Children of Nowhere: The paintings of Sidar Baki

Published 30.03.2019 00:05
Updated 31.03.2019 12:48
Nowhere 17, acrylic on canvas, 125x125 cm, 2019.
"Nowhere 17," acrylic on canvas, 125x125 cm, 2019.

‘Nowhere,' the first show of Diyarbakır-born painter and teacher Sidar Baki, is at C.A.M. Gallery in Çukurcuma, downtown Istanbul, until April 13. His 14 works depict the landscapes from his childhood and his current residence in Gazi, Istanbul, where he is inspired by the creative resilience of his young students

New paintings refresh the contemporary art world. They balance overemphasis on conceptualism in modern thought, and stay the course of traditional disciplines and approaches to color and form with rudimentary, grounded and universal enlightenments of expression. Although risking anachronism, the medium continues to encompass topical subjects and ideas into the post-material zeitgeist of artistic production, while striking potent chords of social relevance as to the state of the world, and the life of its people.

In 2013, Baki left Istanbul to become an art teacher in Şanlıurfa. He was already painting then, but had yet to conceive of the recurring figure of children, who now appear throughout the 14 works of his current show. They serve to affix the eye within his postindustrial cityscapes, turning the derelict soil of construction sites into private zones fertile with preservations of life and vision characteristic of the preadolescent imagination.

Seven of his sprawling acrylics are set in fictional warehouse interiors, semi-exposed to the elements, with roofs ripped open and left asunder. They recall the set of the surrealist film "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), in which a mad genius filmmaker seeks truth in art, and is caught in a vicious cycle in which his objectivity as an artist and his personal relationships blur. Its genre-breaking sensibilities were restored by the controversial Russian production, "Dau" (2019), dubbed the "Stalinist Truman Show".

Baki paints scenes of neglected urban spaces as repurposed to shelter children who play in them with an exploratory innocence, skipping rope as in "Nowhere 17" (2019), in which a trio of uniformed schoolgirls leap in time above the floors covered in street chalk, patterned after games like hopscotch and tic-tac-toe. Three of his works picture a lone child drawing out naive, visual commentaries on the boyhood aesthetics of mechanical urbanization, with its construction sites and heavy machinery.

He paints layers of multivalent techniques. His realist tact in the manner of a scrawled chalkboard is reminiscent of Cy Twombly, whose scribbled gestures are permanently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, next to Rothko and Pollock. Baki did not know of Twombly when asked, further authenticating the originality of his raw talent for reanimating the history of expressionism in modern art, from his soft rectangular cubism that color the walls of his scenography, to the linear futurism of his architectural abstraction.

"Nowhere 7," acrylic on canvas, 118x130 cm, 2019.

"Nowhere 10" (2019) evokes impressionistic naturalism. Its expansive Mesopotamian landscape is foregrounded by three boys on an empty soccer field. The greens of the grass and blues of the sky are subdued under wispy, disappearing cloud cover. There are badlands in the background of the minimal scene that contrasts the claustrophobic experience of confinement that the artist endured in Turkey's southeast, and that he knows as a resident of an impoverished, inner city neighborhood in Istanbul.

A second look at painting

One of the chief defenders of contemporary painting in new art writing is Peter Schjeldahl, art critic at The New Yorker. In an interview he gave last year with the young critic Jarret Earnest for the book, "What It Means To Write About Art" (2018), he spoke about how he became a leading voice for the ongoing revivification of painting as an unfaded bastion in the contemporary canon of art historiography.

"For cultivating your senses and sensibility, you can't beat painting, because of the nuance. It engages our strongest sense, the eye, and our finest physical aptitude, that of the hand - it's about the hand and the eye in concert," he said. "If the painter knows what he or she is doing, every square millimeter of the surface is what it is on purpose, infused with consciousness and choice. Looking at it is like putting on a virtual reality helmet where you're seeing with somebody else's eyes, thinking with somebody else's brain, feeling with somebody else's heart. It's a vacation from yourself."

Conversely, the paintings of Baki invite people into an intimate, visual space to witness the afterlife of urbanization. His wide canvases measure objective distance for viewers to examine the solemn themes of multigenerational disconnection and internal displacement. He animates the unsung netherworlds of city life that are utterly unavoidable for most urban-dwellers, even in brief moments of reprieve at an art gallery. His settings are isolated fantasies of the underground, placed in a pedagogical context through which to view and critique the present conditions of civilization.

Since the dawn of industrialization, particularly through the 20th century, modern cities have raised children up from soiled streets, waste heaps and abandoned lots. Space is arguably the highest valued commodity in cities like Manhattan and Istanbul where real estate is king. "Nowhere" argues that empty and disregarded places in cities have some of the greatest creative potential. And that they are often first activated by newcomers, children, and artists. When factory hands mix palettes, pick up paintbrushes and color outside of the assembly lines to make art, the result can be surprisingly subtle.

Workers are humbled by the grit of manual labor, a quality shared by painters whose modesty is transformed when they listen to the demands of the public, accented by forums of free expression and liberal education. Even a picture within a frame on a wall behind glass surrounded by gentrification has the integrity to unite with the people's voice, as it is heard with authentic, personal reinvention. Last year, C.A.M. showed the paintings of Mahmut Celayir, a painter from Bingöl whose abstractions reflect the nature of his mountainous homeland. Next door at Pg Art Gallery, in late 2017, the artist Hasan Pehlevan, also from Diyarbakır, exhibited interventions of street art in dialogue with urban renewal projects in Istanbul.

A new "Nowhere" man

"He's as blind as he can be / Just sees what he wants to see / Nowhere Man can you see me at all", sang The Beatles, to the lyrics of "Nowhere Man" (1965). The song continues, "Doesn't have a point of view / Knows not where he's going to / Isn't he a bit like you and me". Interpreting the paintings of Baki as a reorientation of perspective, of the regaining of an identity of place in confrontation with Anatolian migration to Istanbul yields interesting food for thought.

In that light, all the more curious is the uncanny coincidence in Istanbul's small art world that preceded "Nowhere" when the professor and artist Ferhat Özgür exhibited his installation, "Nowhere Land" (2018) at Kasa Gallery in February, for the show, "Another Day, Another Life". Özgür presented photographs of children at play in Diyarbakır, contextualizing documentary evidence that, retrospectively serves to reinforce the visual narrative that Baki constructs with paint into his imaginative, industrial realms.

"Nowhere 11," acrylic on canvas, 125x160 cm, 2019.

When he went to Şanlıurfa in 2013, he saw brilliantly spacious landscapes, but he was stuck in a studio almost the entire time. Added to the fact that there was not much to do, it was also not very safe. He felt claustrophobic. But in Istanbul, where he returned in 2017, he has experienced similar limitations to his movement living in the densely urbanized district of Gazi, also known as Sultangazi. The warehouses that he paints are not directly based on places that he has seen, but are a conglomeration of his experiences, and are metaphorically purposed as a visualizations of his confined psychology.

He paints in paintings, graffitis in painting, draws in painting, and practices other techniques untold, mirrored to infinity in paint. The scrawls that his figurative children have apparently left behind have an animated dimension. The sketches of vehicles and buildings seem one step from leap off the canvas, ready to float into the estranged air, and lift the child artist up with it, soaring on the wings of a free imagination, away from the fronts of the urban establishment and its fleeting culture of superficiality.

The children in his paintings are building new worlds and liberating ideas from scratch, using the bereft materials of modernity, as they lie in ruin in the remote corners and increasingly neglected parts of the 21st century city. He first paints the environments, and then places his signature child figures within the paintings, as a symbolic gesture and a teaching exercise. Through paint, he is handing the next generation the tools they need to realize themselves as active agents in society, engaging the latest dialogues in cultural trends, aesthetic movements, and technological advances. At the same time they process what it means to live in postindustrial urban spaces, to emerge from "Nowhere", and make it somewhere, even home.

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