To Cast Shadows

It is always an advantage to be able to let time pass between first encountering the work of a complicated artist and endeavouring to commit indelible words to paper. It is often a luxury a writer on art does not have. Deadlines approach and one must rush to get the word into print before an exhibition ends, before the words’ usefulness to the reading public evaporates.

With Serdar Arat I am happy to have had a surfeit of time before attempting this study. I first visited his studio over a decade ago in 1985, and my most recent visit took place towards the end of 1996. Now, as I write, we are a few weeks into 1997, and I have been able to identify a resonant, recurring image of Arat’s work. Not an individual piece that belongs to one collector, that exists in one place, whose surface in one particular arrangement of colors and textures, but some essence of Arat’s overall project taken as a whole. There is an image that, were I dreaming, my subconscious would synthesize to indicate to my waking self that the piece on the wall was by Arat. This reduction, synthesis, and projection is abetted by the creative virtues of forgetting, through which the mind obliterates the distracting details of lived life, the weather, lunch, the traffic driving back into New York City from Arat’s studio.

The essential image that I retain of this corpus is not a static icon, but rather grand sweeping oscillations, gradually slowing, from rich darkness giving way suddenly to a rush of blinding light and plunging back, once again into oneiric murk. It flickers before my mind’s eye like an old fashioned projector when the film slips out of the sprocket holes and the light seems trapped in swirls of smoke.

Darkness and light is surely a universally serviceable metaphor, with diverse cultural associations. This pair seems to me to structure Arat’s painting and drawings. It would be simplistic to identify the darkness and light in these paintings to familiar binary oppositions, be they good and evil, innocence and corruptness, enlightenment and ignorance. Each opposing end on these lines would seek its opposite, to return to it.

Although, Arat, bucking Post-Modernism’s enforced ambivalences, would not and does not shy away from dealing with such grad and risky themes, beware trying to locate or name heroes and villains.

Modern architecture is based on a principle of beneficent, universal illumination, in which either day light or artificial light leaves little room for shadow, and the vanquished shadow spaces into which generations have projected their dreams and nightmares are little more than anachronistic memories, revisited only when touring historic palaces, cathedrals, basilicas, and mosques.

Thinking of my most recent experience of visiting such a space, the gorgeous, if overly massive La Cathedral Metropolitiana in Mexico City, even slightly modernized, these sites’ magic come from the layers and degrees of darkness only occasionally punctured by light.
The darkness in Arat makes me think first of the experiential dynamics of pre-modern architectural spaces. That Arat is thinking of older architecture is made clear in his consistent use of arches as his favored motif for his shaped paintings. Arches, if used at all in current building practice, are used to reference history and have a similar place when offered as an alternative to rectilinear canvasses.

These shadow spaces, as evoked by Arat, can be both comforting and terrifying. Darkness can provide safety, rendering you invisible, hiding you from those who would do you harm. As you doze, your body takes on the substance and shade of the night, immortal, armored.

But this is also the space of irrationality, anxiety, and dread in which the civilizing effects of light are forgotten, and the myriad of nefarious forces threaten to overwhelm you. In this shadow space there is no rule of law, no protection.

Light is also a bifurcated symbol. It can be the optimistic morning light which pours in when you peel open the morning curtains upon waking. But it can also be the harsh light the interrogator shines in your eyes, coercing you to talk.

Light and darkness, each serving as a catalyst for seemingly contradictory feelings. This happens most explicitly in the realm of artifice and there is a strong sense of artificiality in Arat’s constructed spaces, exacerbated by the intense light and shadows. One thinks of film and theater, as a sub-category of lived experience. One thinks of spaces as described in literature. Even in the most naturalistic or realist novels more details are excluded than described, and those that are somehow noted are there for a reason. In Arat’s interiors, seascapes, and gardens there is little extraneous detail, removing them sharply from lived life. It would be overstating the case, but only slightly, to say every detail Arat chooses to include is there to cast a shadow, either literally or psychologically.

Turning now from generalizations to specifics, I would like to deal with a few paintings in depth. This study covers over a decade of work, which breaks down into a number of completed series. Certain paintings will be used as keys, Rosetta stones towards deciphering Arat’s major themes.

The writer’s anxiety in trying to make sense of the world in words is conjured in I Saw His Departure 8 (p.17). In it there we see a typewriter and glasses, symbols of the attempt towards rationality, addresses the limits of that endeavor. (Although I am attracted to the doubling of my sitting here at my own computer keyboard, trying to force an artworks meaning into words when the image itself bespeaks this task’s ultimate futility).

It is with the image, one of Arat’s most completely described images, that we can best begin the play of interpretation with Arat’s complex symbol systems. Let the images evocation of our memories of detective movies spur on your own desire to decipher that which is hidden in plain sight.

On the desk, sits a drawn image of a doubly pierced tongue, looking quite like a worm, pierced as bait on a fish hook. Like tattoo iconography, in which a knife blade can be see to fictively pierce the wearer’s flesh, the trompe l’oeil reality of this squirming object resists the page on which it either is or isn’t drawn. Its lower tip can be read as a hand-like protrusion, thrusting the needle through its own phallic head, metaphorically biting its lip to keep from screaming or uttering a further complaint that might make matters worse.

It is clear that it is words that have caused whatever trouble is afoot. The typewriter’s return arm, that thing whose name I could barely remember from the age of manual typewriters that caused the paper to advance to the next line, must be interpreted as shorthand for “Wait! I’m not done – I have more to say – Here comes another line!” But her it is visually aligned with, and therefore identified with, the stifling, piercing rod.

That our protagonist, unseen but for a few remaining reminders of his presence, the typewriter, the chair, the pierced tongue, is threatened, is made clear by the shadow that looms above the place where his head would be, were he seated in his chair. It is knife-like but perhaps its angled edge is more evocative of a potential official beheading than a quick and simple street-fight stabbing.

Nevertheless, as we have learned from film directors’ use of this ploy, of showing only the shadow while withholding the object that either imminent violence is being announced, or it will turn out to be a red herring, and shadow of nothing more sinister than an overhead fan.

And what awaits behind the door in the background through which rays of light are glimpsed? Is it a final hope of a sane and rational solution to this intrigue, or a dramatic invitation to leap into the void where no one can follow?

In another painting from this series an oversize head fills the top half of the picture. The skull is bisected by an actual physical division between the top and the bottom sections of the painting (p. 22). Taken on its own the orbular skull of the top half is ambiguous in its humanity, fleshy yes, but equally reminiscent of the moon glowing pale orange on a fall night. As a moon or asteroid, cut free from the lower half of the painting, it suggests the possibility of leaving this orbit, spinning gravitationally free from the problems that in fact troubled the artist’s father.

His face is pressed down on the desk, as if the weight of the brain above were truly insupportable, His nose is smashed rather violently beneath him, and a long smear of bloody mess could be the results of whatever has occurred. But equally possible is that the white and red patch is the vestiges of the charnel house of life. The man’s glasses reflect some of the visceral carnage and the painting could be interpreted as about his collapse trying to reflect, literarily in his glasses and figuratively on the typewriter, the realities he has seen and experienced.

But the palette shifts on the right side of the canvas. Instead of the colors of blood and bones, we have luscious purples, blues, oranges, and pinks, the colors of a gentle dawn. In what appears as a window, an exit from the dark scene to the left, the possibility of hope and rebirth is evident. Its colors are taken up on the typewriter, equating the belief that tomorrow morning could mean the start of a better future through the transformative power of words. But then again, as in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, the presence of sumptuous, chromatic seduction in the form of Technicolor candy hues can only increase the melodramatic dimensions of a tragedy.

But Arat’s seascapes are often highly ordered. First, by the painting’s curve-topped canopies. They make us, the viewers of the scene, wonder what our vantage point could be. In some it appears that the only place we could be is underwater, looking out from an emerging submarine through the circular lens of a periscope. In others we seem to hover over the water, perhaps in a helicopter, that would again explain the curving of our scopic aperture. Perhaps we are in a surveillance plane scanning the richly hued water for signs of something, but what?

If this diving into the pool of interpretation and splashing about until the water is all gone over the sides seems overdone, it is. It is my desire to inspire the viewers to grant themselves license for their own plays. For while it would be easier to speak here of history, of Arat’s real stories, it is far more engaging for the viewer to de-specify who and what Arat’s narrative-loaded but non-specific paintings refer to. To dwell too long on the artist’s biography may have the despoiling effect of looking at your lover’s X-rays before beginning sex.

Arat’s symbolic language, with its talent for investing traditionally loaded symbols with new potential readings, as easily as he does quirky images that are (almost) his alone, such as the air vent cover, invites viewer to start free associating well before their hands have picked up a catalog essay or even a title sheet.

Take Arat’s seascapes. As a painting motif seascape has an ability to hold diverse art-historical readings which is centuries old. To stand at the edge of the water looking out as in Caspar David Friedrich, is to contemplate the sublime and the unknowability of the vastness of the world. In Turner it serves as a mode of studying of visual effects of light refracted by moist atmosphere along with a sublime appreciation of the sea’s unpredictable power and its predilection to sudden storms to destroy, or at least disturb our fragile sense of order.

Far from Turner’s seas, in which the safely grounded specificity of right angles is always missing, Arat’s seascapes appear as designed as dry land architecture, stage sets, landing sites. Arat achieves dread, but not through the glorious derangement of Turner’s storms but through a highly theatrical cinematic sense of announcement. In the film Close Encounters (p. 37), a pop culture masterpiece, the bulk of the film is the announcement of something coming from the mysterious mounds to the minimalist notes. Recall that recurring five note theme when contemplating the repeated large, circular, slightly submerged, glowing forms in Arat’s seascape Distant Warnings 1 & 3 (pp. 36, 39).

These shapes could be projected from above, like search light emanating from the rescue planes mentioned above. As such, with the other information withheld, they lead us to wonder what is being searched for in the gently rolling, endless surface of waves. I watched the endless hours of video tape of rescuers and investigators searching downed TWA flight 802, and never finding anything out. The circles could be a brass-band build up to the big letdown. There is nothing circled by the ring of light, examine the center, examine the periphery, there is nothing there but more numbing sameness.

Or, if not a searchlight, it could be the glow of a flying saucer landing lights of immense size to return to the above extraterrestrial theme. While that is a little too whimsical an interpretation for an artist of Arat’s sensibilities, it is it is difficult for a man of my generation raised on afternoon television sci-fi movies to look at this ring and not to imagine the vessel hovering overhead.

What then, if we read the glow as coming from below. Could this be a ring of phosphorescent algae excited by some preternaturally geometric event? When France announced it was resuming underwater nuclear testing, I could imagine the radiation wave as it passed through the water’s skin looking micro-momentarily like this.

Or think of the descriptions of the putatively natural event in Edgar Allen Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom. The maelstrom, a circular event like Arat’s glow, transforms nature into the most excruciating terror by virtue of its architectural unnaturalness “whose interior, as far as the eye could phantom it, was a smooth, shining, jet black wall of water.”

If we let our minds slip from the realm of the unnatural, but possible, to the supernatural, these circles, like those circular patterns in English wheat fields attributed to either U.F.O.’s or Satan worshippers, could mark the spot of some cross dimensional revelation. Does the apocalypse start here, or is this ground zero of a spiritual renaissance?

Arat, wisely gives us few clues. Circle marks the spot, but why, where, how, and what for are all left blank. What we fill in the blank tells us more about our own psychic and intellectual constructions than standard Rorschach Tests. Arat does show us a world beyond this event. In each painting glorious vistas appear, above the sea’s edge, above the horizon which is also indicated by a visual seam in the paintings surface. But the skies themselves are not untroubled. Strange, unidentified hard edges appear, and the dawn-like glow is over saturated with pigment in the mode in which atomic mornings are depicted as the most beauteous light. Even in a related painting, Sema-Deniz (p.32), in which no conspicuous event like the circle occurs, the horizon’s seductive but unprecedented glow indicates we are at the moment of epochal change manifesting itself as atmospheric disturbance.

That Arat would welcome such a grand sounding term as epochal change might be indicated by his series of paintings based on Arnold Bocklin’s Island of the Dead (pp.52-59). This painting, a perennial freshman art student favorite, holds such a peculiar, perverse place in art history. Arat admits that as a young man this painting held him in its sway.

That a painting’s intrinsic value can be worn away from over-reproduction is made clear in Island’s critical fate. Considered “decadent” from almost the moment of its creation, this archetypal proto-symbolist painting was widely used on album covers and books of poetry to the point that the original, and any value it may have had or provided in the future is obliterated by its familiarity. Arat’s, and other artists’ appropriation and reinterpretation may be the only way for contemporary viewers to actually see a painting so decayed by over-use.

What I find most interesting here is Bocklin’s use of unreal architecture, familiar not from life but from stage design, horror movies, and Ludwig III playtime architecture. It is exactly this sense of architectural elements in situations that could not support them as a way of announcing some otherwise unseen event.

How near to Arat’s own stratagems. In this suite the place where the bark should be is empty, the sea is unoccupied. Like Arat’s glowing circle here the stage is set by Bocklin’s building, but as always the center is left empty. For in Bocklin nothing really happens. What will occur will happen after the boat reaches the island and that event we are neither invited nor capable of witnessing.

From the overwrought architecture let us make the transition to Arat’s most employed image, that of the air vent cover. This icon, in various permutations has surfaced again and again in Arat’s work since 1983. Surely nothing could be more mundane in real life. It exists merely to keep foreign objects and critters out of the internal ventilation systems of a building. How can this be serviceable for the myriad symbolic readings Arat forces it to carry?

Thin king of the construction of a building as a corollary to the human body the vent is an intake / output point for the respiratory system. (While the circulatory system is a possible reading it doesn’t have an output except during ritual bloodlettings, a possible road of interpretation we would be better off not pursuing).

Air passing through the building or the body distributes life necessities. Oxygen enters the blood or the room, is consumed and a waste product is expelled. The mouth is our bodies’ air vent, and the grill face resembles a toothy grin, and hockey goalie’s face mask or a medieval knight’s helmet (or the sci-fi version of them). With exhalation as its vehicle, language changes from Internal thought to external communicative fact. Only certain language passes through barriers such as these, and only in situations involving security.

At the bank, tellers talk through similar apertures, as do taxi drivers in high crime cities, and most significantly prisoners speak through them. In each case the face of your conversational partner is somewhat obscured. You have to imagine the whole. As simple apertures one leans one’s body forward, lips to ear separated by a metallic interlocutor, and reversing it until the lips and the ear become the same orifice.

It is not a big leap from there to extend the vent metaphor to our most common conversational partner, the telephone. In that case, until the future arrives heralded by videophones, our most intimate thoughts and our most significant business affairs are conducted speaking to a grate that fictively reproduces the voice of an unseen technological semblance of a person.

That this grill form functions as an intimate and often threatening presence in Arat’s paintings is clear in works like Myth, 1988 (p.24). Here, the grill sits on the left section in the top, located where the face should be in a portrait, and while on the right what appears to be a knight in armor stands in silhouette with sword visible. And in Untitled (p.67), the vent hovers ominously beyond a seascape, perhaps the dispenser of law of some new world order literally and figuratively on the horizon.

In some recent large scale works on paper, such as The Long Wait (pp.69, 71, 72) the air vent cover has been recast and is not quite so disquieting. The vent here looks more like an object of contemplation to be employed during meditation. Perhaps Arat further along in life is more peaceful himself. It is wrong thinking to assume that a symbol in the work of an artist cannot change significance over the course of a decade, both to us, the audience, and to him. In fact Arat’s reinterpreting an earlier image in this series could be read metaphorically as the necessary re-engaging and making peace with the justified anger that fuels one’s youth.

Circular shapes in many various paintings can be read a multitude of ways. In Arat’s paintings of 1985-86 we first see an early form of the grate mixed with other circular permutations of the theme, reading as drain, anus, mouth, well, horn but the most contextually prompted reading is that of the speaker.

The artist has spoken of seeing low-tech speakers grafted onto antique mosques to amplify the call to prayer. It is a peculiar hybrid of the old and the new, and speaks clearly of those with access to public address systems using them to literally amplify the voice and to figuratively amplify power.

In Arat’s world view, the dystopic is never far from the surface and an Orwellian big brother whose voice is omnipresent, and only putatively resistible is clearly part of the picture. But going from Orwell to Terry Gilliam, in whose movie masterpiece Brazil (p.74) all manner of plumbing and circulatory systems are used to stand in for a state grown decadent by the out of control growth of its surveillance and distribution systems that maintains but degrades its citizens’ lives.

But all is not despair in these cross cultural interpretations because we also have the Wizard of Oz at our disposal. The pathetic leader attempting to appear powerful through these amplifications is instead made to appear all the more fallible and powerless through the uncovering of his deception. (Although the Wizard turning out to be a nice guy after all, is probably not applicable here.)

I fear I have already painted an overly nihilistic vision of the universe as presented by Arat. But to return to my departure point, his darkness is always punctured by light, defined by it. In the Gardens and Pools (pp.82-89) series that began in 1994 and continues on Arat allows for a vision of pleasure and sensual delectation. Arat uses many of his signature devices here. While they are less inundated by shadow than his other series, he, again, constructs his space as if setting the stage for some future event, and uses architectural structures to both hint at what may transpire and to color the psychological weight of that event. But here the event is not apocalyptic, or tragic, or even very mysterious. The vent seems to be a romantic idyll. The circular form that we have seen in so many different series is here turned on its side and filled with water, reflecting a dusky purple sky. But all is not peaceful. A fragment of a vine, seen in silhouette, menaces, reinforcing romances ability to strike terror in the heart, while promising the most sublime of life’s pleasures.

A decade ago, when writing but a few brief paragraphs on Arat’s work, it was fair to accentuate the darkness of his vision. Today looking back on the depth of his work over time, and considering the Gardens and Pools and The Long Wait series, we see an artist whose work encompasses more of life’s rich pageant. It is a pleasure, when blessed with time, a long knowledge of an artist’s work, to step back and consider what has happened in the work, in life, in the world. I see that there are new levels to be considered, and to appreciate that with more life experience under my belt, my experience of Arat’s work has been enriched.

Bill Arning

New York City 1997

Since 1985, art critic and independent curator Bill Arning has served as the director of White Columns-New York City, MIT-List Visual Arts Gallery-Boston, and Contemporary Art Museum Houston-Texas.

© All content material copyright of Serdar Arat unless otherwise specified. An icompendium Site