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Halim Alkarim
at Robischon Gallery, Denver, Colorado
Review by Michael Paglia

It is unclear if Halim Alkarim's 'Witness Archive' portraits are based on paintings of imaginary people or on photos of actual ones.

Halim Alkarim, \'Untitled 2 Witness Portrait,\' 2004, lambda print, 59 x 117\', at Robischon Gallery.


Artists often lead interesting lives, but surely few have had experiences as fraught with adventure as has Halim Alkarim. An Iraqi-American who lives in Denver, Alkarim is a native of Najaf, who grew up under Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. As much as most, Alkarim’s family suffered because his father was an outspoken critic of the regime. During the first Gulf War, Alkarim resisted conscription by hiding in the desert, surviving for years with the help of a Bedouin who took pity on him, bringing him food and water. Despite these hardships Alkarim expressed an early interest in art. In the 1980s, he attended the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts, and later studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Holland. He’s been in and out of the United States for the last five years, settling in Colorado because his family now lives there. Fifteen years ago, Alkarim began showing abstracted textiles and sculptures that referred to Iraqi culture. But even before that he was working on the kind of politically charged pieces that make up the “Witness Archive” at Robischon. Until recently, however, he was not willing to reveal them, with this show being the first time he has exhibited this body of work.


The political content of the “Witness Archive” pieces is subtle with no overt messages, though the mood conveyed by them is undeniably somber. The show is dominated by large portraits. Looking at them, it’s unclear if they are based on paintings of imaginary people or on photos of actual ones, which is what they are. This is because of Alkarim’s extremely elaborate production process. The artist begins by gaining the confidence of his sitters. He needs to do this in order to carry out what happens next. He covers their faces in latex to conventionalize their features. The models also don wigs and put on reflective contact lenses, making their eyes the dominant feature of the portraits. Alkarim then photographs the models through a scrim. The resulting images are scanned into a computer so that the appearance of the posers can be changed even further. His goal in all of this is to create universal figures providing “a cultural bridge against those forces... that would separate us.”


Robischon is one of Denver’s most important galleries and museum-quality shows like the “Witness Archive” is just one of the reasons why.


Published courtesy of art ltd. © 2009

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