The Penultimate Moment

by Joseph Tarrab

Upon his arrival in Beirut, Tom Young was struck by the urban drama, the neighbourhoods devastated by war and those which, like the old city-centre, were also ravaged by peace. Under the pretext of rebuilding, developers took the opportunity to destroy much of what still remained standing, deface the rest, and reverse the original purpose of the centre: the place of encounter and interaction between all social classes and regional and religious affiliations became a neighbourhood reserved for the happy few. The privatisation of the city paralleled the privatisation of the sea shore and the invasion by concrete buildings of the rest of the country, without regard to nature and environment. Destroy, said the capitalist developers without culture or memory.

Tom Young immediately began to preserve at least painted traces or testimonies if not photographic prints of the urban and architectural heritage of a time when urbanism was in accordance with urbanity, civility, culture, dialogue and conviviality at all levels. He may not have known it, but he felt and guessed it by deciphering the architecture of the old mansions and the buildings from the first half of the twentieth century, of which the Manara Pink House is a fascinating model because of its dominating position, and both its proximity and seeming inaccessibility.

Soon, perhaps because it echoed his own melancholic nature, despite his pleasant smile, what emerged in his paintings, was the feeling of the decline of the East (or, more precisely, the Levant, as a culture, a way of being, feeling, thinking, and enjoying) and the twilight of all that embodied it in an era where time was not yet a market commodity. Today, the Western world is gradually rediscovering the virtues of slowness after being saturated by speed in recent decades.

No wonder Tom Young has sensed that time almost gone as a kind of elusive paradise lost. And, yielding to his deepest inclinations, he has designed his painting practice as a paradoxical celebration-denunciation of decay and the end of things. All his Beirut body of works is imbued with an inclination for the penultimate moment, just before things disintegrate in the real world and dissolve in memory or imagination. He always associates, even in his most realistic paintings, the three moments of past, present, and future. The viewer always faces an impending separation, erasure, dematerialization, or disappearance, blurring the status of things. First, by the use of white color that casts a thin veil of forgetfulness and immateriality on beings, buildings, interiors and exteriors. Then, by scraping the oil painting with a canvas-wrapped stick. While removing material, this procedure generates a lateral movement of color that mimics the evanescence movement of beings and things carried away by time’s irreversibility, thus made visible.

The artist, who dutifully drew his scene and covered it with one or more layers of paint, performs in the real world the process he has tried to make palpable on the canvas through this very process: he constructs in order to deconstruct, almost destroy, to erase.

For three months, while he painted it from all angles, he was the privileged witness of the last days of the Maison Rose as a living and welcoming home, and of the end of an era of culture and sophistication. In his previous work, he occupied a long deserted house, villa Paradiso. Here, he has followed closely the process of desertion mirrored in his paintings.

Even in his realistic paintings of the Pink House, the building is often perceived upwards and sideways, so that it seems about to collapse backwards in the double maze of memory and oblivion. This backward toppling movement, associated with the erasing movement, gives things a ghostly blur, a dreaming inconsistency made of uncertainty between reality and fiction, truthfulness and falsehood, permanence and transience. Sometimes the powerful shining of the Mediterranean light blanks things out, as if reality were defeating itself.

Both premonitory and admonitory, Tom Young‘s painting anticipates a likely future while cautioning against it. It already sees the Pink House and the old neighboring lighthouse overwhelmed by a titanic stacking of towers storming the heavens, soon to be destroyed amidst a chaos of excavators and cranes, and ultimately totally engulfed in the vertical rush of the towers, canceling all horizontality, that is to say, the human scale and measure that made the charm of yesteryear.

The disused lighthouse and the Rose House doomed to an uncertain future thus become the metaphor of universal change. And the great wheel of the Luna-park, the "Arouss" of the Corniche where walkers discover the Pink House clinging to its rocky promontory and fantasize about its mystery, keeps turning day and night in a perpetual gyratory movement, embodying the metaphor. Like the Wheel of Fortune, it carries its passengers to the summit before rushing them into the abyss. We are all on board, as in Tom Young’s painting vividly splashed with white light.

And suddenly, the gleaming “Carousel “of his last exhibition, carried away in its horizontal dizzying rotation, touches down, like a flying saucer, or a spooky vision, amidst the tents of a camp of destitute people, in a dazzling shortcut of Lebanon's and the world’s problems : the unbridgeable gap between the poor and the wealthy.