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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Angels in America

A sojourn takes a spiritual turn for Lebanese artist Marwan Nahle.



With a travel itinerary as comprehensive as Lebanese artist Marwan Nahle’s, it comes as no surprise that his work plays like a globe-spanning travelogue. What is more remarkable is the destination at which he has arrived.


Born in 1965 in Beirut, Lebanon, Nahle was blessed with good artistic genes, as his father Wajih Nahle is an internationally renowned painter and his mother is a sculptor; three sisters and a brother also paint. His first exhibit took place when he was 21, and since then, he’s exhibited in more than 70 shows worldwide, leading up to this month’s show at Phillips Gallery in Salt Lake City.


The path he took to get here is as meandering as his art. Leaving Beirut in the mid-’80s, he traveled the world, stopping at various spots in Europe and America. The dedication he learned from his parents meant that these excursions didn’t derail him artistically but provided inspiration. His images in acrylic on paper'some the size of a 3-by-5 index card'are dreamlike and ephemeral, evocations of locations and experiences shaped by the lens of memory.


“Wonderland II,” depicting miniature figures in a small group, was inspired by the hilly country of the Czech Republic, where he also met his wife Martina. By contrast, the larger and more abstract “Blow,” he says, came from the frenetic energy of Los Angeles. “I tried to create a sense of too many things happening at once,” he explains, and adds that although his work usually balances figure and landscape, “in New York, most of my work is just figures.” His studio time is spent in his father’s atelier in Paris, where he condenses the experiences of a global traveler into art that takes the spectator on a visual voyage.


His work is an odyssey of color that travels across a wide palette. “I began with more earth tones, unlike my father’s bright hues,” he recalls. That history appears in “Dreamfulness,” inspired by a visit to Beirut, which portrays villagers whose attire blends into the dusty surroundings. “The region still looks like it did in ancient times,” he says. “I don’t live there because I feel like I can do more good for Lebanon being in the world.nn

“Wind of Dreams” represents the opposite end both of the earth and of Nahle’s work, with its bright cliffs. “I painted it after a camping trip to Moab and especially wanted to bring it to this show,” he says.


“Wind of Dreams” also points to another direction he has traveled in his work: his spiritual path. He’s studied the teachings of Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Buddhism to take some of each. Eventually it started to come out on the canvas when he found angels emerging in his works.


The most striking example of this is the larger piece “Uplifting,” in which a winged seraph is joined by another smaller figure, holding on as if to join in flight. “I am really into spirituality and self-improvement,” he says. “Like the earthbound figure in this piece, I’m on the ground but always aiming to improve myself.nn

He didn’t intend to take his work in that direction but says he follows his mood, his brush almost having a mind of its own. “Some works take months, and some are instantaneous,” he says. “What matters to me isn’t what you see, but what you feel.nn

“This collection is the most we’ve ever shown of his works,” explains Kim Riley, fine art consultant at Phillips Gallery, which has represented Nahle locally for 10 years. “I like the mystical element, the quality that also lends itself to personal interpretation.nn

“World Without End” illustrates his spirituality in a different manner: a brightly garbed group dancing in a circle. “In my head, I visualize a world of humanity and positiveness,” he relates. “It could be an imaginative place, but I feel my soul has gone there while painting. I believe it exists for me, this world.nn

nPhillips Gallery
n444 E. 200 South
nThrough July 13