Ed Ruscha, Halim Al Karim, Sami Al Karim


Ed Ruscha, Halim Al Karim, Sami Al Karim
Jan 21 – Mar 9, 2019

Sami Al Karim

Following his inclusion in the Denver Art Museum’s “New Territories: Landscape Photography Today” exhibition, Iraqi-born, Denver artist Sami Al Karim explores a transcendent view of Nature and the nature of self in the artist’s on-going Dream series. As a political exile from his Iraqi homeland, Sami Al Karim’s artistic mark is passionate, meaningful and hard won. Al Karim directly experienced what it is to be disconnected from family, friends and country over many years of his life, as well as being profoundly challenged by the question of what defines a personal identity. This soul-searching quest was put to the test many times, but no more dramatically than as a citizen under the military rule of Iraq’s brutal thirty-year dictatorship. Those in authority attempted to strip away all dignity from the artist, just as ruthlessly as they did many of their countrymen and women.  Remarkably, Al Karim not only survived, but his spirit creatively found a way to not succumb under seemingly impossible conditions.

Equally inconceivable, is the fact that Al Karim had been held captive for the so-called crime of displaying a heartfelt “Peace for All” sign outside his window, which by some twisted view, was offensive to the authorities.  Despite all, the indomitable impulse of Al Karim’s soul to create was kept kindled by sheer will and imagination and his stunning mark-making became a lifeline for him. It was then that the idea for the artist’s Dream series was first born. Al Karim came to feel that if he could somehow envision all of the vast skies, great bodies of water and varying terrains of the world, that he would be able to access something far more powerful than any oppression could deny. His sincerest belief held that since each individual was part of Nature, each human being was then Nature itself; with all of its tumult and breathtaking beauty.  Nature could endure all and renew itself - so therefore it was possible that every singular person could do the same. This full breath expression now resides at the heart of the artist’s photographic “Dream” series. Comprised of multiple images from select locations from the United States, Europe and the Middle East, Al Karim imbues the layered imagery with a passionate intensity informed by his past perilous experiences; ineffable in their origin and palpably felt.

While his works may reflect personal losses, they also reflect the nature of humanity’s resilience even more.  What is truest for Sami Al Karim, now as a proud American citizen residing in Denver, is that each work speaks to a profound understanding that Nature, for the artist, stands for an undaunted humanity, a potent and transcendent force; a singular constant in the world. In Dream 2, the series’ three, signature amalgamated layers of ground, water and sky from sites around the world become one focus of Al Karim’s exuberant worldly image. The artist states, "Art can present an alternative to what people think they realize or to what they expect to know which might otherwise be too painful or too extreme to experience.  I try to capture a single moment when home and exile do not seem opposed to each other, but are parts of the single process of our existence. Through my work, I recognize the possibility that there are no true boundaries in our lives.”

Sami Al Karim attended the Baghdad Academy of Fine Art in Baghdad, Iraq, Metropolitan State College and has a BFA with honors from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Al Karim’s photography is in the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. He has exhibited across the world in solo exhibitions in New York, USA, Dubai, UAE, Casablanca, Morocco, Istanbul, Turkey and Bologna, Italy, Sharjah, UAE among others, and was invited to participate in the Florence Biennale, Italy, and the Lampemusa, Museo Archeologico Lampedusa, Italy and the Yinchuan MOCA near Beijing, China. Al Karim was recognized with an award at the Rocky Mountain Biennial at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art and his work is provided the ending notes of the Denver Art Museum’s “New Territories: Landscape Photography Today” exhibition in 2018.


Halim Al Karim

From the time he was a young artist in Iraq, Halim Al Karim determined the camera to be a “truth seeker.” Decades later, this internationally recognized artist has distinguished himself with his psychologically-charged portraits created with his signature photographic techniques. Two of the artist’s commanding parallel series, “Eternal Love” and “Lost Memory,” speak to a dream state of remembering what the artist calls “the beloved” and includes the “Lost Memory” photograph on view. Al Karim’s commanding, other-worldly figural images are created through a myriad of methods – often beginning with layers of latex paint applied directly to his models’ faces, then subsequently photographing them through a silk scrim. Any dominant color element is achieved in a second layer whereby Al Karim paints the back of each film negative either by pouring or by applying pigment by hand. This approach has offered the artist the ability to not only control light and shadows, but also through symbolic action to “never to be at the mercy of an external light source,” as an homage his philosophical father’s statement “to carry your own light from within.” Al Karim took these childhood words to heart and invented a way of manifesting his elusive images as a protective layer - to obscure the identities of his subjects, “in order to keep them safe.”

The evolution of Al Karim’s visual language over the years has become emblematic of a connection across cultures resulting in broad recognition throughout the Middle East and in Europe for his universal concerns for humanity. Choosing love, in the face of war and family over politics, Al Karim’s journey of self-discovery has informed the artist’s distinctive bodies of work because of and throughout a life of much persecution and turmoil. One such pivotal chapter involved tremendous isolation in which Al Karim lived alone in the Iraqi desert for three years to avoid serving in the military under the profoundly cruel regime of Saddam Hussein.  As a distillation of such experiences, his art has been dedicated to acknowledging the unvarnished realities of the human condition, imbued as they are with an overarching theme of love.  To freely make manifest such imagery required decades of patience and secrecy since to speak to what Al Karim saw around him would have led to dire repercussions for himself and most importantly to the artist, to those he loved. Earlier series such as The Witness Archive,” for example, cleared the way for transcendence in both freedom of expression and living a life of focus.  Al Karim offers, “It is my feeling that each soul stems from and exists within an all-encompassing love and cannot wholly survive without recognizing love’s presence in the world.”  The shadowy figures of the series stand on the threshold of two worlds for the artist, but reside steadfast in the saturated light of only one. In this they reveal an open door, where all the beloved who have come before reveal an ultimate view of love eternal.

A native of Najaf, Iraq, Halim Al Karim studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and the Ritveld Academy in Amsterdam. He represented Iraq at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 – Iraq’s first re-entry onto the cultural world stage after a thirty-year absence. The artist has exhibited in United Arab Emirates, France, Holland, Lebanon, Jordan, and the United States.  Museum collections include Denver Art Museum, the Princessehof National Museum for Ceramics, Leeuwarden, Netherlands; the French Cultural Center in Amman, Jordan; the Arabic Museum of Contemporary Arts, Doha, Qatar; L’Institut du mond Arabe, Paris, France; and the Sorsuk Museum, Beirut, Lebanon along with inclusion in the Saatchi Collection in London, UK, Victoria and Albert Museum, UK, George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Texas, USA and the United States Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.


Ed Ruscha

Widely-recognized as one of the most significant living American artists, Ed Ruscha established himself as a leader of Post-Pop Art in furthering the movement’s tenet of elevating the commonplace into the collective cultural consciousness. The artist is also well known as a force of change within Conceptual Art with his signature text-based imagery and his photo-based work with stark American vernacular imagery. Ruscha came into prominence not long after moving from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 1956, shrugging off the era’s abstract expressionist ethos, and focusing his wryly humorous eye instead on the American West and all its ephemera. Films, billboards, gas-stations, boulevards, and advertising informs the artist’s candid, comic representations of familiar ideas and locations that continue to impact contemporary art today.

Ruscha’s work in the late 1980s focuses on the historical, cinematic past of the American West: covered wagons, buffalo, teepees, howling coyotes and more. The silhouette paintings from this period often appear like grainy stills from old Hollywood movies and reveal cinematic sources from the ten-cent, black-and-white Westerns of the artist’s childhood. Never formally exhibited, Ruscha’s The Pioneers (1987), is emblematic of the paintings of this time. The scale and horizontal perspective conjure the grandeur of movie theater screens, a major motif in the artist’s work, and the Western imagery invokes influential films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940). For the work of this period, Ruscha skillfully employs an airbrush to create, as art historian Karin Breuer notes, “blurred, soft-focused images rendered in sooty black, deep blue, or brown [which] appear as ghostly specters or faded icons from that once-popular genre.” Like in Uncertain Frontier, a large-scale painting from the same year, to the imagery of the bison, buffalo, and coyote of subsequent series, The Pioneers manages to exist within the worlds of both painting and cinema. As an added dimension, the central element of the work is a slender, hyper-detailed bamboo pole, which floats gracefully across the span of the canvas.  Executed with the clarity, energy, and elemental graphic force that typify the artist’s complex visual language, The Pioneers is a distinctive and impressive work – one that holds its place within Ruscha’s silhouette painting series, and as an integrated expression of culture, time and the human condition.

Ed Ruscha attended Chouinard Art Institute and his first solo exhibition opened at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles in 1963. Since that time, he has had solo shows at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and the de Young Museum, San Francisco. Ruscha’s work has been the subject of numerous retrospectives, including an early 1983 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the traveling retrospective Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. His seventy-panel, 360-degree commission for the Great Hall of the Denver Public Library, a rolling historical landscape, is a notable anchor of the city’s dynamic collection. In 2004, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, organized a major retrospective that subsequently traveled to the Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI Secolo, Rome (2004), and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Ruscha represented the United States at the 2005 Venice Biennial. In 2009, Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting opened at the Hayward Gallery, London, and traveled to the Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Moderna Museet, Stockholm along with many other noteworthy exhibitions.