Rife with tension between humanity and the environment, imposed law and natural order, the twenty-four oil paintings in Amer Kobaslija’s exhibition at Arthur Roger, “Florida Noir,” forecast an ominous future. A Bosnian refugee who studied art in Germany before being granted asylum in the United States in 1997, Kobaslija takes inspiration from the people and landscapes of Florida, where he currently lives. The coastal Southeast is a bellwether for the effects of climate change—a reality underscored by the hazardous algae blooms in Lake Pontchartrain during the show’s run and by Hurricane Barry, which caused major damage to the region in July. Kobaslija’s scenes of hunters and police officers patrolling forlorn lands suggest a postapocalyptic world, but his paintings also envision quotidian experiences during a slow-moving ecological crisis, with desolate landscapes inhabited by families, children, and pets. Quoting from the canon of European painting in his compositions, Kobaslija asks how historical traditions can aid our understanding of contemporary problems.
Two large-scale paintings on aluminum depicting solitary police officers hung near the gallery entrance, where the looming figures appeared to surveil viewers. In one of them, After Watteau II (2018), a black male officer presides over a patch of land dotted with tree stumps while a quizzical goat stands to his side. Off in the distance is a dead tree festooned with colorful inner tubes—the only hint of the carefree leisure associated with coastal Florida. The officer takes on the melancholy expression and hunched posture of the heartbroken clown in Watteau’s Pierrot (1719). A stock character from the commedia dell’arte, Pierrot was routinely thwarted in romance and often fell victim to childish pranks. Kobaslija’s version appears defeated under the strain of environmental duress. The white male officer mounted on a horse in River Patrol II (2019), by contrast, towers over his surroundings with the air of a Roman emperor. The area he controls, however, is pathetic: the land is desolate and littered, nearly uninhabitable, and a small sign warns, no swimming / danger. References to swimming—and prohibitions against swimming in toxic waters—recur in Kobaslija’s paintings. Two smaller works on panel, Lowes Tubes, Ichetucknee and Lowes Tubes, Ichetucknee II (both 2017), depict dead trees that, like the one in After Watteau II, have inner tubes on their branches. The theme suggests that objects created by people for play and protection have proliferated enough to strangle nature.
The sickly palette and thick brushstrokes Kobaslija employs in his paintings enhance the dire state of the landscapes. In After Bruegel II (2019), two hunters and their dog ride in a motor boat with several alligator carcasses stacked in the hull parallel to a shotgun. Putrid greens and yellows give a nauseating cast to water that appears viscous and gooey, gathering in globs like toxic sludge along the painting’s surface. Evoking the monstrous vignettes found in Bruegel’s paintings, Kobaslija’s scene is all the more frightening because of its naturalism; the mangled world depicted here could soon become a reality.
For all the doomsday predictions, some of Kobaslija’s paintings offer a more positive outlook. Recalling Bellini’s depictions of the Madonna and child, Kobaslija’s After Bellini (2017) shows a black woman sitting in a folding chair at the edge of a lake with a young black boy on her lap, presumably her son, and a dog at their side. Does the maternal scene inspire optimism? Or is the child’s future too uncertain to offer much hope? While Kobaslija’s paintings stop short of providing clear answers, it’s worth remembering that many of the historical paintings he refers to were created during times of famine and warfare. Thus, his works might serve not only as a warning to a civilization teetering on the verge of collapse, but also as a testimony to the resilience of humanity and the natural world.
This article appears under the title “Amer Kobaslija” in the November 2019 issue, p. 104.