The journey is almost anonymous, and a glowing character appears out of nowhere, almost theatrically glued there, to snap a picture of the road. That's the background of the painting, and the background is the whole painting: A road that could be anywhere. This ubiquity betrays both authenticity and reality – is this pictorial image a photograph, a dream, a cinematic sequence, or what? Upon closer inspection, the architectural details and the strange sense of proportion belie the sense of representation; we know ourselves to be inside a narrative world. But yet we are always talking about representation with painters, and whether this object means that, and that portrait means this, it's a futile conversation; insofar as the image is a whole it's the grand narratives that matter – we have learned this from the consumption of photography. For Burak Ata (b. 1989), a young painter from Istanbul, there seems to be, nevertheless, an inverted process: In a familiar space (under-cinematic, almost comic, rather uneventful everyday life) there's no grand narrative, and therefore, the totality is broken – we need to look at all the elements again.
I hate describing paintings, but you would have to imagine this scene: A group of young men in muffled conversation, you can't hear what they're saying, it is perhaps night, in a suburb of Istanbul, they have just finished a basketball game (that happened in a different painting). They point at the distance, or stare at their phones, infinitely bored, imprisoned in a small universe, still livable somehow, surrounded by unfinished houses. The crucial aspect here isn't the story (it would make a dull photograph), but rather, the fact that nothing is happening at all, that there's no point of view. And what you're looking at is a bit of the disjointedness, the estrangement, of a place shaped by the uneasiness of life, an uneasiness traditionally translated as silence. It is also remarkable how the images double up: It is not an observational painting where the artist has tried to depict a condition of captivity under laboratory conditions, but a participative situation in which he himself is lost inside. It is around these perplexed self-portraits inside the painting that the works grow so desolate, and become almost lamentations, but without Baroque adornments or any overture – everybody suffers quietly.
What comes to mind when we say subjective painting? It's usually something we can associate with consciousness such as the colorfield, but what if Ata were a kind of subjective painter? Far from photorealism, his characters in the exhibition “Carsick Sports Club” (can you imagine a more mundane title?) are neither realistic nor fantastical. The subjective element appears in the form of a social commentary that is often unavailable to painting (though common in the historical novel), and that requires a certain capability to conjure up universals – situations that aren't culture-specific. The idea of a sports club (it's not just a metaphor) in the same spirit, is far from an activist gesture and acts as a narrative device meant to describe the structure of alienation: The inertia of a middle-class neighborhood, a sense of community formed by powerlessness, in a place where change is a constant but yet nothing changes. The long winding roads at night, and the deserted landscapes, in several of these paintings, give the impression of a circular, monotonous world, deprived from the linear flow of time, where these characters are just waiting, painting and waiting, but mostly waiting.
One of the key technical elements in Ata's work, however, is a use of architecture that is loaded with art historical references, while remaining loyal to his narratives: The unfinished buildings, omnipresent in these paintings, standing in awkward three-dimensional positions, oblique to the viewer, depict with wealth of details the suburban architecture of Turkish cities, what is colloquially known as gecekondu; houses built quickly and without proper permissions or measurements, where different generations of the same family dwell, usually adding another floor as the family grows, and finishing it as it is already occupied. This wouldn't be necessarily interesting if it weren't because of the early renaissance technique, an innovation of the time on Byzantine iconography, which is considered largely anachronistic and prior to the academic perspective of the 15th century, based on convincing representations of depth. Hereby, these building structures set the mood for everything else, introducing irony into critique, presenting the urban disaster of Istanbul in pastel colors and heightened volumes that accompany the narration with a depth that it would be forever lacking in hyperrealism.
But all this would be too abstract for the viewer without the context of contemporary painting in Turkey: Turkish academic painting has struggled for a century with modernism, and is still largely centered around either classical realism or a redundant school of abstraction based on an earlier and very influential, but outdated European school. Young painters (and the vast majority of Turkish artists of prominence are neither painters nor the product of local academies) coming from either of these branches, struggle to find a language of their own, usually taking cue from political artists of the 1990s and 2000s, yet their contemporaneity is more often than not, the traumatic result of a battle with a pastiche academic modernism. For Burak Ata, who studied also in Bologna, the development of a painterly language that is not rooted in either tradition, or completely bound to European conventions, is still a work in progress. “Carsick Sports Club”, his first solo exhibition, is still tradition-heavy and perhaps distant from the thin surfaces that contemporary painting seeks today, but it is precisely for this reason that its sincerity of character and generosity of form is so striking.
But we also know that most contemporary painting is terrible. So that being in the “Salon des Refusees”, as one of Ata's paintings suggests, cannot be a bad idea after all. While some of the painted objects that make part of the exhibition, seem utterly redundant and perhaps interfere with the seriousness of the work, the artist still succeeds very much in using his sense of humor – humor is here a palette – to portray a deep loneliness, a loneliness that is not only his own, but that has become a shared identity with others. As the last decade in Turkey has forced artists to turn inwards, towards the comfort of abstraction or the mediocrity of post-Internet art, in order to circumvent censorship, here there's an artist who, in spite of shortcomings and hesitations, has not shied away from the uncertainties and anxieties of the world: “If you have motion sickness and you need to get somewhere, you would know that the trip wouldn't go so well, but there's nothing to do about it and you get in the car. Sometimes you can't do anything with what you're going through because those things are part of your existence now.”
*"Carsick Sports Club", by Burak Ata was on show at Öktem Aykut, Istanbul, April 25 - May 18, 2019.
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