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Guts Gallery, 2023
London, UK

“huge arms gripped huge arms, foreheads crashed like wild bulls, the two men staggered, they pitched against houses, the doorposts trembled, the outer walls shook, they careened through the streets, they grappled each other, limbs intertwined, each huge body straining to break free from the other’s embrace. Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. His anger left him. He turned away. The contest was over.” The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Stephen Mitchell, 2004

Guts Gallery is excited to present Fistfight; a solo exhibition by Shadi Al-Atallah which explores the visceral and psychological nature of violence through the lens of mythology and storytelling. Inspired by the spectacular and monumental fights in ancient texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the figures in Fistfight are locked into intimate but seismic violent struggles. Within these paintings, arms and legs twist and tangle around each other, fists strike out and pummel against expanses of skin, mouths are contorted into toothy, exhausted grimaces and pairs of feet adjust and readjust on floors and walls in an intricate dance to keep balance. In the chaos of violence and destruction, the physical distinctions between each of Al-Atallah’s figures starts to disintegrate. Here, wrestling becomes a brutal, but cathartic, form of quasi-sexual communion as grappling bodies blend and genitalia fuses together. As a result, Al-Atallah’s painted forms are disruptive; they embody a non-normative, boundary-pushing ambiguity.

In Fistfight, Al-Atallah is fascinated by spaces of controlled violence; they are intrigued by spaces like wrestling rings where dynamic displays of force and brutality are permitted and encouraged. Al-Atallah recognises that, in these spaces, the dynamism and vigour of the body takes centre stage: gone are all inhibitions, one’s mind rests solely on the idea of overcoming one’s opponent through a demonstration of sheer power and strength. Using images of vintage wrestling as a basis for many of the compositions, the works within Fistfght often record the miniscule but singular and decisive moment before the climax of a battle. Moments like the sudden but minute shift in balance that sends the other fighter tumbling to the ground are captured and frozen in time; lending the works a sense of gravity that compares to the sculptural depictions of the wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus.

Throughout Fistfight, Al-Atallah explores the rigid distinction between the spaces where violence is permitted and the spaces in which it is not. Almost all of Al-Atallah’s battles are located within the domestic sphere: plug sockets, window panes, chairs and tables, standing lamps, shelves and houseplants (to name a few) are delineated in thin, clear lines that almost protrude from the vast washes of bright colour in the background of each composition. By locating each of these wrestling matches in the confined and claustrophobic domestic space, Al-Atallah brings the impact of violence, quite literally, much closer to home. However, it is clear that these spaces are not one-to-one facsimiles of interior spaces in the real world. Instead, these spaces appear more like half-remembered evocations of domestic spaces and the figures that occupy them like ghostly apparitions. In this way, Al-Atallah’s compositions take on a more cerebral, dreamlike and, crucially, emotional quality. Each of the canvases within Fistfight become their own psychological wrestling ring; each canvas is a space in which Al-Atallah’s interior world can be mapped out. The bodies that thrash and grapple each other can be read as the inner demons and wayward thoughts that battle to take control of the artist’s psyche. Through the act of painting, the artist can purge themselves of these torments. Here, Al-Atallah’s anxieties are externalised, given human form and let loose on the canvas to do battle there for the audience to see, rather than in the solitude of the mind.

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