OF BODIES AND TIME AND MELANCHOLY
Nurettin Erkan's new paintings tell stories, more so than the canvases in his previous exhibition, Taslar / Kadinlar / Kuller (2010). Or they seem to tell stories, stories that are obscure, buried, subterranean. Two aging men walk toward us with eyes downcast, foreheads furrowed with thought or anxiety. Three women walk leftward, passing between uneven blocks of stone suspended in midair. Two other women, perhaps a mother and a grown-up daughter, cower in the midst of rocks that seem to endanger them. And a boy, looking to his left, unable to face the woman speaking firmly to him, while a man looks on more passively. Large blocks and slabs, with hard edges and corners, faces of cut rock in black shadow, tinged or splashed with brown and red. The stone is of the same complex color and texture as the human bodies, but it is lighter than flesh, it rises against the pull and rationale of gravity. Opaque, inscrutable, and heavy, yet light enough to float in space, to travel through air. Even if we cannot decipher these narratives, they keep the pictures in motion.
Are these stories histories? They are, must be, have to be histories. A mother's history. A boy's history. The history of two older men, of numerous women, young and old. But these are histories that do not rise to the surface, the surface thick with layers of paint. These are histories that resist words and speech. Are these the histories of a people, a place, a landscape, an age, or are they merely the stories of one man, one observing eye, one imagination? These stories, and the histories hidden inside them, neither show nor tell: they only suggest, they remain mute and intangible, they work by inviting us to a dialogue. Nurettin Erkan's images-in-motion invite us into the solitude of an interior dialogue—the viewer's dialogue with himself or herself, with the paintings, their richly worked surfaces, their subjects, the objects they depict, the scenes they create.
Here, for a moment, human bodies made of flesh and blood look like bodies sculpted in stone, in marble or granite or volcanic rock. There are three male faces looking straight at us, the last of which is miraculously carved in obsidian. These are also the faces and bodies of actors on a stage, motionless in a still image snapped in the middle of a scene. A vignette of two men brooding on something that escapes us, another of a pair of women contemplating the chunks of rock circling around them, shoulder-high in the air. It is Samuel Beckett's theater translated into paint, in which the depths of the stage are in darkness and the bodies are foregrounded in stark light, their skintones and minimal features highlighted by a single invisible shaft of illumination.
On many of these bodies, the ashen, granite skin is flecked or dabbed with vermilion, as though the surface were broken by a superficial wound, a scrape or minor cut, with blood in patches where the flesh is exposed and raw. Scrapes on cheeks, chins, brows, temples, breasts, forearms, thighs—as though the moving body had stumbled and fallen hard on concrete, or while running across a stony landscape, or while being pushed down and dragged in a street. Bodies perhaps in pain, whether suffered by circumstance or inflicted willfully, carrying the oblique testimony of violence that is not depicted graphically. And yet these are bodies that seem stony in their stoic endurance of wounds, carrying the burden of a pain that is barely displayed.
These are not the soft, warm, pliable, and enticing bodies of women and men in eros. They are bare and naked, but not with desire or for desire. Their beauty is not the beauty of fresh youth revealed or beheld in a moment in or out of time. Only the opposite: nakedness that is never the classical nakedness of desire exchanged between artist, model, medium, and viewer. This nakedness is resolutely opaque to the artist's own gaze as much as to his viewer's gaze. I cannot look at these bodies with either a hedonist's or a connoisseur's eye. Nurettin Erkan's paintings lure us into several interior dialogues at once, but they also fascinate us into contemplation: the contemplation of images, maybe even visions, that do not directly reveal the outer or inner forms of human beauty as we normally experience them.
And yet each image is beautiful. It is suggestive, resonant, memorable, haunting. Hours, days, or weeks after we have seen it, it comes back to us in a flash of memory, returning as an object of reflection and curiosity—a face, a posture, a gesture, a tableau that we still need to and want to figure out, an impression with which we are still in a simple, elemental dialogue. What were those women doing standing or walking next to each other, what was that boy looking at (if anything at all), what did those men's faces really say, why is their body language so full of strength and resolve, what are they struggling against, what has been inflicted on them, why do they appear as though on a darkened stage in such dramatic contrast, why the thick and dark shadows on and around their bodies, what is hidden inside the muddy grays deepening into black? Layers of ultramarine and umber, smudged with reds and greens, and then the sudden outburst of line and light and clarity. I think of it as a beauty of puzzle and curiosity, question and contemplation, mystery and sympathy.
It is not the surface beauty of pleasure and happiness, but a deeper beauty we cannot easily name. Perhaps it is a terrible beauty (as the Irish poet W. B. Yeats called it), a passing glimpse of courage and endurance, of resistance and survival. Certainly a beauty, framed within the rectangle of a canvas, that is tinged with sorrow and melancholy. These paintings made me think yesterday of a short poem by the contemporary Indian woman poet, Gagan Gill, which she wrote in Hindi when she was a young woman in Delhi, and which I translate as follows:
Sorrow in Happiness
The sea has the sorrow of the wounded sea-turtle
The tree-trunk has the sorrow of the dying root
The storm has the sorrow of the man on the verge of defeat
Who has the sorrow that lies in happiness?
Time stands still on Nurettin Erkan's canvases, and yet nothing is ever still, everything is in motion. The women, faceless, often without eyes and mouths, without the beauty of a woman's head of hair, without a gaze to return my gaze, are only in media res. The motionlessness is the pause of a freeze-frame. To look at fifteen or twenty of these paintings in succession in one room is to feel the powerful upsurge of temporality, of a process very much in process, of a movement that moves us and sweeps us along. The succession of pictures on a wall is the illusion of a series or a sequence of moments, but time is both a question and a questioning. We are in the present and the paintings are present before us, but their time is also not our time, they transport us gently but firmly into another time and another place. We enter their time and it becomes ours.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
December 26, 2013
*Vinay Dharwadker is a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, U.S.A., where he teaches Indian and Asian languages and literatures, cultural history, and modern theory. His books include The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1994) and Kabir: The Weaver's Songs (Penguin Classics, 2003). He has recently co-edited The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 6 volumes (W. W. Norton, 2012). His new book of poetry, Someone Else's Paradise: Poems 1972–2012, is forthcoming in a limited edition in 2014.