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.
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