Taner Ceylan’s Lost Paintings series, marking the Turkish artist’s first New York solo exhibition since joining the roster of Paul Kasmin Gallery
, makes for a suitably impressive debut. Begun in 2010, it consists of ten stunningly detailed hyperrealist paintings, each of which alludes to a particular figure from Turkish history or the canonical Western depictions thereof. Ceylan here aims to upset the attendant nationalist/Orientalist narratives and revivify their subjects with frank, often non-heterosexual eroticism. In 1640, the title of which refers to the year of Sultan Murad IV Ghazi’s death, a slender, young slave washes the thigh of his burly, bearded master—a reference to the acceptance of such asymmetrical homosexual relationships throughout Turkish history, and the brutal Ghazi’s documented predilection for them in particular. 1881, a reference to the birth year of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, captures the lusty and defiant stare of a fez-clad man who suggests the Republic of Turkey’s revolutionary patriarch, as cigar smoke curls around his lips.
Prior to the Lost Paintings, Ceylan was largely producing work with decidedly more explicit sexual content. Many of these depictions are straightforwardly tender. Others, like Taner Taner, a self-portrait of the artist entering his double from behind, are more provocative; they seem to betray a naughty glee in monumentalizing images that many viewers, especially in Turkey, would find taboo (curator Dan Cameron notes how the sexual dimension of Ceylan’s work has, unsurprisingly, “brought him outright abuse in the press”). Abstraction of Nothing, Ceylan’s 2009 exhibition at I-20 Gallery—his first U.S. solo show—
found the artist flirting with outright vulgarity. One work depicts a group of men pouring champagne on a kneeling woman as she fellates one and manually stimulates another; in another, a cropped penis rests on a semen-splattered close-up photograph of fashion designer Marc Jacobs.
Ceylan’s sudden transition from this X-rated jamboree to the bookishness and more widely permissible eroticism of Lost Paintings demands consideration. One explanation could involve a desire to craft more directly political images in view of ongoing battles over Turkish identity and heritage, such as the recent demonstrations in Taksim Square, about which Ceylan has been very vocal on his Twitter. At the same time, it is hard not to interpret Ceylan’s rather severe pivot as a bid for greater art market traction—especially considering its coincidence with the artist’s joining a blue-chip Chelsea gallery. Indeed, the exhibition’s catalog seems to reveal self-censorship in the production of some works. The photo shoot for Esma Sultan, for instance, included a tableau of the subject—a model portraying an 18th century princess famed for her cruel disposition—
digging her heel into a supine man’s naked thigh. The resulting portrait, however, depicts her only from the collarbone up, excising the blatant sexuality that characterized Ceylan’s earlier work in favor of a complex visage, registering something between compassion and authority.
It would be unfair to denounce on principle Ceylan’s possibly strategic turn toward a less outré
aesthetic. After all, the Esma Sultan that we get is likely more interesting than the dominatrix she might have been. Still, one hopes that the artist’s newfound maturity, if you will, will not dry out his subjects. After all, the Lost Paintings owe their impact not to their historical and art historical allusiveness alone—though this has dominated the discourse about them so far, forming the basis of an entire catalog—but rather to the tension between this and their patently modern aesthetic. The latter announces itself in the Louis Vuitton tiling that forms the background of Spring Time, and manifests more subtly in the evident camera lighting that Ceylan so faithfully renders on the subjects’ faces, pore by reflective pore, effectively avowing the paintings’ photographic origins. This aesthetic, evocative of a publicity shoot, fashion spread or other such mass media token, confers striking presence and immediacy to Ceylan’s historically distanced subjects. A touch of vulgarity remains, and it’s hard to imagine these works having much political charge without it.
Taner Ceylan’s Lost Paintings will be on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery through October 26.