AHMED ALSOUDANIby Robert C. Morgan
HAUNCH OF VENISON | OCTOBER 4 – NOVEMBER 3, 2012
In his current exhibition of abstractly figurative paintings, Iraqi-born artist Ahmed Alsoudani has shown that painting a narrative is more than a literal process. The telling of such a narrative, through the act of painting, reveals both purposeful and “accidental” signs delivered by way of the artist’s acutely formal awareness; one discovers images that describe various objects, including human and animal fragments that cannot be easily articulated or explained of how they could exist together in a single time or place. These signs posit relationships between images still visible on the surface and those left barely visible. In doing so, the verisimilitude between what the artist has intended and what we actually see begins to fall short.
This suggests that Alsoudani’s narrative tends more toward the allegorical than the literal, and therefore, is less inclined to follow a predetermined intent. In this sense, the artist’s painting does not so much tell a story as it signifies layers of emotions. Yet painting seems almost at a disadvantage here in comparison with how competent cinematographers might unveil these visual effects as they undulate on the screen. The advantage is obvious: Cinematography moves, and painting does not. In painting, the narrative is fixed in time even as the syntax of shapes, colors, and patterns exude expression. But very few contemporary painters can make this process work effectively. Alsoudani seems to have found a way. He makes paintings believable as paintings—at least for this writer— not unlike seeing Max Beckmann’s “Departure” (1937) in the collection at MoMA. The horror is difficult to grasp, even as the painting is so utterly convincing that we cannot easily, (or morally) pass it by.
When the Surrealist Magritte scrawled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” beneath an enlarged image of Le Corbusier’s pipe, the message proclaimed the inherent conflict indigenous to painting. When it intends to represent a pose or action involving the presence of objects and bodies or parts thereof, its success as an image largely depends on illusion or abstraction. Magritte was aware of this, to a greater extent than Dalí, and particularly in the latter stages of the Catalonian’s career, when his curious failure at cinematography in Hollywood gave way to a hyperrealist style of spiritualism in his painting. Nonetheless, there is something to be gained in recognizing that painting needs something more than blatant representation. And this recognition of the limits of representation, I believe, is what constitutes the formal and allegorical qualities that bring the paintings of Alsoudani into our consciousness.
How to explain this other than through the works themselves? It appears to work in the following way: Alsoudani does not title or number his paintings, which on one level makes them difficult to write about. But then his paintings are so remarkably consistent that we begin to feel the particulars with even greater intensity. He is a highly trained and sophisticated artist in the traditional sense. While such contradictions may seem absurd in American art schools, studio programs in the Middle East—where the artist lived until age 24—tend toward a fundamental, even conservative approach to painting, either for political or religious reasons. This changed in 1999 when Alsoudani emigrated to the United States, where he studied with painter Seal Foley at the Maine College of Art. Although more non-objective in his approach, in many ways Foley gave Alsoudani another kind of formal groundwork by which the painter began to evolve large paintings based in part on figuration, chaotically mixed with broken remnants of mass produced plastic forms, tubular pipes, wadded textiles, and parts of appliances, including toilet fixtures. Any advanced projections in painting that the artist assumed after graduating from Yale in 2008 at age 33 would seem to play off this unusually complex formal training.
Alsoudani now works with both drawing and painting, insisting that they are inseparable in his work. His canvases begin unprimed, initially by drawing on the large expanse with charcoal. Eventually, when the time is right, he brings acrylic pigment into the forms—and here the paintings start to transmute and transmogrify the unprimed surface. The forms change in relation to one another as, for example, an arm clutches a bed sheet that droops in the form of male testicles. In another painting, spike-like horns protrude from a body bag on the ground with a scrawny alley cat suspended upside down above it. Humans take the faces of birds or other ghouls, ranging from Bosch to Ernst, as faucets break out of rusted metal bearings and more textiles, with varying patterns related to areas throughout the Iraqi countryside, are wrapped, entangled, and spread throughout the works. Even so, Alsoudani is not trying to illustrate anything. He is attempting to provoke a response, not unlike the large-scale “Contra” paintings by Leon Golub during the early years of the Reagan presidency. Yet, stylistically, Alsoudani bends more in the direction of De Kooning and occasionally Bacon, depending on which painting you are looking at. One, in particular, comes to mind—again untitled—where we see the profile of a walking figure, presumably a military officer, with his cap flying off. But the figure itself is strewn in what appears like cotton as if to suggest he doesn’t exist. It is mainly the shell of the uniform that exists, concealing its disarray, impossible to identify.
Another recent untitled painting—perhaps, dealing with “corruption”—features a round dining table near the edge of a brick wall; a cluster of partial figures, mostly mutants, greedily hover around it. A beastial claw grabs at something, again unidentifiable; the painting is somewhere between a dreamscape and a morbid declaration of disfigurement. Clearly what Alsoudani has brought to this metaphorical table, partially covered with an enormous red splotch, are transformed mythic memories of what he saw before departing from his Iraqi homeland during the war with Iran. The human suffering was undeniably inexorable on all levels, such confrontations being both difficult to ignore and to forget. In the painting, the chaos, putrefaction, and struggle to survive become evidence of the artist’s early experience in coming to terms with life and death. It would seem he had little choice but to discover a way of painting that could somehow transmit his vision of a world on the edge of potential destruction.
Alsoudani not only describes the chaos, the privations, the violence, and sense of loss he feels in relation to his country; he wants his paintings to resonate beyond these cultural and topical boundaries. In the end, Alsoudani’s exhibition seems to be about what painting can do as a response to the human condition: the interior self trying to regain its footing in an insouciant, unknown global village.
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ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.