Why use a nineteenth-century style to address early-twenty-first-century anxieties?

Approximate years of prominence of the symbolist movement in art: 1860 to 1890; Quote from the symbolist poet Paul Valéry stenciled on the wall of Liquid Modernity: “Interruption, incoherence, surprise are the ordinary conditions of our life. They have become real needs for many people, whose minds are no longer fed… by anything but sudden changes and constantly renewed stimuli… We can no longer bear anything that lasts. We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit. So the whole question comes down to this: can the human mind master what the human mind has made?”; Number of years between Valéry’s death and invention of the World Wide Web: forty-five


The painter David Abed recently held a show at the Century Guild in Chicago. Painstaking and figurative, the majority of the twelve oil-on-linen pieces are crepuscular depictions of inertia: solitary women floating in water, dead-eyed, dead-skinned, and radically alone. The mood of the paintings, individually and together, is isolated and estranged. In their otherworldliness they recall the mysterious imagery of the European symbolism of the late nineteenth century—appropriate, since the Century Guild is a gallery explicitly devoted to the symbolist movement.

In the symbolist tradition, Abed’s images are entirely personal, and thus ultimately inaccessible to the viewer. The colossal Between, for instance—a larger-than-life winged female nude, arms outstretched as if in languid crucifixion, walking across water in a way that might be Christlike were her eyes not so gleaming and ambiguous—has a specific narrative behind it, but we can’t access it just by looking. Abed painted it while his father was suffering from advanced throat cancer. Abed cared for his father by day and painted at night; at first the wings on the figure were closed, but as his father unexpectedly recovered, the composition changed: the wings began to open. Though the painting was essentially finished after a year, Abed continued to work on it as changes occurred to him: adding a red line to the horizon; making the eyes, which were previously human, green and glowing with light.

Unlike many contemporary artists working in relation to art history, Abed does not use pastiche or quote from symbolism. Though the works of some contemporary artists inspire the satisfaction of recognition—like John Currin, who applies Renaissance techniques to the flotsam of pop culture (Bea Arthur topless!), or Kehinde Wiley (Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps—but Napoleon is black!), Abed’s work does not wink at or nod to history in order to interrogate contemporary attitudes. His is not a knowing symbolism, or an appropriation thereof. It just is.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

A founding editor of Rose Metal Press, Kathleen Rooney is the author of, most recently, Robinson Alone, and her debut novel, O, Democracy!, is forthcoming in spring 2014.








Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago May 14

Review: David Abed/Century Guild





Contemporary symbolist painting is a hard sell in Chicago. It doesn’t revel in bright, sunny landscapes, gritty urban realism, or echoes of popular culture. As developed in the late-nineteenth century, it cultivates spirituality in a dark inner world accessible only to the artist/genius and those able to follow. As the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren once put it, “It is not our faith and our beliefs that we put forward; on the contrary, it is our doubts, our fears, our boredoms, our vices, our despair and probably our agony.”


So, it is rather heroic to take a career in that direction, as David Abed has been doing ever since studying in a Classical-Realist atelier, the School of Representational Art, in the 1990s. His current body of work is quite a challenge. His single, large nude female figures resemble the flayed figures once commonly used to study human anatomy (called écorché), and he has partially immersed them in dark, limpid pools of water. His stiff, almost geometric formalization of the flesh makes the figures feel like biological specimens floating in formaldehyde. Whatever this arrangement may symbolize for the artist, the figures feel hopeless and morbid, like that tragic life-in-death that many of us will experience with senescence. Though painted with precision, they are not especially beautiful. But the artist also makes paintings that are more observational than symbolic, and this show includes two still-lifes and three partial nudes. They also feel a bit ghostly and heavy with meaning, but here that plays off against the artist’s attention to natural form. The results are quite appealing, and possibly just as meaningful. (Chris Miller)

Through June 2 at Century Guild, 2136 West North

- See more at: http://art.newcity.com/2013/05/14/review-david-abedcentury-guild/#sthash.ATE96vRv.dpuf




The unbearable lightness of painter David Abed

Posted by Sarah Nardi on 05.08.13 at 12:42 PM



David Abed's Dissolve


Sartre wrote that man is condemned to be free. He is flung into the world and the fact of his existence is the only thing in life that he is not responsible for. Everything else is a choice. Even the act of not choosing is a choice. There is no determinism, only the dizzying, infinitely unfolding possibilities of free will. We chose how to act, how to respond, and in doing so, we choose who we are. "In life man commits himself and draws his own portrait," writes Sartre. "And outside of that there is nothing."


The great malady of the modern condition is paralysis in the face of choice. We are reluctant to commit to canvas a brush stroke that will define our existence. To choose a spouse, a city, a profession, is to define some part of ourselves—to cast an anchor into the fact our existence. But choice is frightening, commitment is terrifying, and so often we remain unmoored, adrift on the sea of freedom.

These are the waters Chicago-based symbolist painter David Abed explores in "Liquid Modernity," which opened last week at Century Guild Chicago.

"In our pursuit of uniqueness and fear of exclusion," says Abed, "we're shifting between jobs, spouses, values, and religion. And with each shift, we trade depth for surface, permanence for the ephemeral."

Abed's ethereal figures, painted in the lush style of the old masters, are captured breaking the plane of dark water. Whether they are sinking or surfacing is impossible to tell. They are slack and languid, bodies seemingly devoid of will, suspended only by the forces that surrounds them. The figures seem to be a study of inertia and inaction. But as Sartre tells us, if we sink it's because we chose not to swim.

Liquid Modernity runs through June 2 at Century Guild Chicago, 2136 W. North, 312-617-8711



David Abed


February 28th, 2011


This article is part of Chicago Art Magazine’s “40 over 40″ series.

Though the canon of painting hasn’t been dominated by the representational figurative tradition in oh, I don’t know, at least a hundred years, there are still many artists who choose to pursue that path in their work. A quick flip through recent issues of New American Painting, or a trip through River North, informs that they are no small population either. Representational figurative painters are still, however, most often outside the limelight of contemporary discourse, so we’ve chosen to highlight a few Chicagoans working adamantly within the tradition.

David Abed:

David Abed (b. 1967) is working to uphold the tradition of figurative realism. The School of Representational Art in Chicago, of which Abed is a noted artist, states their goal as such: “The School of Representational Art (SORA), founded by artist and instructor Bruno Surdo, is located in the heart of Chicago’s artistic River North area. The school was established to bring the great painting traditions of the Old Masters to a new generation of artists. SORA exists as a viable and traditional training ground for artists wishing to achieve excellence in drawing and painting. The instructors at SORA are the newest legacy in the atelier system of art instruction. SORA’s link to this heritage is through Richard Lack and his School of Classical Realism which stretches back to the great academic and impressionistic painting schools ofthe 18th and 19th centuries.” Abed’s work deals primarily with the nude and the still life, building narratives through traditional approaches.


Tags: 40 Artists Over 40, chicago art magazine, chicago artists, David Abed, elysabeth alfano, fear no art chicago, figurative realism, nude and still life, SORA, The School of Reprentational Art