They have no names, but they do have very peculiar faces. And there are no words to identify where they might be standing, going to or coming from. It is the universe of an Özkan Gencer painting that floats through in nebulous, cloud-like wisps, each piece set to a particular color for the backdrop of human scenes that at once familiar and even mundane, become utterly ethereal when seen closely.
Orange bears an uncanny resemblance to the generally Caucasian skin tones and physiological features of the figures that Gencer paints with childlike naivety. Their proportions are somehow a little off, albeit with a touch of conscious intent, bent and transmuted by their being pictured. A man with a broom appears uniformed in a mute blue suit, sweeping a pile of letters out of sight, beyond the corner of the canvas.
The motif of the letter recurs in the oils of Gencer. It is a kernel of a metaphor, holding unrealized, or mysterious, power as a symbol of the possibility of the future or of a connection to the past. Beside him, a woman in a pinstripe dress clenches an envelope in her left palm, while looking over the shoulders of two children, a boy and a girl, both dressed as travelers. Under a top hat, the boy is visibly worried, grasping the handle of his suitcase tightly.
The girl beside him wears an orange shift. The hue is doused through her hair, and yet, she does not blend in with the orange color of the background. Hers is a vibrant variety of dye, accented as distinct from her swirling environment. It would seem that it is not those who are on the move who are actually moving but the world around them. The woman, ostensibly the mother, looks in the opposite direction of the street cleaner. Perhaps it is, or was, her husband.
Behind them, in the distance for their smallness, the hood and roof of a small car serve as the stage for two musicians. Atop its round, Volkswagen-like exterior, a man plays the reeded zurna, a folk woodwind from Anatolia. His shirt is orange. Yet, the similitude between the color of the man’s clothes and the background against which he is seen is not at odds because Gencer has carefully conceived his characteristic human shape, like clay.
Behind him, a davul drummer knocks at his portable bass drum with a traditional club. The music could be for a wedding or a ceremonial rural celebration of that order. They are the traveling folk band who reappear in Gencer’s paintings, retaining humor that is not unlike the Mariachis of Mexico, who by a global comparison are always suited and ready to go next to their broken-down car, awaiting an impromptu invite from a party of passersby.
Inside a melancholic reunion
Yet, the painting, which spans 160 centimeters (63 inches) in height and 120 centimeters in width at Asmalımescit Art Gallery as part of the show “Unchain My Heart” by Gencer, has a soft, rainy-day nostalgia to it. Like a memory that passes unexpectedly and provokes an emotional reckoning with a long-lost beloved, or a family trauma. The house behind all of the people in the scene of that painting is empty, and by its windows, humanoid chickens fly.
In that way, Gencer deserves comparison to the surrealist Russian-Jewish painter Marc Chagall, whose unmistakable visual craft relayed his special cultural remembrance through calligraphic Yiddish and Ashkenazi pastoralism in the heady days of early 20th-century, interwar Paris. It is with a parallel refrain that Gencer sees himself as a nonpareil artist, cast into eternity by his signature style.
But it was all the way back in the days when Chagall was painting easels in Montparnasse a century ago when the idea of absolute distinctiveness came into confrontation with the principles of modernism in new art, to a large degree in response to the demands of industrial life. Following World War II, artist Yves Klein exhibited the same painting for different prices, while Marcel Duchamp’s readymades were meant to be replaceable.
These are just two examples of how Gencer by content and context exemplifies an anachronism in art history, yet his naivety is endearing, and what has emerged are touches of a collective consciousness with not only the artist’s past but with earlier rumblings of introspective creativity that would lead to the mainstream prioritization of the artist, especially their individuality, as glamorously more important than the artworks themselves.
On his fictive planet, everything happens in a Gencer painting. Yet, it is a closed society, something of a Black Sea village resonance, and the people he portrays are on the edge of the canvas, always peering out into the invisible, the immaterial. It could be interpreted as the artist, himself only peripherally aware of the advances in the art world around him, yet who steadfastly remains still within his practice, sheltered by the cocoons of his egoistic renderings.
In the painting for “Unchain My Heart," with the orange background, distance is equally indicative of lengths of space and time. And it is also among the qualities of the old-fashioned, handwritten snail mail letter, where spatial and temporal gaps are implied. Yet, a letter includes both connection and remoteness. It is like a painting, or artwork, as defined by images, where images are the likenesses of what is ultimately real.
When memories return
I wrote about the paintings of Gencer in 2017 when I lived in Kuzguncuk and was quite fresh to life in Istanbul. I was also new at writing about art. As I sit and write about his paintings again, three years later, having gained a wide breadth of perspectives on art in Turkey and abroad, I am somehow no less fixated on the works that drew me in the first time. An orange-bearded man in a wheelchair, holding an espresso, overlooking amorphous scenery.
There is a curious dynamic between the figures of men and women in the paintings of Gencer. In the canvas where the coffee-drinking fellow sits, one leg over the other, his thin nose and sharp eyes deepened by his small bifocals, there is a doorway, normally to a house, but to Gencer it is just a doorway. Two of the feminine figures carry infants. And atop the mantle of the doorframe, a man is playing the zurna. It is reminiscent of the opening of “Fiddler on the Roof."
And while Gencer does not demonstrate mastery of skill with the paintbrush, or even an entirely original command of his visual vocabulary, there is an earnestness to his works, and a sincerity, grown out of the soil from which he has stepped, breathed, imagined and painted. “Unchain My Heart” mostly spans Gencer’s last decade at work, yet the body of paintings that he has made throughout his quite lengthy career, this being his seventh solo show, could be seen as one grandiose approach to the creative act of remembering, one brushstroke at a time.