Neo-conceptual Paintings of Hakan Gürsoytrak
The popularity of painting in Turkey is undeniable and has evidently a lot to do with its modernist relation to the verbal culture and the age-old commitment of the artists, when not to mention the market-oriented manipulations. The profession of applying paint on canvas is still the most appreciated category of art making. The collectors and commercial galleries respect true painters as “real artists”, even if they are flamboyant and brazen. However, for the connoisseur and art professionals, painting is still a vehicle to think about the resources of art as well as a wealth of expression to decipher the unconscious and behavior of humankind.
In the current art making and art scene, video-computer-art or photography seems to shadow the painting, but it is also evident that consequently the same media has improved the content and form of painting with a different dimension and impetus. With its neo-conceptual, neo-surrealistic and somehow neo-abstract direction the painting is still a significant category of mediation between the artist and the viewer. Today’s paintings when conceived conceptually and ideologically, are not a production of pleasure-seeking, harmonizing, academic or decorative activity. It is an act in accordance with inevitability, namely contaminated by the electronic media, the public desperately needs this kind of different visual involvement with a critical, intellectual and emotional aspect. If we cease to think that painting is the age-old thematization of representation, we can enjoy and apprehend its insinuations and its immediacy.
The paintings in Turkey since the late 90’s convey this kind of involvement based on a vocabulary practiced in the late 70’s and in the 80’s by a group of artists who committed themselves to the social reality aspirations. Since the 90’s, another antagonist group of painters have followed the same path, but also borrowed generously from journalism and other photographic sources, and aimed to utilize the plainly represented truth in a highly subjective way and loaded with genuine daily experience to inform and inspire the visual thinking of viewer. Combining the comic, kitsch, popular culture and adding a jigger or two of surrealism, these painters undoubtedly had a great deal more influence on pictorial subject and style than they have ever dreamed. Each of them has taken the high road in painting, building on popular culture, art history and the belief in the inevitability of paint on canvas over and against the assault of digital and video art works that currently dominate the international scene. Hakan Gürsoytrak feels attached to this group of artists mainly based in Istanbul, who with their paintings, photography and activist events address directly or symptomatically, the sense of rupture and fragmentation that pervades present day experience, particularly as lived across the Istanbul cityscape, which possesses an extremely ambiguous urban culture. The anxious times of the last three decades with political and economical turmoil and transformations find their sublimated form in paintings that acidly express the breakdown in post-modern signification that fractured the public’s sense of reality. The modernist burden of meaning has shifted from the social body as the space, in which identities are severely mutated, to the vulnerable individual body, which is under all kinds of pressure – from poverty, discrimination, emotional overload, to the invasion of global capitalism and electronic media.
In this sense, Hakan Gürsoytrak’s paintings should be categorized as paintings that still have mental and social function. They unmistakably create a signifying chain, which is necessary in our era to overcome the culture crisis. We definitely need this kind of painting as we have lost the capacity to grasp and represent the overwhelming complexity of contemporary social and political relations. The excessive reality supported or manipulated by virtual reality also opens a gap, which should somehow be filled by the imaginary. We have reached a stage where we cannot confront the collapse of symbolic representation necessary of taking our distance to the real, the distance which is necessary for critical thinking and interpretation. If the symbolic structure of the real has collapsed, psychosomatic behavior becomes the norm. At this point, Gürsoytrak’s paintings illustrate for the viewer the ways of exploring the edges of sanity and normalcy.
This is a familiar territory to Hakan Gürsoytrak, whose canvasses and collages have always been populated by familiar and satirical figures and crowded scenes about the trivial, the marginal, and the crossroads between deviance and despair. The figures are placed at the imaginary intersections where social and political codes are disrupted by the implication of the bizarre. The invisible and the repressed are reflected in images, where the society’s nightmares become the transparent articulation of political manipulations and desires. The viewer feels discomfort and contentment at the same time when faced with these representative and confrontational paintings of current public actions, daily events and street realities. The series of paintings with their familiar but stimulating scenes display sequences of everyday life, political events and social satire, which evidently run counter to the dominant post-media representations of global capitalist imagery. In his narrative images, recalling photojournalism or comic strips in content reflecting all aspects of daily life, local events and cityscapes becomes a contemporary legend.
He creates across the picture plane a descriptive scene for the viewer; scenarios, which establish a dialectics of, gaze and points to an ethics of seeing. These paintings invite the spectator who can be also the maker of meaning. This form that is generally associated with photography and the cinema both privileges the viewer with responsibility and subverts him/her with guilt. For him, this is a certain programmatic rebelliousness, a quality that had its beginnings in the paintings of the 70’s and early 80’s in the post-modern history of painting in Turkey. However, this assessment is in danger of implying an old skepticism toward the so-called socialist painting, the particular style of painting of the cold-war period in the third countries. Obviously, Gürsoytrak is quite sure of his quest and is not after a great noise in the process; he holds on to traditional virtues of his trade and pronounces a narrative will.
Gürsoytrak is at work on the specifically familiar notion of the image. His subject matter is clear: the contestation between the individual, the society and the state. His works function as signals of a disturbing realm beyond these struggles. They imply many definitions of this content and expose themselves fully. Using journalistic photography as an impetus, Gürsoytrak delineates the smooth outlines of the depicted scene directly onto the canvas, thereafter letting himself be guided by the intrinsic demands of painting the image. He clearly aims at a painterly high standard but also at an interplay of free forms, expressive flecks and cumulative repetitions.
His figures are always in the middle of a work, an activity or involved in an event. It is not difficult to make out what exactly they’re doing or why; it is very much related to economical and daily political issues. Because of his continuous interest in the working class, capitalist issues and the marginalized masses, Marxism reflects itself under the several times filtered implications. Even if it is loaded with black humor, this is an ideological element which will be received by the sophisticated audiences of post-ideological trends with skepticism. Gürsoytrak is determined enough to confront this kind of skepticism.
All the hard work going on in Gürsoytrak’s paintings, the driving of trucks, filling of tanks, the repairing of machines or automobiles or even scenes of weddings or feasts seems to be within the sphere of criticism on capitalism indicating social good or individual profit on the surface; evidently all imagery is enhanced with black humor. Gürsoytrak has steadfastly acknowledged that he is interested in the ambiguous behaviors of individuals or groups of people within these processes of capitalism and nation state modernism. In this sense, the paintings which at first glance look like ordinary street scenery are disturbing in the most comfortable way imaginable. In an age done with ideologies, Gürsoytrak picks up the remains of that aesthetics they left behind to remind us of a truth more discomforting than it might look at this first glance: Socialism is not trendy now, but globalism also requires solutions.
Beral Madra, November 2007