic and spray paint on aluminum plate, 9 7⁄8 × 7 7⁄8 × 1 1⁄8".

Walid Sadek

Walid Sadek rarely exhibits his work—he has had fewer than a handful of shows in the past two decades—and has resisted gallery representation. Possibly the most enigmatic artist of the so-called postwar generation, Sadek has centered his largely text-based practice on theorizations of the protractedness of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90) after its declared end, and on a pursuit of new temporalities that could break with the presentist logic of what he calls “normative living.” In his rather austere Conceptual artwork, whose titles are often borrowed from his essays—“Place at Last” (2007), “Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse” (2007), and “Collecting the Uncanny and the Labor of Missing” (2012)—Sadek has countered a regime of visual excess amid calls for more representation by defenders of the discourse of human rights. In reducing the visual to the bare minimum, he allowed for writing to appear as form. Uncharacteristically for the erudite artist whose intentionally circumlocutory discursive style has frustrated many a reader and viewer, his most recent show had only two premises: no theme, no text. It bore the nondescript title “Paintings 2020–2022.”

Sadek’s surprising turn away from Conceptual art signals that its language has become so generalized in contemporary art that it is no longer an adequate response to the crises and catastrophes of capitalism. The global ubiquity of such art renders it at once singular and disposable—and its commodified language exchangeable. But Sadek’s public return to painting (privately, he has been painting at least since his BFA in painting and drawing from California State University, Long Beach, in 1990) is also a polemical move, not simply a form of resignation or retreat to more traditional modes of artmaking. Significantly, since 2016 he has claimed that we no longer live in the postwar period, but rather “in a time after the time of the postwar.” He astutely observes that in this time after that time, “memories of war are reduced to empty ciphers that can no longer constate a shared history.” What strength, then, is left in words or the artistic gesture?

Sadek has taken another course. Eighteen remarkably small (typically about eight by eight inches) but luminous paintings on wooden frames (no canvas) and eight paintings on folded aluminum plates—materials readily available in a time, it should be said, of unparalleled economic crisis in Lebanon—occupied the large gallery space. With their lack of titles or any other discursive framing, the abstract paintings successfully resist interpretation and defy facile associations. For example, in one of the folded paintings, a viscous medley of hesitant black, green, and orange brushstrokes on a mustard-yellow spray-painted base evokes images of gasoline and inorganic waste products now common in artistic commentaries against climate change. With another work, a round plate superimposed on a wooden support and spray-painted in gold recalls Greek Orthodox icons found locally in churches and private residences. But the compulsion to read the work through such connections only serves fantastical projections that cover up the fact that these works are about nothing. What matters here is not what they represent but what they perform. The fold of the plates, as well as the smaller bits of plywood, gauze, and corrugated cardboard on the wooden paintings, break with the works’ flatness, bringing them to double as sculptural objects. Their function (or lack thereof: their appreciable purposelessness) underscores a key historical problem that, for all the feats of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, has not been done away with—it is unconsciously done away with—namely, the exceptional value of art objects in relation to ordinary everyday things.