Gentle by Jonathan Gent at Dubai’s XVA Gallery

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Currently on view at XVA’s space in Dubai’s historic Al Fahidi Historical neighborhood, is Gentle by Jonathan Gent. Made during an intense period of work in the Cote d’Azur, this new series of paintings reflects Gent’s impressions of the Mediterranean as well as his of memories of time spent in Dubai during a residency in Bastakiya in 2010. In his exploration of the city’s limits, Gent became captivated by the simultaneously exhilarating and isolating stillness that exists in the wide-open spaces in the margins of the city where skyscrapers meet the desert. Gent’s paintings, which are often deceptively simple, can also be seen as visual poems that offer a uniquely wry insight into human complexity.


Upon reflection on his recent time spent working in France, Gent states that he “didn’t move to the Cote d’Azur for the art or the light, I came for the mood and the peace.” Rather than connect himself to any artists who painted in the famous area before him, Gent states “I’m addicted to fantasy. That’s my influence.”


The viewer can retain such sentiments from a look at his recent oeuvre. Gent expresses his artistic appreciation for the fluid rhythm in the way women move and his determination to capture such lyrical qualities. Recalling a group of women sitting together in the back seat of a limo in Dubai, Gent evokes the memory of watching them interact in slow motion, without sound. The Girls in Limo are grouped in the center of the painting, surrounded by white space, giving the impression that they are being viewed through the tunnel of distant memory. The loneliness of human existence is a recurring theme throughout Gent’s work, and beneath the façade of intimacy and companionability depicted in this painting is an underlying sense of estrangement and the remoteness of an outsider looking in.


The sense of isolation that permeates much of Gent’s work virtually evaporates in Girls with Butterflies, a central work within this new series. Clad in the abaya and gracefully twirling over the painting, Gent’s “Girls” are lost within themselves as they dance with butterflies in scenes reminiscent of a Disneyesque innocence in the first stages of blossom. Irrepressibly alive, Gent’s minimalistic brushstrokes evoke the grace and fluidity he so admires in women. While consumed within their own worlds, Gent’s “Girls” are simultaneously isolated yet ethereal and empowered.


This underlying isolation is further evoked in Gent’s landscapes of “still” places, those that, as he says, “will never have a hand laid upon them.” Painted in a direct and evocative style, the artist completed these desertscapes of the UAE years during his time in France, years after his residency in Bastakiya in Dubai. In Morning, Gent recalls a timeless pre-dawn desert with palm trees silhouetted again the rising sun and conjures up what might be seen as the dread of the coming day after of an endless Saturday night. In the desertscape Two Birds and One Sun, these fears are realized as the sun explodes out of the sky, brutal and inescapable. Although absent of human figures, Gent’s landscapes speak to complex fears of humankind and our thirst for wide-open spaces with no demands.

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The visual imagery of Fireworks as I drive through the Desert is heavily influenced by emotional elements. Gent’s fascination with “still” spaces extends to the sky overhead us. Despite the skyscrapers and buildings that surround us in the city, there still exist spaces above us that will never be touched, isolated parts of our world that will never have a hand laid upon them. In Gent’s minimalist depiction of the desert at night, an explosion of fireworks on the horizon interrupts the black sky, intruding into this isolated space and reaching out from blackness towards the viewer. In its illumination of the night sky, the fireworks and the viewer are, as he says, “strangers connected like lovers.”


The central grain of Gent’s work is inextricably linked to his peripatetic lifestyle. As an artist who is continually in transit, Gent continuously re-evaluates his practice in each new setting he arrives in, conscious that continuous change is vital to the progression of his work. Having completed his studies at the Cheshire School of Art and Edinburgh College of Art, Gent has gone on to exhibit his work internationally in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the US. He has completed residencies in New York, Dubai, Bangkok and Venezuela, and yet his wandering existence is at odds with the static period he undergoes upon arrival in each place. It is often a few weeks before he will pick up a paintbrush. His transient lifestyle has effectively led him to create such works of startling and otherworldly beauty.


Gentle by Jonathan Gent runs until 1 February at XVA Gallery in Bastikiya.