Daily Star, 12th of may.

Construction sites cum artful gambling dens

Large planks of wood, spotted with stains and studded with nails, adorn the walls of the Aida Cherfan Gallery these days.

Superficially ugly things, they were made to fulfill an industrial purpose and then discarded.

French artist Christoff Baron has rescued these planks and made them beautiful, rehabilitating them as sturdy media for his delicate paintings.

Baron paints scenes from bars and gambling dens in stark black and white, inspired by film noir and literature.

“The figures in the gambling scenes reflect my passion for the world of novels, police films and Westerns, with a black-and-white aesthetic,” the artist says. “It’s a world which is for the most part masculine.

“I have based several exhibitions on literary or cinematographic works, notably ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Sydney Lumet’s ‘Twelve Angry Men,’ Buzzati’s ‘The Tartar Steppe,’ Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ and the legend of Jesse James ... The narrative and psychological power of these works have affected me profoundly.”

Much of the wood looks like it’s been looted from a construction site.

“I get my supplies from a building contractor,” Baron confirms. “The wood has been used on scaffolding by laborers, masons and painters, and it bears the traces of their work. The smallest planks are palettes used for storing and transporting merchandise. I find them abandoned in the street.

“All these planks have one thing in common. They bear the random traces of other people’s work. I like the idea that my paintings are, in the end, collective works.”

Baron sands the wood only where he plans to paint, creating a striking contrast between the roughshod original surface and the painted areas, where both Baron’s line drawings and the beauty of the sanded wood are displayed to advantage.

Baron often incorporates the wood grain into his designs. In “The Gang,” in which gang members appear to stride out of the work, the surface’s vertical lines form the pinstripes of their suits.

“I often modify my initial idea in order to adapt it to accidents in the wood,” the artist says. “It’s a medium with surprises in store which I always take into account.”

Sprawling over 13 sturdy planks, “Une Victoire” (A Victory) – one of Baron’s larger works – depicts one player’s moment of victory in a card game. The painting could also be titled “The Loss,” as Baron depicts the anger, disappointment and despair in the other gamblers’ faces as well as the winner’s cool smile as he gazes down at his spoils.

The six figures are arranged around an unpainted rectangle, an absence that – like a wooden table – appears to erase parts of the figures surrounding. Baron conveys a sense of solidity to this negative space by having a waist-coated man, every inch the archetypal Russian gangster, rest a beefy forearm along the line of the invisible surface.

The composition – six figures focusing inward upon a single point – reiterates that of many of Baron’s pieces, which are often set about this sort of contest.

“I do my sketches in bars,” Baron says. “Sometimes I am inspired by a spectacular nose, or a jutting chin. I see concern around me, related to the economic crisis in Europe and the difficulties in the art world.

“This tense atmosphere induces stress, financial worry about the future. Gambling, in particular card games, comes down to money, but it approaches it from a playful angle.”

Baron’s interest in play is evident in the facial expressions of his figures, which suggest thoughts and emotions in a series of amusing tableaux.

One woman, clutching the tie of a gambler in a stranglehold, screams with rage as if to berate him for his losses.

An overweight man in a suit slams one fist on the table, raising the other in admonition while, behind him, another man looks down his nose in disdain.

“Observing gamblers is fascinating,” the artist says. “It is a world of its own: calculated glances, bluffs, intrigues, alliances and betrayals. Everybody reveals their hidden character. Everything becomes an allegory for social relations.

“It doesn’t matter, in the end, who loses and who wins. What interests me is the idea of the group, the complex relationship between human beings. That is what I aim to show.”

Alongside his bar and gambling paintings Baron has introduced a related theme – giant renditions of the royals from a deck of cards.

“I was inspired by the figures on the 54 French playing cards ... The characters represent all the major figures from the Middle Ages, from mythology, from the Bible and from history.”

He draws each bust twice, facing up and down. Unlike a standard playing card, however, the two versions have distinct expressions – one positive and the other negative. Depending on which way up he’s hung, “Alexandre” for example, alternatively stares into the distance thoughtfully or screams with rage.

“The characters are always ambiguous, sometimes heroic, sometimes obscure,” he explains. “Judith is a figure of love and of femininity, but she decapitates the Roman general Holopherne after having seduced him ... All the ambiguities reflect the complexity of the individual who is never completely black or white.

“There is always an element of darkness. That’s why my cards are not symmetrical. In turning them, one discovers another aspect to the character – grimace or smile, joy or anger. One can turn the painting according to one’s mood.”

Christoff Baron’s mixed media works on wood are on display at the Aida Cherfan Gallery in Downtown Beirut until May 25. For more information please call 01-983-111.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 12, 2012, on page 16.