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The Black Album

December 5, 2013 | by


Vahap Avşar’s “Black Album,” currently on view at Istanbul’s lovely Rampa Gallery, is a marvelous show. Its quiet, metaphorical registers are a departure from Avşar’s previous style, which found its strength in more overtly political statements and deft manipulation of popular iconography. On the other hand, “Black Album,” curated by Esra Sagiredik, has the subtle touch of great poetry. As one walks through the three rooms, spread across two separate but adjacent sites, the accumulative effect of Avşar’s vision is powerful: the artworks peak between each other in rich rhymes and deeply felt themes and variations, fusing into a moving vision full of quiet but firm political engagement and profound metaphysical thought.


The centerpiece of the exhibition is the eponymous Black Album (2013), a series of twelve 76" x 40" paintings of metallic silver paint on tar felt. The silver paint spreads and folds freely over the tar, creating different studies of chiaroscuro, texture, and perspective. Their inspiration was the vast and dangerous mountainous landscape of eastern Turkey that Avşar traveled through by bus at night as a young man. The rich visual complexity of these paintings, however, challenges the primacy of the artist’s personal perspective, as they distinctly resemble the primordial tumbling of lava down cliffs and the roiling rivers of the Earth during its creation. The fact that the paintings simultaneously are both things is the point and the root of the poignancy of the works.


Meanwhile, Disguise Paintings (2013), an oil and print on canvas diptych, presents two separately framed works of isolated men seated, completely by happenstance, in almost identical postures, their faces pixelated and those pixels painted over in thick layers of paint. One man is dressed army fatigues and sitting on the bottom bunk of an army installation. The other is in a Bob Marley T-shirt, preparing tea in a colorful apartment walled with numerous portraits of Abraham Lincoln. The details of the paintings reveal much about these men, and their erased faces infuse the two paintings with a hard-earned allegorical mood.


The 20th Century As We Knew It (2011–2012), composed of four bronze busts on wooden pedestals, is a clever variation on the idea of artistic idolatry and influence. The busts—of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Cengiz Çekil, and Avşar himself—form a circle of admiration and are arranged in circular fashion, their gazes trained on each other, standing on their heads, the base of the pedestals occupying the positions where their faces would be. That viewers must stoop—or, if they’re up to it, stand on their heads—to take in the details is a marvelously playful and intelligent statement on how we admire and are admired.


Other standouts include The Road to Arguvan (2013), a short, single-channel video shot in the artist’s native Malatya Province. It follows a road devastated by an unknown force, leaving a long jagged chasm and rendering the road—once a major artery to the east—useless. The camera is handheld and jumpy. Near the end of the video a discarded television monitor appears nestled deep in the crack in the road, and stares back at the now-still camera. Another is the looped four-channel HD video, two-channel audio Shoot Out (2011), which surrounds you in a room: on opposite walls a man with a high-powered assault rifle lies on the floor, his focus trained on his gun’s sight; projected on each of the other two walls is a can of Coca-Cola on a stump of wood. The men load, aim, and fire at the cans; the viewer, deciding where to stand, is uncomfortably stuck in the middle.


While “Black Album” is not a retrospective, the exhibition includes earlier work such as the prints Night Shift (1988) and Negatives (1990), as well as the site-specific installation piece Final Warning, all perfect additions as they unearth and recontextualize some of the roots of Avşar’s newer work.



Labyrinths: On the Centennial of Salvador Espriu

July 10, 2013 | by


Illustration by Josep Pla-Narbona.

The great Catalan writer Salvador Espriu—and he was a very, very great writer—was born one hundred years ago today, in Santa Coloma de Farners, a town some one hundred kilometers northeast of Barcelona. He moved as a child further south to seaside Arenys de Mar and later even further south to Barcelona. His imagination was inherently Catalan in its most expansive sense, mar i muntanya, the sea and the mountains, weaving in and out of his settings and his sense of character and fate: the sea bringing the atmospherics of maritime communities to his work, as well as the classical and Egyptian via the Mediterranean, and the mountains cradling all of the intimacy, hermetic folklore, and internecine conflict by which towns hemmed in by ecology are often marked. He wrote fiction, plays, and was perhaps best known for his poetry. His skill set was gigantic. He had a project: his imagined, mythical homeland Sinera appears in much of his work (Sinera being a phonetic rendering of his childhood home of Arenys written backwards); characters from his poems and plays would appear in his fiction, without set-up, warning, or explication; if you read all of his work together, you realize that he has created within it, for it, a thriving community with its own inner logic, inner laws, and even physical laws (his work at times paws at the fantastical and the absurd like a cat determined to grab a candle’s flame); he invented other names for Spain, Catalunya, Barcelona as though those names would not do; and, despite what it would mean for his career as a writer, he wrote almost exclusively in Catalan.

When I was asked to translate Espriu’s collection of short stories, Ariadna al laberint grotesc, I was happy to do so. For the record, I’m not someone who can kind of read Catalan or who approximates from Spanish: I speak Catalan at home and when we’re back home in Barcelona that’s all I speak and write and read. I write this not to brag but to admit that I didn’t think that Espriu’s prose could get the best of me. But the beautiful and bizarre Adriadna al laberint grotesc (published last year as Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth by Dalkey Archive) provided challenges that provoked in me at the same time great melancholy and great joy. After I was done, fortunately, joy was what remained. Read More »



December 19, 2012 | by

The most common score in basketball is 2-0. It tends to be the point of departure from which thousands upon thousands upon thousands of basketball games subsequently differentiate themselves. Yes, of course the game can break its goose eggs with a three-pointer from behind the line, or the enduring “and one” basket and free throw, or it can begin with one of two free throws made after a personal or technical foul. 1-0, 3-0: as far as basketball scores go these are baroque figures: one bland, one grand. But 2-0. One basket made inside the arc with no response yet from the other team. It’s the primordial moment of the game in motion. The opening bell. The icebreaker.

Twenty seconds into last night’s game in Madison Square Garden, when Raymond Felton dribbled hard to his left, flattened out from the left elbow of the lane, dropped his shoulder as though heading full-steam on an angle toward the hoop, and then, instead, took a sudden step backward, elevated, and rattled in a fifteen-foot jump shot, the New York Knicks led the Houston Rockets by the pristine score of 2-0. The crowd cheered. I watched and couldn’t help but wonder: Would tonight be Felton’s night? I have trouble recalling another ballplayer with Felton’s knack for being both mercurial and dependable always and at the same time. He can shoot you out of a game you have no business losing. He can shoot you to a victory against the best competition. Yet, as strange as this must now sound, he basically plays the same game every game. He always looks to run the offense. And he rarely turns the ball over (a trait he should get far more credit for). Read More »