LOS ANGELES — Rema Ghuloum’s paintings evoke fleeting and familiar events, if ultimately intangible: like the impression left by spending time with a friend, a color sensation, a moment of weather, a time of day, or the memory of someone who died. Each of Ghuloum’s sisters suffered from clinical depression, and she lost them both to suicide, Rita in 2008 and Dina in 2018. Her life-affirming response has been to make paintings whose direct and unapologetic pursuit of beauty is rare in contemporary art. A selection of them are currently on display in Love is a Feeling at Edward Cella Art & Architecture.
Ghuloum’s painting technique is unusual, based upon an extensive sanding process. She begins with a liquid paint pour, which once dry is sanded, followed by scumbled paint applications that are also sanded. The result is an unusual materiality: a gritty, grubby surface that dissolves into an ethereal experience of color and light. The perimeter of each canvas retains built-up paint to become a concrete surface layer running along the edge of the rectangle, leaving the remainder of the painting to open up into bottomless depth or limitless sky.
The painting “9” (2018) is all swirling amethyst, azure, and white, within which can be discerned the number nine as well as the number six. Ghuloum’s sister Dina was born on September ninth (9/9) and died at the age of 36 (three plus six equals nine) on June ninth (6/9). Ghuloum pointed out to me that a circle has 360 degrees, producing another nine, in this case a circle of life and death. The entangled loops and whorls of the painting convey a sense of being lost in one’s mind, the wheel of awareness turning back on itself. Remarkably, in Ghuloum’s case, this mental space is not characterized by the darkness and misery she might understandably feel, but by love and warmth. The colors in this painting are floral, summoning blooming violets especially.
For Ghuloum, abstraction is much more than a response to the history of its tropes, though of course Jackson Pollock’s legacy figures strongly in these works. Ghuloum explores the formal character of her paintings while simultaneously making them articulate her struggle to live with the void of her sisters. Some titles of her canvases read as excerpts from a diary of grief: “3:00 AM,” “Come back as a Flower,” “To the depths of the ocean, where all hopes sank, searching for you.” Her formal procedure is itself a dance of presence and absence: paint is applied and removed, again and again, until the final image is the sum total of her additions and eradications.
“3:00 AM” (2018) is one of the two smallest paintings on view, at just under two feet wide. It is a pulsating blaze of magenta and carmine, glimmering with lilac and cerulean. The optical experience is like closing my eyes at night and seeing pyrotechnics beneath my eyelids. I find the painting to be an ambivalent image: its heat has a miasmal quality, as threatening as it is alluring, yet I can also imagine it as the imprint of an hour deep in the night when I wake up feeling the presence of my dead mother, realizing how much of herself she poured into me.
Rema Ghuloum: Love is a Feeling continues at Edward Cella Art & Architecture (2754 S La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles) through March 16.