Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hassan Massoudy at October Gallery

With his wide, calligraphic bold strokes made with sliced balsa, home-cut nibs and eye-watering water-and-pigment colours (so vibrant his catalogue contains a disclaimer about the camera not being able to capture the naked-eye colour) Hassan Massoudy's work looks easy and is anything but. In his 70s now, he's an absolute master of his trade, having studied calligraphy in Baghdad and travelled to Europe. As well as his art being beautiful, and mesmerising, seeing it in person threw up questions and ideas about his process and the definition of 'art'; now settled in Paris, he's made the shift from what he describes as being a 'just' a craftsman to being an 'artist'.

The difference?

"The objective of art is more complex - more profound - than the craftsman's aim. Art asks pointed questions about the human condition. Art deals with the entire range of human experience, it engages with life and death and examines what must be done to make something new.

"The craftsman, however, is concerned with the ambiance that surrounds us all, and with making necessary objects that are both useful and agreeable."

As someone who considers themselves neither, but is at the same time a bit of both - I've certainly spent a life making useful objects visually agreeable - I found this definition interesting and challenging. I've always felt a bit outside the world of 'art', but with the definition, purpose and remit of 'art' in perpetual, fluid transformation, it's hard to run a diagnostic and come out with any sort of accurate idea about what percentage of artist, craftsman, illustrator, lettering artist and anything else any one person's composed of. So I stopped worrying about that, and started enjoying the idea of being all of those things, at once and at different times.

Further material for pondering come in Hassan's next statement:

"The origins of art lie in the mysterious act of creation, whereas artisanal production is based upon reproducing what has been done before, using previously developed ideas, and often-repeated motifs."

I was a member of the Guild of Master Craftsmen for many years, and took a certain pride in that. It meant my work had been checked by an outside body and deemed acceptably 'masterful' - at quite an early age too: I was still in my 20s. But it was indeed all about 'the craft' - the hand skills, the use of a pen, the control of one, the levels of service I gave to my clients - all things measurable by what, and who, has gone before; existing standards. The Guild did not award membership for creativity, necessarily, nor good ideas executed badly in a frenzy of excited production, or for trying something that had never been done before. It simply recognised a set of skills, and standards. I wonder if this is what Hassan was talking about.

I'm not a member any more, as it's not relevant to the work I do. I'm no longer a member for the same reason I don't enter competitions (see my blog about this), and I look at Hassan's work and see someone so in control of his ideas and materials that he has transcended the need for any sort of external approval. Surely, the ideal place to be. And yet...

Hassan's work oozes confidence and professionalism, but what's really interesting was seeing the many copies of the same piece of work stored in files at the side of the gallery, for sale. He doesn't approach a piece of blank paper and hit a perfect 10 out of the end of his nibs first time. He makes the same piece, over and over again, and chooses 'the one' for public showing. This is why, when the guest at the gallery asked why the pieces in the folder were the same price as the framed version on the wall, the curator replied 'because it is the same piece'.

At 24 Hassan had his own studio in the centre of Baghdad, and did familiar work - editorial pieces, signs, ads, commissions here and there, becoming resident calligrapher for a cinema chain; that rather nice and sought-after thing, a regular gig with a single client. But he says that 'after becoming conscious of the necessity of exploring things more deeply, and of adding something new, I sacrificed that continuity of tradition to search for something else' - which he describes as a 'painful' step. He entered a place of uncertainty, where there were 'no guides' from the strict rules, formalities and structures of traditional calligraphy.

Now, I've never done any sort of calligraphy course, nor lettering classes, so I never had any rules to break, though the desire to break them was present regardless. Thinking back, I've never had much in the way of formal education in terms of methodology or technique other than a little life drawing, painting at school and a lot of typography study - ems, picas, x-heights, slide rules, justification, orphans, widows and so on. That bit I relished. Instead, we learned techniques for problem solving, meeting deadlines, idea generation, managing multiple jobs, answering a brief. So I can't imagine what it's like to put yourself and your output outside of everything you've ever learned and practised. I suppose the equivalent would be me entering a period of exactly that discipline and formality, having existed for most of my life in a world of loose experimentation, learning on the job and figuring-it-out from necessity. I tried to put myself in Hassan's lovely, imaginary polished shoes, but my imagination couldn't stretch that far.

That Hassan has to do his pieces over and over again was reassuring. It felt like he was 'like us' - unsure at first, pushing out some wonk before the magic, and maybe going back to what he'd originally thought was the wonk but was actually 'The One'. And the element of chance was surprising; he must surely sometimes do 50 and STILL not get 'the one'. I wonder what he does then?

I was more interested in the extreme detail of Hassan's work, though I had been drawn towards it by the long-view of the massive strokes. When you get RIGHT IN THERE, the way the ink scoots across the surface of the very specific paper and lands in weighty soaks at the edges, drying to miniature galaxies, it's a world of its own; these things were what got me talking and thinking most animatedly. There are entire illustrations in the edges of those apparently casual sweeps, and tiny inky rebellions up close where the material flew off, flicked, bled and refused to be told. Step back though, and the whole thing looks like a model of creative obedience.

Of course the pieces in the show aren't just visual exercises; they're illustrated quotes, poems and pieces of prose. That's what's written there in Arabic, tucked inside and next to the strokes, underneath in faintly-off-centre lines, and in pencil beneath that. 9th century philosophers, 16th century authors, pre-Christian saints and contemporary scientists, writers and thinkers are all explored by his pen. The shapes and sweeps didn't necessarily correspond to the words - we soon abandoned trying to 'see' the quote in them - it was more a case of feeling the sentiment. If you could read Arabic of course it would be right there. But I enjoyed relying on the exhibition card only and the tiny pencil words; I chose not to engage with the quote at all, I could ignore it till frustration kicked in.

I went to the show expecting to have my eyes stretched and soothed by seeing someone else's work in the flesh, to get close up to the movement of ink across paper which isn't my own, and all the good that comes from that. I didn't expect the experience to stimulate so many questions and so much rumination on my own work and where I am in life, and what comes next. Usually, those questions arrive in the middle of the night, weighed down negativity and anxiety, but here, they didn't. Maybe that's because I was in the presence of someone who's made that journey, has many more years on the planet than me, and whose work effectively said 

'whatever it is, and is going to be, it can be this, or it can be that; it can be everything, some of it, and none of it. And although it's up to you, it's just as equally going to be out of your hands'.
(Sarah Coleman, 2018)

There we go. I should go ahead and illustrate that now, in my own tribute to Hassan and his beautiful work. If, if...if I'm up to the job...whispers one voice, while a louder one tells it to get lost, stop worrying, and pick up a loaded brush.

Watch Hassan Massoudy working here.

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