Monday, October 20, 2014

Ten Minutes with Fatih Benzer: The Artist Discusses His Influences and the Ideas behind His Work

Portions of this article appeared in this week's Reader. 


In 1993, Fatih Benzer left Turkey to study art in the United States. After completing his master’s degree in painting at California State University and his doctoral degree in art education at Arizona State University he decided to stay in U.S. since being here gave him an enormous amount of freedom to express himself and the resources to produce his work. He is currently assistant professor of art, design and art educations at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

EN: What brought you to the U.S. originally and when?
Fatih Benzer: I came to United States in 1993 to study art. I completed my master’s degree in painting at California State University and my doctoral degree in art education at Arizona State University. And I have decided to stay in US since being here gave me enormous amount of freedom to express myself and plenty of resources to produce my work.

"Signs of the Times"
EN: How did you come to take an interest in art as a career? Who were your early influences?
FB: I had always been interested in the arts since I was a little child. Art, especially drawing and painting, was a way to communicate to people since I was a very introvert kid. Although I am no longer introvert, art still remains as a powerful tool to communicate to people, even more so than before.

As a child, I was intrigued and amazed by the accomplishments of Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Raphael, Greco, and Rembrandt. As I grew up to be a young adult, the number of artists who had impact on me increased; from Mark Rothko to Frank Stella, from Louise Bourgeois to James Turrel who experimented with light in his installations known as "sky-spaces." Those were enclosed spaces open to the sky through an aperture in the roof. They really made me feel like I was looking at the sky and observing how light behaves as if for the first time. In my recent paintings, the sense and role of light plays a similar role, as well. I also was very influenced by the experimental movies and installations by Matthew Barney. I found his way of capturing a world of fantasy within every day life was visually very intriguing.

"The Bee Kingdom"
EN: What is your process for doing a new painting?
FB: The work I produce seems to naturally organize itself into series. Between these series are transitional works that chart the changes from one series to the next. I would like my work and its development to be logical and coherent, but it gets much more complicated throughout the process of making. Working in series gives me chance to create a large body of work that becomes the context in which specific concepts such as co-existence and stigma can reveal themselves as the content. I enjoy working in various styles, developing various methods to deal with various subjects or concepts. The fact that I work in different styles helped me develop multitudes of vantage points to examine, understand, and present a specific concept or subject. When you have the ability to change your vantage point, your approach to your work in contextual sense change, as well.

At times, this appeared to be an obstacle for some curators I worked with in the past. I guess the reason for that was because, traditionally, we expect artists to walk on the same path showing gradual progress towards mastery. During my undergraduate years, reading postmodern authors such as Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, and Orhan Pamuk really got me interested in creating new possibilities and getting off that single path and moving in a non-linear fashion. About ten years ago, I started developing various techniques, methods, and strategies to deal with different issues that I was interested in exploring in my work. As an artist, you just cannot invent one solution and expect to resolve every single problem you face with it.

"Watcher"
I try to keep myself aware of the major issues we face on the globe. As an artist, I select and focus on some of those issues and create my own reaction and communicate it to the audience. That is to say concepts always come first in my paintings.

Once I decide on a specific concept or subject, I develop sketches using various software such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Once the preliminary studies seem appropriate enough to start a new painting, I implement it on large panels of wood using paint and brush. I use various washes to create abstract spaces where the realistically rendered images become actors and actresses as if in a play. I have never been interested in pure non-objective abstraction though in my work, the forms, perspectives, atmosphere of our natural world are represented in many ways and varying degrees of abstraction.

"Watcher" (detail)
EN: The artist statement for your current show notes that your recent iconographic works are, among other things, “inspired by Ottoman and Persian miniatures, whirling dervishes echoing Rumi’s ecstatic poetry of freedom and devotion.” Can you elaborate on this?
FB: My recent iconographic works are inspired by ancient Greek mythologies, Ottoman and Persian miniatures, whirling dervishes in Sufi belief represented by Rumi’s ecstatic poetry of freedom and devotion, abstracted geometry inspired by antique Ottoman and Byzantine architecture. The main purpose of these works is to build a bridge between East and West. Coming from Turkey-a country influenced by Near Eastern and European cultures, I try to build a world of irony in which all those various influences can co-exist regardless of their diverse backgrounds. Such combination of various images and symbols from different cultures play a very important role to offer the audience a multiplicity of meanings.

The Ottoman and Persian miniatures were almost never signed due to several reasons--one being the rejection of individualism and another having more than one artist working on a piece of painting collectively. My paintings follow the similar tradition of not signing the artwork as a way of expressing one’s selflessness. Similar to miniatures, brilliant and contrasting colors were used side by side to achieve a flat surface that acts as a backdrop for the iconographic symbols to freely travel across the picture plane. The purpose of those eastern miniatures was merely to depict the nature as the artist saw nature. Instead, the purpose was to represent a nature that emerged from the artist’s understanding of nature and his/her imagination. However, unlike in the miniatures, one can notice the realistically rendered symbols/images in my work create a contrast with the flatness of the world that surrounds them.

"Journeys of a Dervish"
Dervish literally means "doorway" and is thought to be an entrance from this material world to the spiritual world. During the ceremony, the dervishes remove black cloaks to reveal the white robes with voluminous skirts. They turn independently, shoulder to shoulder, both around their own axis and around other dervishes, representing the earth revolving on its own axis while orbiting the sun. Symbols and architectural forms in my iconographic paintings refer to the same idea of turning, unifying, creating alternative spaces for their existence.

EN: Though the imagery is beautifully rendered, there is a somewhat horrific quality to some of your subject matter. What’s this about?
FB: On the outside, I want my paintings to be very attractive with their highly saturated colors, large dimensions, contrasting imagery, and intense labor. I want my paintings to “appeal” firs, “reveal” after. In the formalistic sense, this has been the core of my approach to how I executed my recent works for “Signs and Wonders” exhibition. “Appeal” is important to get the attention of the viewer and start a dialogue between the work and the viewer. However, that dialogue should go beyond the mere appearance of the work and should get deeper as one starts digging into multi-layered meanings driven from the familiar symbolism and the context in which this symbolism is presented with a twisted manner. References to religious iconography, political satire, irony of using violence to resolve violence become part of this twisted world I create in my work. Occasionally, the viewer’s encounter with some of my work can be quiet disturbing once they question the existence of this twisted world: Will we ever be able to co-exist despite our differences? Will we ever live in a world that is free of stereotypes and biases? How far can we or should we go to reconcile? When you play the devil’s advocate, life becomes more about contradictions and less about finding or creating a common ground.

"Begotten"
EN: In what ways does teaching art students enrich your approach to your own work?
FB: Teaching is a big part of what I do as an artist. I do not see teaching as a separate component of my artistic career. I also conduct research and write due to my background in the field of art education. All this research and my practice as an artist become my resources to assist my students, be a facilitator, or to help them find their own voice.

EN: What are you currently working on and why?
FB: Now that the “Signs and Wonders” exhibition is up and running, I am doing my research in adapting a very different medium to communicate to my audience. And that medium will evolve digital technologies and processes such as installations as opposed to painting in traditional sense. I am very excited about the possibilities of this new direction to interact with the audience even further. Because in the end, no matter what medium you use, what techniques you invent, or what strategies you develop, it all comes down to expressing the human condition.

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NOTEWORTHY
This week marks the 5-year anniversary of the Zeitgeist Building in Downtown Duluth. If you're like me, it feels like it has been here for ages. Tonight begins five evenings of celebration as well as awareness-raising and fund-raising for the renamed Zeitgeist Center for Arts & Community. Tonight Mayor Ness and Executive Director Tony Cuneo will be present to talk about the history of the Zeitgeist, among other things. Join us for halfprice appetizers and a silent auction, among other things. Read yesterday's article in the Trib for details.  

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