You really can't miss it. Right next to two sunny-side-up googly eyes, the outline of a big, funny nose swoops to the edge of an eight-foot-tall canvas. Once, it might have belonged to Cyrano or Jimmy Durante, or maybe the classic, anonymous Kilroy caricature. But these days it may be that nasal humor isn't instantly readable. Right away, there's a question: Is this working?
Whatever else the image may convey, it's first of all a self-portrait of the artist Adnan Charara, expressed as a sort of pictograph. Titled "Memories," the overarching profile contains trees, houses, and stick figures packed into the idea of a face.
In general, Charara's paintings and found-object sculptures, now on view at Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery, have a gentle, user-friendly charm. His clean, Sunday-comic lines call to mind the formal and narrative simplicity of Paul Klee or Ferdinand Leger, Keith Haring and many other, more recent artists. Some of those modernists and their successors can be, like Charara, friendly and even a little funny. Indeed, this artist seems almost cuddly, at least at first sight. His imagery, however, is alternately childlike and forlorn, hopeful and despairing, like old toys deployed in a half-forgotten game.
Self-taught as an artist, Adnan Charara was born in Lebanon in 1962 and spent much of his childhood in Sierra Leone, following the onset of Lebanon's catastrophic civil war in the mid-1970s. Eventually the family moved to the United States, but everywhere, and at every age, Charara made art. He remembers how other kids called him "the artist," but more to the point, that's what he called himself. Even after earning a degree in architectural planning and getting a job as a regional planner for the State of Massachusetts, he was the guy who painted pictures and made weird, funny figures out of old tools and industrial scraps.
Eventually, Charara's not-so-secret identity caught up with him. He likes to say he was really holding down someone else's job at that time; by now, the point is moot. For most of the past ten years, he has worked for himself at a spacious downtown Detroit studio, located in the vast Russell Industrial Center. It's like an artist's dream, and the art objects that crowd his space there are the whimsical inventions of an almost Willy Wonka-like dreamer.
One of the most memorable pieces at Lesko Gallery is a simple sculpture titled "Melancholy Hammer." It's just a beat-up old hammer, but it packs more of a wallop now than it ever did pounding nails. The artist attached it to a curiously sloping wooden handle, so that it looks like a man's head, slumped down on his chest. Leftover tools make great imaginary friends, as it turns out; in other works here, Charara uses calipers and wrenches to make lively figures.
A series of smaller, framed drawings, doodled on vintage envelopes, also explore the exciting potential of this kind of creative recycling. In one titled "Return to Sender #35," Charara collages an antique photograph onto faded stationery and draws a line of buildings along a crease. He inks a paisley butterfly — and then, somehow, the envelope becomes a garment, worn by a woman with a violin face.
Charara's paintings can be clunky, and overly full of pointless patterns and puzzlingly bland figurative motifs. But his less formal found-object improvisations are a pure delight, singing in offbeat harmonies as they open windows to the breezes of the soul. At Lesko, Charara is at his best when he follows his nose — instead of drawing it.