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Nour El Saleh nello studio_2.HEIC

Nour El Saleh (b. 1997 Beirut, Lebanon) grew up in Abu Dhabi and lives and works in London. She received a Bachelor in Fine Arts from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art in 2019, and a Postgraduate degree at the Royal Drawing School in 2022. Recent exhibitions include Apply Gently, Quench Gallery, Margate, UK (2023); Underfoot, Edel Assanti, London, UK (2022); Tightrope, Cassina Projects, Milan, Italy (2022); Clouds of Venom, Plaza, London, UK  (2021); Where the Grass is Synthetic, V.O Curations, London, UK (2021) and The Play That Goes on Forever, Lowell Ryan Projects, Mexico City (2020). 



Castello San Basilio is delighted to present Set to Default Nour El Saleh’s first solo show in Italy. The exhibition consists of three new paintings displayed alongside two sculpted miniature canvases. Exploring notions of time and place, the works have been informed by her two-month residency in the property.


Using a distinct pictorial language to depict evocative scenes, El Saleh invites us into alternate worlds characterised by peculiar settings, each painting dedicated to a different time of the day: morning, afternoon and evening. Expounding on her interest in themes related to the theatre, which is for the artist a conceptual framework and a methodology for the construction of her paintings, the new body of work explores subject matter related to the building of social and psychological structures.


In Set to Default, isolated, peripheral participants are placed by the artist in an environment that resembles an architectural maquette or a theatrical set untouched by time. The characters, who point or gaze longingly at some faraway place, are stuck in a fantastical structure without doors or ceilings. Observed from above, the inhabitants of this edifice are like puppets, possessed by their individual daily routines, laughing at a wall or donning human skin. All along, a woman observes the scene from above. Characteristic of El Saleh’s work, the woman’s physical position and role are ambiguous, possibly puppet, puppet-master or both, confronting the supposedly all-knowing viewer.


The muted, early-morning tones of Set to Default contrast greatly with the bright, midday yellows and greens found in 1, 2, 3 SOLEIL!. Here, the figures are not constrained by an indoor environment, but are presented in an open-air landscape, bound together by a red string. Presenting individuals in non-naturalistic settings, is El Saleh’s method of inviting the viewer into a more philosophical experience rather than a literal reading of the work. Exploring theories of Existentialism, El Saleh is interested in investigating notions of structure and control, analysing the performative aspects of society: these characters control and manipulate each other, and are controlled in turn. 33 Repetitive Strain‘s dark evening hues depict a figure holding the maquette illustrated in Set to Default. This character is depicted with a creature emerging from her forehead. Here, El Saleh revisits Quentin Massys’ An Allegory of Folly, the Flemish masterpiece depicting the 15th century legend of the ‘Stone of Folly’, a hypothetical stone lodged in the heads of the mad and thought to be the cause of insanity and dementia. El Saleh reappropriates this symbol to reveal the depicted character’s excesses of madness and hysteria.


Calling to mind El Greco’s use of figurative serpentinata, or ‘serpentine figure’, El Saleh’s human bodies are depicted with sinuous limbs, elongated torsos and extended fingers. These characters present an otherworldliness that departs from classical renditions and play with asymmetry and artifice, rejecting harmony. Challenging the extremes of aesthetic beauty, El Saleh’s characters present exaggerated, almost grotesque features, moving away from authentic portrayals of her subjects. Are they reflections of the distorted society they construct and inhabit?

Set to Default (2022)

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