The face is a mask, vaguely leonine, narrowing from its enormous eyes to a snout of flared nostrils and a small mouth, twisted into what might be a grimace or a grin. The contours of the nose branch up into a network of wrinkles around the eyes, then extend out into fiddlehead ferns sprouting from the temples. The gaze is so insistent that it is easy to ignore the virtuosity of all the little lines: the sagging pouches of the eyes, the subdued yet prickly whiskers along the jaws, the dots of stubble on the upper lip and double creases at the knuckles, the striped upholstery of the chair. Strikingly, the sitter’s left arm seems to reach out beyond the frame, which crops the arm at its wrist. Is he holding up a mirror to himself (or a phone)? It is a self-portrait of the artist in an armchair, examining himself—and us—through a screen.
The screen in this case is the plastic window of an ordinary envelope, which constitutes the support of the drawing. Each work in the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi’s beguiling series Pain Relief Drawings, now on display at The Drawing Center, is drawn on a found canvas of this kind. As Laura Hoptman, the show’s organizer, explains in the catalog, El-Salahi started the series in 2016 at his home in Oxford, England. Suffering from back pain and Parkinson’s disease, he decided to convert his empty boxes of painkillers into materials for art. Many of the drawings, done in waterproof ink, show the creases where El-Salahi, now ninety-two, flattened out the small cardboard containers, as though readying them for recycling. In some works, he uses those creases—just as he uses envelope windows or stamps—as elements of the composition.
Once you’ve recognized the artist’s self-portrait, you begin to see it everywhere in El-Salahi’s work. The face is variously disguised, reduced to its basic lineaments, or severely cropped. Walking slowly through the small but absorbing exhibit of 122 drawings, you sense the artist playing peekaboo with his audience. Although El-Salahi’s visual code is often abstract, this self-conscious playfulness, along with the everyday materials he works with, adds a surprisingly intimate note to the show (one of the envelopes includes his home address). Each square is a kind of miniature essay, an effort to observe the self from a properly artistic distance—through a screen, as it were—as well as from up close.
5 January 2023