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" All the paintings are square," says Srouji.    

" If you put the Mona Lisa upside down it' s just the Mona Lisa upside down," says Hanibal Srouji, cocking his head to one side while looking at a pair of his paintings hanging on the wall in Raouche' s Galerie Janine Rubeiz.

Srouji, 48, is a Paris-based Lebanese painter who has spent much of the last three decades developing a visual vocabulary of abstract, interchangeable forms. His latest exhibition, " Touches," includes 20 canvases grouped into series. Each series is, in effect, an exercise, an opportunity for the artist to test out the staying power of a particular set of images, as indicated by their titles, such as " cages," " rhythms," " undulations" and " marks of violence."

" All the paintings are square," says Srouji, now cocking his head to the other side. " Here they are arranged in diptychs or triptychs." The exact pairings could change, however, as could the orientation of each individual work. As Srouji suggests, putting the Mona Lisa upside down may be just the Mona Lisa upside down, but putting one of his own paintings upside down could very well open up new possibilities, even new meanings, for the work. It' s the kind of creative act Srouji encourages.

" I' m trying to include the spectator in the process," he explains. " Art is a process of self-liberation, of liberation from tangible things or ideas. The cubists sought the liberation of form. The impressionists sought the liberation of color."

Describing his work as abstract, lyrical and figurative at once, Srouji says he is after " the true meaning of abstraction, so you can take out of it what you need and reduce it to its essence."

Born in 1957, Srouji began drawing when he was a teenager. " I was always interested in what color could do," he recalls, " just a little bit more than a normal kid."

As he grew older, he studied science, then literature, then art. " It took me five years to finish my BA," he says with a shrug and a smile. Srouji was 18 when the Civil War in Lebanon broke out. He worked briefly with the Red Cross. But when his house got wrecked, he left Beirut for Montreal. After finishing his masters - writing his thesis on the role of the object in art from Marcel Duchamp to the appropriation art of the 1980s - he left Montreal for Paris.

" What I' m doing in my work," says Srouji, " is just talking about myself as a nomad. My roots are here in Lebanon but I' ve been floating for 30 years."

When asked what keeps him from returning to Lebanon permanently, given he' s had at least four successful exhibitions here since the late 1990s, he says: " I don' t have the capital to say, ' Okay, I' m going to stay, because I work, I teach, my wife is French, my son is French. But if the situation here became clearer, it would encourage people to return."

There is definitely an ephemeral, whimsical touch to Srouji' s latest paintings, done in acrylic on raw, unprimed canvas, using varying amounts of water to give some colors a viscous, translucent appearance.

" It looks like it takes me one day to make a painting," he says. " But it takes me six months. You might think it is created in a violent way but actually in happens quite slowly. The impact [for the viewer] is direct, but it' s an accumulation over time."

Srouji' s show is dominated by a series of thick vertical lines, which represent the bars of a cage, as emblems of confinement, but also function like the bars of a musical composition, serving to pace and provide rhythm for the work.

" I compose songs," says Srouji with another smile, as he pulls out a small notebook to flip open a page full of notes that he penned for his son. " Painting for me is visual music. For me, when I hear music, I see colors."

Another element that stands out in Srouji' s show is his tendency to burn holes through his canvases, sometimes exposing a second skin of canvas beneath, sometimes exposing nothing but a wood support or the wall.

" For me, burning the canvas is a kind of drawing," he explains. " I could use burnt charcoal but it wouldn' t be the same. It' s about the consumption of the support itself. It is a motif of war, yes, but it has become a decorative motif, a musical motif. Now we can take this motif and play with it. The war is far behind. I was 18 when the conflict started. I lived through it and beyond it."

Like everything else in his art, Srouji is willing to turn history on its head to see how it looks upside down.

Hanibal Srouji' s " Touches" is on view at Galerie Janine Rubeiz through April 26. For more information, please call +961 1 868 290

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