“Sensual” and “tactile” are attributes commonly assigned to Huguette Caland’s paintings. Sure, the late Lebanese artist’s best-known series, Bribes de corps (Body Bits), from the 1970s, shows such lusciously rendered imaginings of the body that one can nearly hear the paintings moan. But the Drawing Center show "Tête-à-Tête," surveying 100 works created over five decades, shows that Caland’s work is also about hovering, levitating, and maneuvering. Touch is occasionally assumed, just a moment away, but not always.
Two examples from Bribes de corps (both 1973) allude to the possibility that her bulbous, liquid shapes are not only sideways gazes at bodily meetings, but also bird’s-eye views of wonders—whether sex or the sea. The paintings coincide with a time when Caland had left her husband and children in Beirut to pursue art. The freedom she was yearning for had perhaps come in her flight over the Mediterranean; her work then became more erotic, earthy, and subliminal. In one of the two paintings, a dense ruby universe is interrupted by two yellowish-white growths that approach one another. Each is elaborated with ink drawings—elongated torsos, waving hands and hairy pelvises swim inside these lumps. A thin stripe of yellow paint cuts through from top to bottom; both growths are lined with a hazy shade of the same hue. The sensation is of earth moving or a river flowing. Reading the painting this way is not to overlook its sexual dimension, but to connect earthly and bodily phenomena.
Caland made the show’s titular work (1983) after starting to establish her artistic career in Paris and three years prior to moving to Los Angeles. A gentle ink drawing shows two red mouths on a path toward each other. The noses have already touched; both sets of eyes are closed. The intimate encounter is humble, occupying a mere upper left corner of the sheet of paper. The remaining space is blank, an uncharted territory for the mind to breathe or fallow land to rejuvenate.
The show’s airy hang lets the viewer roam with a similar sense of floating. That feeling is most evident in Caland’s last body of work, from the late 2000s, in which she created bird’s-eye views, topographical imaginations, of places from the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum, where she spent her summers on her son’s boat, to her home in Venice, California. They seem to rely on her remembrance of places, or perhaps daydreams of passing through them: a nocturnal stroll across Bodrum’s ports or a sun-drenched one through the streets of her California home. —Osman Can Yerebakan
Huguette Caland, Homage to Pubic Hair, 1992. Mixed media on paper mounted on panel, 10 x 10 inches. Private collection. Courtesy of The Drawing Center, New York.