Editor's note: The following catalogue essay was republished in Resource Library on October 10, 2013 with permission of the Portland Museum of Art. The catalogue was published in connection with the exhibition Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted, on exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art through December 8, 2013. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or would like to obtain a catalogue, please contact the Portland Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Neither / Nor: American Dream, Exiled Hero
By Mark Bessire
In the competitive world of art, culture, and commerce, the notions of myth, reality, and talent have a complex relationship. Curators, dealers, critics, and collectors search for the next sensation and the truly great artist who can bring forth "new" art and resonance despite or in defiance of the "establishment." Ahmed Alsoudani's biography is sensational and his art is becoming historical. Yet his reality and surrounding mythology can obfuscate a close reading of the work, including innovative resolutions of painting and drawing as in Untitled, 2011 (fig. 1), and the complex mash-up of violent vigor as in Untitled, 2011 (fig. 2). Challenging the viewer with nuanced art historical arguments and blatantly difficult abject and grotesque imagery, Alsoudani does what few artists can do: he translates the complexity of contemporary politics into meaningful painting. In the process, he successfully tackles the most difficult of artistic genres, the politics of today.
This exhibition, which brings together for the first time work the artist has completed in the past two years and provides an in-depth scholarly look at his art, offers us an opportunity to view Alsoudani's art beyond his meteoric entry into the international art world and to gain an understanding of how the work itself surpasses mythical contextualization through an astonishing assimilation and projection of the iconography of narrative, history, and art, grounded in our time.
Yet Alsoudani's work is also courageously tragic and violent in its universality, transcending the specific, as in the aftermath of a land mine depicted in Untitled, 2011 (fig. 3), and transforming it into lasting historical imagery. A maelstrom of colorful, densely packed interloping body parts and scorched ghostly flesh appear penetrated by exploded peripheral fragments covering the canvas. Trees are upended and float in the lower section of the canvas, adding a sense of displacement and transitory space portraying the senseless death of the innocent. A penetrating eye bears witness and implicates the viewer, while a pair of brightly striped socks contains legs with no body. Eyes are present in many of Alsoudani's paintings, and their sullen and threatening character appears within a duality of the all-knowing and enigmatic. I have always seen the eyes in Alsoudani's work as homage to the powerful, mesmerizing eyes found in Sumerian figural sculpture of the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BC) from Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. This is not a painting to be approached lightly; it lends itself to interpretations recalling a plethora of art historical references, from Mesopotamia to Surrealism and German Expressionism, some true, some imagined, but all helping us recall that artists and viewers are a sum of all they have seen and known. Rather than place titles on his work, Alsoudani chooses "Untitled," allowing the viewer to read the art without a narrative or descriptive context which could either create specificity or privilege a single reading.
How does an artist grow up in Baghdad, leave on the run, sojourn in Damascus, move to Portland, enroll and graduate from Maine College of Art and the Yale School of Art, attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and then show in New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, and London, and even appear on the front page of the Style section of the New York Times in a water taxi going to his opening at the Venice Biennale? The script is so phenomenal that Alsoudani, who seems destined for fame, must walk a tightrope as he tries to give his art its own voice. Can the work in our media world ever speak for itself? Should it? Literary theory has forced us to question genius and authenticity, but what happens when these descriptors arise from circumstances beyond the artist's control? Do we deny genius and authenticity as not fashionable? The artist can try to distance himself from the hype, appearing aloof, or allow the hype to infuse the work as part of the narrative. It is time to closely analyze the work and the dexterity of Alsoudani, who works every day under such a microscope. This exhibition tries to reconcile the biography and the art to uncover who Alsoudani is and why he is crucial to understanding painting today. He is becoming the painter of record in a period of international turmoil and conflict because his treatment of history, war, violence, and torture transcends the iconographic fragments of global conflict concentrated in the Middle East and digests and interprets them through his personal and detached experience via the history of art.
Yes, he did grow up in Baghdad in what one might consider a normal family life under a totalitarian regime based on a cult of violence and terror. His family owned a paint factory, and Alsoudani lived with his parents, four brothers, and two sisters. In 1995 he fled Iraq after realizing that a youthful act of defiance -- defacing a mural of Saddem Hussein -- though not necessarily meant as a political gesture, forced him to leave, because the family worried about serious retribution if he was identified. Awareness of the potential of retribution was a part of "normal life" at all times, and violence could occur for no logical reason except to fortify a governmental cult of fear and terror. From childhood until that moment, Alsoudani, like most Iraqis, lived under a veil of threat that meant that at any time, for any reason, a family or life could be placed in violent jeopardy. He fled to Damascus, where a family friend, the Iraqi poet Mohammed Mazlom, helped him settle and get work writing for an Iraqi opposition publication. He began to paint, and the seeds of his future started to develop as he was befriended by an American couple who admired his work in a show in Damascus. Life was better, but there was little future in Syria, even then, for an undocumented, exiled Iraqi. After continued diligence, in 1998 he received political asylum from the United States and moved to Washington, D.C. Soon after, he reconnected with the family of Reyed Ibrahim, a renowned poet and fellow Iraqi exile in Syria whose family had gained political asylum and moved to Portland, Maine. At their invitation he moved to Portland, got a job working with the elderly, studied English, and applied to the Maine College of Art in person and was accepted. In Portland he found a welcoming but suspicious New England community and a very supportive group at the College, including artists Sean Foley and Gail Spaine, who urged him to apply to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and attend the Yale Summer School of Art and Music in Norfolk, Connecticut. In Norfolk he met another important mentor, the artist Samuel Messer, who encouraged Alsoudani to apply to the Yale School of Art. At Yale he became very close to Messer and met many other key figures, including Robert Storrs (a Portland native), and had influential studio visits by Wayne Koestenbaum, Mel Bochner, and others. The combination of a hard-working ambitious artist anxious to continually fine-tune his craft through excellent educational opportunities and a series of contacts with major art figures and teachers made it no surprise that Alsoudani sold out his first exhibition in New York before he graduated from Yale. The art world was already identifying him as an emerging stock-market tip.
I began viewing Ahmed's work in the early 2000s as he gained notice in Portland at the Maine College of Art as a very serious student with a strong voice searching for the vocabulary and skill to communicate the vision he wanted in his painting. The work was full of energy and risk as the figures, landscape, and fragments fought for space. Canvas and paper, painting and drawing evolved into a battleground where Alsoudani played out his developing vision. Under the influence of Sean Foley he culled through art historical references and styles that added to the battle. The work was as much about Iraq and his exile as it was the search for a signature style and the desire to assimilate art history into the mêlée. It became clear that Ahmed was collecting the skills and vocabulary that would soon make him a force to be reckoned with. As he struggled to make ends meet and live in a community with limited diversity, he became a very disciplined artist who not only attracted mentors, but became a role model for other students. He had no time to waste, nor patience for the uncommitted: he was clearly focused on his goals.
During his time at Skowhegan in 2006 I had a chance to view two very large works on paper. It was at an early stage in the work. It felt like screening William Kentridge's work: literally the charcoal and paint were doing battle with form and subject matter, similar to stop-action film but on a flat static surface. You could clearly see where a figure started and where it was headed and forms that were in constant flux. What the work lacked in resolution in 2006 was of less concern than the immense energy emanating from the paper. Even in this work I could see the beginning of a mediated conversation to reconcile painting and drawing in a single work, which would develop into works such as Untitled, 2010 (fig. 4) and Untitled, 2011 (fig. 5).
Following his move from Skowhegan to New Haven, Alsoudani began to build a core iconography of symbols, and the figures in his work moved from the vaguely literal to the distorted and maimed. The year 2009 evolved into a pivotal period with "Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East" at the Saatchi Gallery in London and Goff + Rosenthal shows in New York and Berlin. In Untitled, 2007 (fig. 6 [72 x 84, goff-rosen, p44] and Untitled, 2008 (fig. 7 [72 x 96, goff-rosen, p48], both larger paintings, Alsoudani explored the theater of painting, while in smaller works such as Untitled, 2007 (fig. 8 [12 x 9, goff-rosen, p64] and Untitled, 2007 (fig. 9 [12 x 9,goff-rosen, p65], figures are placed under an analytical microscope revealing anxiety, tragedy, and pain through flayed and dissected flesh. Almost appearing baroque, as if a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) had been exploded in a Rubens canvas, nails, gas masks, barbed wire, surveillance equipment, human organs, orifices, eyes, pipes, uniforms, uprooted trees, furniture, architectural elements, and barrels litter the theater throughout these works, in which figures skirmish with time and space. The precedents are Goya, Picasso, Dix, Bacon, Guston, and Spector, but the voice of Ahmed Alsoudani is now channeling these great artists through homage, not offering footnotes as reference. Amid the iconographic turmoil, painting and drawing continue to do battle on paper and canvas. Reconciliation is coming, but as Alsoudani gains critical, international attention, his biography begins to overly define the work. The narrative of his work that the art world has constructed is laced with a combination of the American dream of the successful immigrant, the exiled hero, and the critical position of a member of the diaspora who has become neither Iraqi or American. Through this lens, the artist becomes culturalized: both championed and alienated. And Alsoudani just keeps working.
Ironically at this point, when Alsoudani's story is foregrounded in the media, his body of work, including Untitled, 2011 (fig. 10 [60 x 51 1/2], is coming together as a powerful painting and political message with an abject and grotesque aesthetic. His narrative has become a sensational cross-over story, enabling writers from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to Architectural Digest and Art and Auction to channel stories about Iraq, the Arab Spring, exile, the American dream, and immigrant stories. There are few more difficult terrains for a painter to mine than political and physical violence, especially when it manifests itself in images of torture, pain, and hopelessness in bright colors without irony or cynicism. Untitled, 2011 (fig. 11 [60 x 51 1/2] is an early foray into portraiture, where the sitter is not necessarily a specific person, but a type presented as a mounted head for inspection filling most of the large canvas. Again, as in earlier work, the Sumerian eye bears witness and creates a tense link between viewer and specimen. If you take away the uniform or signs of office of a leader, as Alsoudani also does with Untitled, 2011 (fig. 12) [Assad) fig 160 x 156.2cm], what is left? And once we look at the specimen, we may wonder how someone strays into the realm of terror. And we may ask in light of current crises of the Arab Spring, is this President Bashar al-Assad of Syria?
In a period when many artists avoid the difficulty of political painting and seem to focus on the minutiae of art and aesthetics, Alsoudani embraces an aggressive search for an anti-heroic and anti-monumental art on heroic-sized canvases. The outcome transcends topical history, war, and political painting to create universal images that become historicized the moment they are painted. These paintings go beyond the specificity of the artist's time and experience into a historical plea against the futility and shame of crimes against humanity in the name of politics and war. They are successful because even as they offer no refuge or answers and are anti-heroic, they are also extremely bold, mostly large works that confront the history of art through skirmishes between paint and drawing as well as form and color.
Alsoudani's images also offer a stark contrast to the Stalinist celebratory cult art of Saddam Hussein that was often linked to the revered historic Muslim Shi'ite figure Imam Hussein and to Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas, an early Arab warrior who brought Islam to Iran; and linked as well as to other historical and ancient warriors and cultures of the Middle East. In fact, after the completion of the 140-foot-tall Hands of Victory monument (dedicated in 1989) celebrating the defeat of Iran, Saddam Hussein rode under the monument on a white horse, a legendary and well-known reference to the Shi'ite religious figure Hussein. The horseback image is repeated in murals throughout Baghdad. The monument's two colossal hands grasping crossing swords were modeled on those of Saddam Hussein, and the guns and helmets of Iranian soldiers were melted and recast to build the monument. The debris is evident at the foot of the monument in a grotesque and abject celebration of death. In many ways the propaganda art of Saddam Hussein appropriated historicizing precedents from classical Near Eastern art traditions, such as the monumental sculptures praising and memorializing Assyrian kings and their triumphs. Yet in comparison to the elegance of the Neo-Assyrian royal art from Ashurbanipal's palace in Nineveh, the large-scale murals of Saddam Hussein appear as a kitsch combination of Disney and Stalin. This late twentieth-century propaganda art was an attempt to create a cult of continuity from ancient rulers and heroes of Iraqi culture to Saddam Hussein. He even constructed a giant billboard of himself towering over the ancient Babylonian gate of Ishtar. Ironically Alsoudani was forced to leave Iraq for defacing a mural of Saddam Hussein, and his work is an anti-heroic gestural response to such monuments.
In a recent shift revealed in the exhibition, Alsoudani transfers his analysis of chaos from an external view, as seen in Untitled, 2010 (fig. 13) and Untitled, 2011 (fig. 14), to a more internal one, Untitled, 2011 (fig. 15), more deeply exploring the roots of chaos. Instead of presenting a theater of the bureaucratic impact of institutionalized chaos and terror, he begins to dissect the inner engine of a government official in Untitled, 2011 (fig. 16), and the machinations of terror that lead to chaos.
Ahmed Alsoudani's art is a revelation and a vessel for multiple readings, whether we try to identify the sources for the portraits and the art historical references in Untitled, 2011 (fig. 17), consider the grid of prisoners in Untitled, 2011 (fig. 18), or deconstruct the iconography or symbolism in Untitled, 2011 (fig. 19) It is hard to imagine a more compelling subject for art than 9/11, but the difficult task of translating the immense weight of such an event has proved too daunting for most artists. Alsoudani has shown great courage to take on Iraq and the Arab Spring in painting. Only at a few moments in history do we find artists able to transcend critical political moments and transform them into art; a short list could include Goya, Manet, Picasso, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, and Anselm Kiefer. The bigger the issue one addresses in painting, the further an artist can fall if the work falls short of the expectation that audiences and critics demand from the subject matter. Alsoudani risks it all every time he enters the studio, and that risk is internalized in the work, creating an oeuvre full of energy and hopelessness, and an archive of terror for all to bear witness.
About the exhibition Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted
On September 7, 2013 the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) opened the exhibition Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted, the first major museum exhibition of the work of American-Iraqi artist and Maine College of Art graduate Ahmed Alsoudani. The exhibition will feature 20 of the artist's tumultuous and innovative paintings, which reflect on the horrors of war with a unique artistic voice. Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted will be on view through December 8, 2013, in the PMA's celebrated Third Floor Gallery for Contemporary Art. (right: Ahmed Alsoudani, United States, born Iraq, 1975, Untitled, 2011, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 63 x 61 1/2 inches. ©Ahmed Alsoudani. Photo Courtesy of Haunch of Venison, New York.)
"Challenging the viewer with nuanced art historical arguments and blatantly difficult, abject, and grotesque imagery, Alsoudani does what few artists can do: he successfully translates the complexity of contemporary politics into meaningful painting," said PMA Director Mark H.C. Bessire.
Through his personal experience as a child and adolescent in war-torn Iraq, Alsoudani developed a keen sensitivity to the effects of war, violence, terror, and political unrest on a global scale. His paintings reflect his experiences as well as the mediated nature of war in our time. "I'm not just commenting on Iraq but on an experience that becomes universal," Ahmed Alsoudani said, referring to Untitled, 2007, a loose, nearly abstract rendering of the moment the infamous statue of Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad in 2002. His splintered compositions, and the overwhelming and sometimes harrowing scenes represented in a bright, near-primary palette, address the uneasy balance in our culture between scenes of disaster and objects of beauty.
Alsoudani cites historical figures Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and George Grosz, as well as more contemporary painters Philip Guston and Francis Bacon as major influences. Like his predecessors, he seeks to create works that depart from the glorification of violence and the heroism of warfare. Instead, his large-scale paintings offer graphic, often disturbing imagery that includes disembodied hands or all-seeing bulging eyes juxtaposed with random mechanical parts and other recognizable but misplaced imagery.
Ahmed Alsoudani was born in Baghdad in 1975 and grew up under the regime of Saddam Hussein. He left Iraq as a teenager and lived in Syria before immigrating to the United States in the late 1990s. He studied in Maine at the Maine College of Art (BFA, 2005), and the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture (2006), and graduated with a MFA in painting from the Yale School of Art (2008). In 2011, his work was featured in the Iraq Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, in the exhibition The World Belongs to You, and at The Francois Pinault Foundation at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice. His other major international exhibitions include: La Route de la Soie at Tri Postal in Lille, France (2010); Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East at the Saatchi Gallery in London (2009); as well as shows at the National Gallery of Saskatchewan, Canora, Canada (2007) and the Gwangju Museum of Art, Korea (2007). He lives and works in New York.
The exhibition is co-organized and co-curated by Mark H.C. Bessire, Director of the Portland Museum of Art and Dr. Sara Cochran, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibition was on view in Phoenix from March 13 through July 17, 2013. A full-color catalogue will accompany the exhibition and is available in the PMA Store.
Generously supported by Louise Bessire in memory of Henry E. Bessire and Sabre Yachts & Back Cove Yachts. Ahmed Alsoudani: Redacted is also sponsored in honor of the Maine College of Art by: Patricia and Cyrus Hagge, Chris and Betsy Hunt, Horace and Alison Hildreth, and Candace Karu. Funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Corporate Sponsors: The Bear Bookshop, Marlboro, VT and The VIA Agency.
Please click here to view the checklist for the exhibition, including thumbnail images.
(above: Ahmed Alsoudani, United States, born Iraq, 1975, Untitled, 2011, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 inches. ©Ahmed Alsoudani. Photo Courtesy of Haunch of Venison, New York.)
(above: Ahmed Alsoudani, United States, born Iraq, 1975, Untitled, 2012, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 32 x 38 inches. ©Ahmed Alsoudani. Photo Courtesy of Haunch of Venison, New York.)
About the author
Mark H.C. Bessire is Director of the Portland Museum of
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was republished in Resource Library on October 10, 2013 with permission of the Portland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on October 9, 2013. The letters "EXH #" - which were not accompanied by numbers - placed after all figure numbers throughout the essay text provided to Resource Library were removed for ease of reading.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Kristen Levesque of the Portland Museum of Art for her help concerning permission for republishing the above text.
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