Latest Works from the Golden Age
New York, 515 West 27th Street
The renowned Turkish painter Taner Ceylan exhibits recent paintings from his Golden Age series at Paul Kasmin Gallery. The artist’s signature themes such as carnality, transcendence, and longing revive in a flamboyant body of work that blends art historical references with contemporary twists. The most immense tales of queer utopia imbue each painting with exuberance and fervor, nevertheless Ceylan brazenly embraces anguish, depicting lovelorn bodies striving to unite and even perish together. Our editor Osman Can Yerebakan interviewed Ceylan in New York about the exhibition that runs through May 13th.
Osman Can Yerebakan: You are exhibiting a new body of work. Could you talk about some of the main threads in Golden Age paintings?
Taner Ceylan: My previous series Lost Paintings was re-interpretation of the trajectory Ottoman art followed while approaching Orientalism from a critical point of view. Because the series dealt with recent history and examined how certain historical narratives were analyzed, I had to be very precise and meticulous with depiction of the past, and this was very exhausting. Following that series, I wanted to be able to phantasize and be free about my renditions without having to worry about the burden of historical facts. There came Golden Age series. I am a spiritual person who regularly meditates; I contemplate about what is beyond the materialistic world. These questions influenced the current body of work. The tales in Greek mythology began to help me paint with such limitless freedom and unrestrained imagination. I am strongly influenced by classical painting, but I filter tradition through contemporary lens. There are traces from Claude Lorrain or Ivan Aivazovsky, but I introduce my personal interpretation through figures that add contemporary finish.
OCY: Could you talk about some of the paintings?
TC: Cyparissus, for example, tells the story of the namesake mythological figure whom Apollo was madly in love with. Cyparissus was a handsome youth and had a pet stag he dearly loved, but he killed it by mistake. Apollo turned him into a cypress tree after seeing him die of the agony of killing his beloved pet. In this work, I combined Cyparissus, Apollo, and the stag in single body in a way that they blend into one another. I also added a dome-like circular line at the top both as reference to one of my favorite Turkish artists Adnan Çoker and homage to Ottoman architecture. Hypnos, on the other hand, is a version of the god of sleep that I illustrated based on a photograph of a New York-based model. My version is loyal to the Hypnos’s traditional depiction which is with wings on both sides of his head. In other works, I am highly influenced by traditional landscape paintings. One painting, for example, is an interpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in which Orpheus struggles to rescue his lover from the underworld. Hades offers to give him Eurydice back on one condition which is that they will not look each other in the eye while he walks in front of her. They fail to do so because of their longing and they can never leave the underworld. This painting depicts his last day on earth before he travels to the underworld. The biggest challenge in this new body of work was to paint such small figures within large landscapes. I had never painted figures this small before. One of the most interesting elements for this series was the moment I added these tiny figures. After coming half way or even further through the landscape painting, I was startled by the emotional intensity these works all of a sudden gained with accents of these small figures. It is amazing what human presence adds to a painting regardless how small scale the figure is.
OCY: This exhibition also includes one of the smallest paintings you’ve ever made.
TC: My earlier exhibitions in Istanbul included a few small scale paintings, but they were never miniature. I am interested in depictions of interiors in Rococo paintings; the way the light and space interact in them has great influence on me. This painting is titled Eros’s Choice which is an interpretation of the classic tale of Eros and Psyche. The scene in the painting shows Eros waiting outside Psyche’s room where he visits every night to sleep with her when she cannot see him in dark, because he is scared that she will fall in love to death with his unparalleled beauty.
OCY: How do you find your models for your paintings?
TC: I generally paint models from found photographs or even from screenshots that I take. Working with live models has been challenging. I sometimes meet people I want to paint and we do a photography session. I lose my interest in painting them after that photo; I see that as a finished dialogue, a done deal. I consider that relationship finalized, almost like a sexual encounter in a way. Photography on the other hand excites me. I don’t need or want to meet the person in the image because I can put so much onto the canvas about my interpretation. I dress them with emotions.
OCY: Could you talk about political aspect of addressing queer themes? How do you see your stand as an artist considering what is happening in Chechnya at the moment or around the globe in general?
TC: I think we live in an era when art making is overall a political act. I don’t consider myself an activist or I have never been one, but I insist to make art which I believe is my political stand. I don’t have the intention provoke people or instigate reaction. I have always depicted lives, people, and environments I desire at their best; this is my phantasy universe in a way. I, for sure, had to face many difficulties and challenges due to the nature of my paintings next to amazing things that happened thanks to them. Being an artist always marks someone as ungovernable. Artists have always been considered outside the system anywhere in the world, because what they do is not controllable or fully understandable by the system; they act outside the norm. Artists do not submit to what authority dictates or surrender to the power, but instead go against the grain. Therefore, being an artist is a political stand in the first place.