Out of Time and Space: Houssam Ballan

In the paintings of Soueida-born Houssam Ballan, historical eras and influences collide and mingle to create something new. Faces familiar from Roman sarcophagi, Byzantine icons, togas and blue jeans all take place in the same world, and faces stare out at the viewer amid backgrounds from harlequin puppet theatres or even the desert-like surreal landscapes of Dali. Seeking to capture what he refers to as the “timeless condition of humanity”, all these disparate elements come harmoniously together in a signature style that creates a serene, alternate plane of existence – a place both within and out of time, familiar yet strange, tangible yet intangible – like blurring faces in a dream, the harder one tries to grasp at it, the more it eludes. A teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, from which he graduated in 2005, Ballan’s works depict people and society in the midst of daily conflict, yet there is no violence in them. The resulting effect is of paintings that are at once intensely figurative, yet verging on abstraction. Here, he tells us about the evolution of his work over the last 15 years and his process to create works that are timeless and multidimensional.

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Houssam Ballan, Untitled, 2018

The topics I paint are the result of the environment in which I grew up – at home, with eight brothers, in school and now what I see on the street, where this oppressive authority is embodied in many social and material forms and models. Sometimes, I am inspired by an image in a newspaper or a story I heard, and more recently, I have been interested in creating characters who face the viewer without any obvious dramatic event or explanation, yet they are based on numerous sources – including photographs from the 1970s and 80s, newspaper images, even medieval art. Anything can be a source of inspiration because I want to express the existential affiliation of people through the breaking of the contemporary/modern by using divergent elements, such as a silent Roman statue, a silent vivid figure, a pair of jeans, an iconic face, etc. All of these elements become a unified compound image.

Because of these numerous influences, my works, while figurative, approach abstraction – what I refer to as a ‘blur of multidimensional feeling’. In fact, colour, geometry and image-building can take place in isolation from the subject of the work itself. I try to focus on the concept of ‘now’ in my work, without stimulating the viewer’s memory and without anticipating an event in the future; it is an attempt to create a critical silence for the characters in my paintings to connect with each other, and with the viewer – their various psychological references felt on a subliminal level. This creates a feeling of ambiguity, of a blurring, while colours evoke various emotions.

The topics I paint are the result of the environment in which I grew up – at home, with eight brothers, in school and now what I see on the street, where this oppressive authority is embodied in many social and material forms and models. Sometimes, I am inspired by an image in a newspaper or a story I heard, and more recently, I have been interested in creating characters who face the viewer without any obvious dramatic event or explanation, yet they are based on numerous sources – including photographs from the 1970s and 80s, newspaper images, even medieval art. Anything can be a source of inspiration because I want to express the existential affiliation of people through the breaking of the contemporary/modern by using divergent elements, such as a silent Roman statue, a silent vivid figure, a pair of jeans, an iconic face, etc. All of these elements become a unified compound image.

Because of these numerous influences, my works, while figurative, approach abstraction – what I refer to as a ‘blur of multidimensional feeling’. In fact, colour, geometry and image-building can take place in isolation from the subject of the work itself. I try to focus on the concept of ‘now’ in my work, without stimulating the viewer’s memory and without anticipating an event in the future; it is an attempt to create a critical silence for the characters in my paintings to connect with each other, and with the viewer – their various psychological references felt on a subliminal level. This creates a feeling of ambiguity, of a blurring, while colours evoke various emotions.

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Houssam Ballan, Untitled, 2019

Over the last 15 years, my works have slowly shifted from more photo-realistic depictions to where they are now. In my work, time is ambiguous: the Cubists tried to give an ambient view of mass from many directions, and Francis Bacon tried to formulate the concept of moving mass, and in both cases there is the concept of time – eternal in the first and a momentary subtraction in the second. So, in my work I have resorted to erasing anything that might point to a specific date or era through an austerity of shades, colours, dimensions and movement. The existential unity this gives all the elements in the painting suggests continuity (of the now) for the characters that populate it. Then, the backgrounds they are set against – whether plain, or halls or theatres – suggest then a psychological space. I want to take the viewer into a place out of time, and create a psychological state which may not necessarily contain a clear ‘narrative’ per se.

I have always been interested in the gap between the metaphysical and the real; the subjective and objective. Now, 20 years after I entered the Faculty of Arts here in Damascus, I realise that perhaps this transformation of my work from photorealistic portraits to bordering abstraction is similar to the way in which art evolved during the Renaissance, in that we start by using art as an expression of reality, but it is also an ideological metaphor system, and ‘real’ and ‘natural’ can be literal, but also existential concepts. I think my search for what is real and beautiful, and, in a way, natural, is part of what has led to the slow metamorphosis of my work: simply tell the truth in art, present concepts of existence and life, rather than concepts of time and reality. Get rid of analogies, abandon cosmetics and drama.

Over the last 15 years, my works have slowly shifted from more photo-realistic depictions to where they are now. In my work, time is ambiguous: the Cubists tried to give an ambient view of mass from many directions, and Francis Bacon tried to formulate the concept of moving mass, and in both cases there is the concept of time – eternal in the first and a momentary subtraction in the second. So, in my work I have resorted to erasing anything that might point to a specific date or era through an austerity of shades, colours, dimensions and movement. The existential unity this gives all the elements in the painting suggests continuity (of the now) for the characters that populate it. Then, the backgrounds they are set against – whether plain, or halls or theatres – suggest then a psychological space. I want to take the viewer into a place out of time, and create a psychological state which may not necessarily contain a clear ‘narrative’ per se.

I have always been interested in the gap between the metaphysical and the real; the subjective and objective. Now, 20 years after I entered the Faculty of Arts here in Damascus, I realise that perhaps this transformation of my work from photorealistic portraits to bordering abstraction is similar to the way in which art evolved during the Renaissance, in that we start by using art as an expression of reality, but it is also an ideological metaphor system, and ‘real’ and ‘natural’ can be literal, but also existential concepts. I think my search for what is real and beautiful, and, in a way, natural, is part of what has led to the slow metamorphosis of my work: simply tell the truth in art, present concepts of existence and life, rather than concepts of time and reality. Get rid of analogies, abandon cosmetics and drama.

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Houssam Ballan, Untitled, 2020

As a teacher, I try to encourage the student to mature from simply ‘learning’, to creating questions and experimenting and thinking through their work. The education I received at the university was important in terms of seeing the paths taken by art and searching for new methods. As for teaching art, it is a kind of foolishness and the duty of the art teacher is to make the lesson a laboratory to learn to look at things from a renewed way. And always during the teaching process I feel that I am a student and here lies the fun, when many viewpoints converge and I start to reconsider the universals again, but I prefer to be an artist only and to be fully devoted to art.

As a teacher, I try to encourage the student to mature from simply ‘learning’, to creating questions and experimenting and thinking through their work. The education I received at the university was important in terms of seeing the paths taken by art and searching for new methods. As for teaching art, it is a kind of foolishness and the duty of the art teacher is to make the lesson a laboratory to learn to look at things from a renewed way. And always during the teaching process I feel that I am a student and here lies the fun, when many viewpoints converge and I start to reconsider the universals again, but I prefer to be an artist only and to be fully devoted to art.