Turkey’s Biggest Artist on the Impossibility of Defining Turkish Art & More

Taner Ceylan’s photorealist paintings of homoerotic subjects—often quite explicit—are some of the most recognizable works of contemporary Turkish art. And the painter’s star is on the rise, thanks in no small part to his solo New York debut last month at Paul Kasmin. Turning our attention toward Turkey this week thanks to the Contemporary Istanbul fair, we had to have Ceylan’s voice in the conversation. Artsy caught up with the Istanbul-based painter, who opened up about his inspiration, the new direction his practice is taking, and the difficulty of characterizing Turkish art, with or without the politics involved.

Artsy: You just had your biggest NYC exhibition, “The Lost Paintings”, this fall at Paul Kasmin. Can you describe the experience?

Taner Ceylan: It was truly amazing, not only during the process before but also during the exhibition. It was a really interesting period of time for me while I was working on this exhibition. For the most part I stayed in my studio and did nothing other than paint. Besides the excitement of showing after such a long period of time preparing, this exhibition is different from others for me: I am showing somewhere other than Turkey in a gallery that represents me, with a project that I’ve been working on for such a long time. Half of the paintings came from collections around the world, so it’s been great to see all of the paintings in one room for the first time, as if my all family came together after years. It was also amazing for me to be introduced to all of the curators, critics, and collectors. The gallery has an incredibly professional team—I didn’t have to worry about anything other than my artwork. This is such a luxury for me! What was also very important for me was my exhibition catalogue, which means it was recorded in time.

Artsy: Your subject matter tends be quite erotic and provocative, including many of the works in “The Lost Paintings”. What draws you to this imagery?

TC: My earlier works were based on homoerotic subjects. Now homoerotism is only a part of my compositions. Moreover, the scenes are no longer so confrontational for the viewer. I have been working to add more levels into my work to include historical references and heterosexual aesthetics. My painting style has evolved and become more precise, to relay my message with a minimal composition.

Artsy: Who are some of your main artistic influences? Where do you look for inspiration?

TC: Classical art is still my main inspiration, but I especially love artists who are not bound to their own period, like Vermeer, Delvaux, Balthus. Contemporary photography is also important for me—artists like Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans. I’m interested in and attracted to nature, life, sometimes the look of a stranger, a movie, generally my inner self (I’m a Taurus). I don’t want to be on the streets or traveling all the time. My home is my reassurance. I’m the happiest man when I’m in front of the canvas at home with no distractions. The inspiration belongs to my mood. For me, art is the ability to create the inspiration for creating art.

Artsy: Particularly in this time of conflict and upheaval, how would you characterize contemporary Turkish art?

TC: You can’t talk about a specific character of contemporary Turkish art. Art has a lot of levels and description, especially here. Turkey is located in between the West and East. Therefore, from contemporary to conceptual, from political to traditional, there is wide range and variety. There isn’t a specific character like Chinese art or Russian art. But in terms of art trends, of course political art is more trendy now. These kinds of production are more similar to European art, and most institutions and artists are getting their funds from institutions in Northern Europe.

Artsy: What role do artists have to play in times of political turmoil?

TC: Firstly, it’s important to know that professing alternative views in any type of art is a political movement in parts of the world other than Europe and America. Artists prefer to be out of the system, and not being a member of any system is seen as controversial. Political states are mostly afraid of artists who are capable of spreading their thoughts, dreams, ideas, and utopias with their art. Sometimes artists submit to the censorship, but the worst thing is the self-censorship.

Politics are temporary but an artwork is permanent. It’s important for the artwork to be permanent even if it’s touching on recent politics. A sensitive artist already is aware of what is happening around him or her, so daily movements or politics reflect on his or her art eventually. However, if the artworks are created to say something explicitly political, they are neither permanent nor amazing. The perfection of an artwork comes from the political message inside its immortality.

Artsy: How does your Turkish identity figure into your practice?

TC: I was born and raised in Germany and moved to Istanbul when I was 16. I always feel both German and Turkish in terms of culture, half Western and half Eastern. I love traditional Turkish music, miniatures, and I adore Western classical music and abstract art. I am an atheist and also a spiritual believer.

Artsy: Who are your favorite Turkish artists and why?

TC: I have many favourite artists from Turkey. Turkey’s contemporary art is 100 years old but it’s very important. It was not possible to earn a living from art 20 years ago, so many amazing talents suffered throughout their lives. Amazing artists like Hüseyin Avni Lifij (for his landscapes), Mahmut Cuda (who makes still lifes), Kuzgun Acar (sculpture), Altan Gürman (assemblages) are only some of the names that come to my mind now.

Artsy: What are your favorite things to do in Istanbul?

TC: Being a tourist in Istanbul is always such a great experience. Sometimes, I just walk through Sultan Ahmet square and visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, then have a meal at the traditional “Sultanahmet Koftecisi”, then head down to Tahtakale to visit Mimar Sinan’s secret little “Rustem Pasha Mosque” which is like a jewel box... Mind-blowing. And the last stop is to take a Turkish bath in Kilic Ali Pasa Hammam. For meals, Changa, Sehir Meyhanesi, and Şimdi are my favourites.

Portrait by flufoto (Elif Cakirlar & Baris Aras), courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

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