Ali Cherri: If You Stab Us, Won’t We Bleed?, National Gallery Review

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During his residency at the National Gallery, the Lebanese artist searched for evidence of trauma in the collection. Of course, images of torture, murder and cruelty abound in the paintings of the humiliation and crucifixion of Christ and the many martyrdoms depicted in minute detail for the edification of the faithful. It’s amazing how we can contemplate with disinterested curiosity open wounds, severed heads or festering wounds and even find their representation beautiful.

However, the images of pain are not about Cherri. Instead, he focused on the violence committed against actual canvases. The most famous mugging victim has to be Diego Velasquez Rokeby Venus,1646 whom suffragette Mary Richardson attacked with clever meat in 1914. who is the most beautiful character in modern history.

Dubbing Richardson “Slasher Mary”, the press responded as if the assault had been carried out on a real woman, calling one of the multiple cuts inflicted a “cruel neck wound”. The painting has since been lovingly restored, of course, and little mention is made of the incident, partly to avoid encouraging copycat attacks and partly out of a desire to allow the healing process.

Cherri’s response to the event is interesting, but oblique. Lying in a window (picture below) is the wooden sculpture of a female figure closer to a prehistoric fertility goddess than to a classical nude. Its bulbous body is covered with streaks resembling scarifications, but also reminiscent of the lacerations inflicted on the painting. Her head – a 19th century marble sculpture – rests face down on a mirror. Inset in a socket is a glass eye that gazes accusingly at the viewer via the mirror, much as Velasquez’s Venus gazes out of her image via a mirror.

If Cherri’s Venus feels incredibly helpless and vulnerable, her response to the violation of Rembrandt’s 1669 self-portrait (main picture), which was sprayed with yellow paint in 1998, is even more extreme. A wax model of the artist’s severed head hangs from a chain like a trophy. Its dark color and small size are reminiscent of the shrunken heads sported by cannibals as proof of their military success.

Chez Poussin The adoration of the golden calf 1634 was also doused in paint in 2011. It shows worshipers dancing around a plinth on which stands a statue of the Golden Calf. Cherri created a 3D plinth decorated with a classic frieze of dancing figures and replaced the calf with twin taxidermied lambs. A legendary object of pagan reverence has been replaced by identical conjoined twins who died of severe birth defects.

The artist’s most direct response is the gunshot wound suffered in 1987 by Leonard’s Burlington House Cartoon 1500. By reproducing the bullet hole in bas-relief, he transformed the wound into a badge of martyrdom, a religious relic.

Cherri’s responses invite reflection on the extent to which works of art can be restored. Are they, like humans, permanently damaged by trauma or are they more revered once their frailty is revealed? Is their value increased or decreased by the damage they have suffered?

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