Electronic Music – Traditional Paper Cutting Art – Mural – Politics and Women: Notes on Halil Vurucuoğlu’s Art

This text is published as a catalogue essay for the artists solo exhibition in Dirimart, İstanbul in 2010. For the pdf catalogue, please refer to the webpage http://www.dirimart.org/images/upload/katalog/halil%20kitap3.pdf

Before us is an art practice that does not profess to hold any conceptual claims, that stays away from hyperbolic themes, and for that very reason, one that is lucid, genuine and strong. Based on this, I suggest that “integrity” is one of the most important concepts in Vurucuoğlu’s art. He delves into the forms of personal existence amidst the ebbs and flows of daily life, the ostensible representation of facts and hollowed out emotions and concepts. His art practice is an area of self-realization for him.

Visiting an exhibition is sometimes about entering the mind of the artist and observing in person the concepts and emotions that preoccupies him. In Halil Vurucuoğlu’s second solo exhibition, this process flows so naturally that although there is no organic link between the works, the exhibition manages to create an adventure of its own. This adventure has a multifaceted character that features transiliency between concepts. The primary reason behind this is the multifaceted perspective of the artist on life and the earnest narrative he builds up in the exhibition. His artistic motivation spans a range of forms of existence; from the female image to social and political matters. The highly diverse relationship he has established with life as well as his openness to investigation, experimentation and reassessment plays a major role in this. The exhibition is also noteworthy for the emergence of images, colors and concepts that had not previously been a part of his artistic practice. Rather than a conscious and fictive preference, this is a performative element that develops in direct proportion to the artist’s practices in daily life. Rather than a didactic and fixed understanding that was established on a certain concept, there is a fluent and candid narration that sets itself free. He touches on the tiresomeness of the moments of self-restraint under the influence of collective consciousness, underlining that art, in its essence, is a sensual form of creation based on his personal experiences.

The collection of works exhibited corresponds neither to the presentation of a curatorial selection nor to the conventional self-repeating description of “ most recent works by the artist.” It is rather about a design based on interconnected personal stories. There is yet another point that distinguishes him from his contemporaries while affording him uniqueness: his distinctive painting technique. Paper cutting is an artistic practice that has emerged in the 6th century in Chinese art, from where it spread to various cultures throughout the world starting in 14th century and making its way into the Ottoman Empire in late 19th century. Today, many artists such as Peter Callasen, Béatriz Coron and İstanbul-born İlhan Sayın employ paper cutting in a diverse set of media including installation, painting and sculpture. What distinguishes Vurucuoğlu is his concurrent use of different techniques by first working in watercolor and then applying the cutting technique. The color values and intonations bring out multi-layered and visually attractive works with the overlapping shades of the pieces of paper. Thus, the allure of the technique is maintained without pushing the visual quality of the work to the background. Those who are familiar with the earlier works of the artist know that he conducts an artistic investigation that continues on the same path. He manages to develop a discourse that is both intellectually and technically strong by taking up befitting social subjects in his wall paintings and  with his notebooks adorned with watercolor paper cutting, transforming his toilsome technique into an oeuvre.


Sleepless, Clumsy and Ugly Beauties

Although his art is associated with pop art, Vurucuoğlu does not claim to base his work on what is popular. A fashion model he doesn’t know, a celebrity from popular media, a friend or a random woman he happened to see on the street—regardless of who they are, each woman in his paintings has a unique character. He doesn’t utilize clichés of beauty, fashion and advertising aesthetics but plays on these concepts to present a variation on the visibility of women. What’s essential in his work is the concept of “the female image in Vurucuoğlu’s paintings” he created by portraying women through the visual and spiritual relationship he established.

Women portrayed in the exhibition are the actors in a personal, mystical and fragmented narration. In contrast to the conventional definitions of beauty, Sleepless exhibits a masculine character with her piercing looks, her short, pitch-dark hair and rectangular features. On the other hand, the figure also has a charm that evokes an object of desire. Then how can a female image be rendered attractive without being commodified? In this work, the body is handled with both a sensory and visual aesthetic awareness and without objectification. Therefore, what essentially makes her attractive is not the mere dominant feminine posture of the model but the visual saturation, in other words, plastic values of the painting. The harmony, use and aroma of colors meander in the curves of the lips, and shape the oval surface of the breast. That the eyes are in two different colors complete the circulation of colors in the painting while also winking to the audience.

Two of the most arresting works in the exhibition, Alice and Blue Lotus, offer the “before” and “after” depictions of a situation, just like a comic strip. In a sense, this method, which was applied for the first time by the artist, refers to the title of the exhibition; it is the symbol of the change undergone From Dusk till Dawn, from micro to the macro, from off to on. One of these paintings is Alice, who carries the rainbow in the pleats of her skirt, which reaches up to her neck. The female agent here creates the impression that she was handled not in the third-person singular but as a subject. The skirt opens in front then covers the face of the figure, in other words, the two-sequenced act points to the duality in the individual transformation of the artist and the way he grasps life. The painting, which brings out a childish dynamism with the exhilarated colors and the clumsy state of the figure at first glance, obtains a hidden eroticism with the skirt that goes up. The deeper the social subconscious of the women who continuously try to cover their low-cuts, the higher the skirt in the painting reaches. Its epic visuality aside, the image you see here belongs to a woman whose face is concealed yet is naked below the waist. Its form is almost reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s cult pose of with her skirt blown up. However, the undergarments do not have any sexual connotations, the high-heeled shoes disappear in the blueness of the flowers and the alluring posture of one of the legs in the air—all create a visual feast adorned by contrasts. “Blows the island breeze oh it blows.” Then is it the wind or her loss of balance that blows up Alice’s skirt? The immobile plants and flowers in the background attest to calm weather. Then Alice either fell victim to an artificial wind or lost her balance. In Blue Lotus, the same figure is depicted screaming and holding her skirt. However, an ambiguity appears here in the concept of time, on which painting comes first and which corresponds to the second sequence. In Blue Lotus, is Alice trying to stop her skirt from blowing up or is she pushing down the skirt that has already done so? At this point, an interesting detail needs to be underlined; the clue given by the artist. The lotus, which was just a bud in Alice, has blossomed in Blue Lotus. The painting both features a fictive quality and drags you right into a world of fairy tales.

A portrait may have an infinite number of unique variations; and the portraits in Vurucuoğlu’s notebooks are among the most authentic of these variations. Facial features, shape and depth of the cheeks; this technique is particularly impressive in portraits. And what’s more, the watercolor gives a good explanation for the cutting technique. The way he cuts the pages in layers and gives form with the tonality of colors have been fairly intelligibly exposed. Starting off the visuals of celebrities who frequently make it to the tabloid press, particularly those images that least resemble the celebrities, the artist portrays one of the radical actors of popular agenda with her sensational attitudes: Amy Winehouse. In defining her as “the most beautiful ugly woman,” he actually trips up the stereotypical concept of beauty. The work was named after the Norwegian electronic music band Röyskopp’s song Beautiful Day Without You. The romantic relationship between audio and visual arts has always formed a dynamicism that sensually triggers and motivates each other throughout art history, and activates the creative aura, which is also the case in this exhibition. During our discussion on the exhibition, Vurucuoğlu made a remark about his art practice: “I lightened up my mind and let it rest as much as possible. At that moment, everything was like jazz; not what you did but how you did it became important.” The concepts of “integrity”, earnest narrative and natural impulse we referred to in the first paragraph, are strengthened by the very sensory practice explained by the artist in this statement.

Somewhere Between Technology and Nature

Electronic music, which uses computers as a musical instrument, is generally dismissed as decadent by certain traditionalist circles. However, avant-garde artists such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen who have worked with electronic music also enjoy deep-rooted relations with visual arts and modern arts. In 1958, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp made a performance by playing chess during an electronic music concert, producing one of the earliest works that brought together contemporary art and electronic music. Today, however, it is a somewhat widely-held belief that has permeated into the society that electronic music is a superficial discipline that serves the entertainment culture. To the contrary, electronic music also has a very emotional quality to it that addresses feelings as much as possible as with bands Múm, Swod and The Knife. This belief grows even stronger in me as I listen to the composer Peter Klausmeyer in the 1969 LP “Vol. V, Darthmouth International Electronic Music Contest.” That electronic music corresponds to natural feelings with the opportunities provided by technology is in a way respect for nature. In fact, this points to a music that both corresponds to the nature of the city and that beats out the emotional adventures and breaking points that originate from it. The work My Return to the Green evokes this exact link. Steps that move towards the green from the rhythm of a high-tempo life in fact represent the return from urban nature to the real nature. Although the technology used in electronic music or the watercolor cutting technique in painting may seem antithetical to the traditional roots of art, in their essence, they have an attitude that addresses pure emotion and brings out sensuality. These natural feelings were tackled with a language that beats out urban life while also stressing on the longing for nature. The sidewalk motifs that extend in curls may at first remind one of Kordonboyu, İzmir where the artist went to college, but it is in fact a photograph of Bari, taken during his visit to Italy. The concepts of individual change, time and transformation, which are among the fundamental motivations of the exhibition, support the idea that change comes as a result of a long process. It is no coincidence that the artist, who has been working between İzmir, İstanbul and Bremen, delves into subjects such as moving forward and change.

Yet another work that makes a reference to nature is the Revenge of the Horse, which has been instilled with a dark and vague image. This painting falls apart from all other works of the artist; it bears no resemblance to any of them. He diverges from his general understanding of aesthetics in this work, which hints to a different pursuit. The painting resembles a scene from a movie or a play; it makes a dramatic effect with the light percolating through the window, the horse disappearing into the darkness and the harlequin floor. The “horse” image, used for the first time by the artist was painted as mysteriously as possible. Is it the attack of a wild horse, which takes its head out through the bars, on its owner, or its visualization with another horse? Perhaps Vurucuoğlu suggests that we rethink the title of the painting before taking another look at it. Indirect and symbolic narration in artistic production always transforms it into a more appealing and curious practice. A similar approach was applied on many of the works in the exhibition; which aims to grasp the audience not merely through formality but also with its intellectual aspect.


A Pink Dust Cloud on the Gallery Wall: “Bombing”

Throughout the art historical tradition, the image of a wall has been a material that is instrumentalized in line with religious, political and civil propaganda. And today, the art of graffiti, which occupies the urban and street culture with a protest attitude, captures the street walls. After a major solo exhibition in 2009 at the Bristol Museum by graffiti artist Bansky, following the artistic performances he had made in many established museums of art, this inherently political practice started to be carried over to a different dimension. Accordingly, the corporate criticism argument of street art has expanded to continue to create an alternative within the system with its contradictions. Vurucuoğlu creates his wall paintings using not only graffiti but also paper cutting technique and spray paint together. For him, the wall is a space where he can reckon with social and political issues. The wall painting in the exhibition surrounds the audience with a thick, pink cloud of dust. The color pink, which had not been used by the artist in his earlier works, appears in Alice and particularly in Bombing for the first time. This image, which beclouds the wall like cotton candy, is in fact a design that visualizes the relationship established by the artist with the social and political discipline. Unlike his previous murals on this relationship such as I see dead people and Collision, Bombing offers a more abstract and indirect narrative. That he builds his art not on concepts but emotions, experiences and visual aesthetics, doesn’t necessarily mean that he excludes the intellectual dimension. In this sense, Bombing manages to capture the audience with its current language and visuality that both includes social sensitivity and resembles the aesthetics of comic strips and Japanese anime. Two small figures running behind clouds of smoke are portrayed as if to give the feeling that they are details. From that moment on the epic taste of pink is replaced by the idea of bombs, terror and war, instilling the feeling in you that you will be touring the exhibition amid a cloud of smoke. However, since the work derives its nature not from a sharp political rhetoric but from a ground where formal aesthetics, political attitude and personal sensitivity are blended, he has not built the exhibition on a dominant ideological perspective. In this sense, it seems possible to describe the order set up in the entire exhibition through Bombing. Having coalesced with his job to the extent that he developed his unique painting technique, having developed a sensual approach enough to let him set off from his personal experiences and emotions, and never ignoring social issues, Vurucuoğlu has realized himself and offers a successful viewing.

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