A Turkish artist with links to the Surrealist movement, Yüksel Arslan (born in 1933 in Istanbul) has lived in Paris since 1962. For the last 60 years he has been producing artworks based on his studies of Eastern and Western writings on history, philosophy, sociology, music and art. Until recently, he was little known outside of his native Turkey.
Comprising more than 200 pieces, this survey put on display Arslan’s preferred subjects of anatomy, politics, religion and capital. The show focused on the artist’s trademark Artures (a term he coined in protest against restrictive categorizations), the delicately tinted drawings and collages that form the major part of his oeuvre. The Artures are made with materials as various as pigment, minerals, ash, honey, egg white, pollen and billiard chalk, not to mention bodily secretions. The result was an exhibition with a muted color palette, dominated by the hues of yellowing organic substances.
Curators Beatrix Ruf and Oliver Zybok hung the works (dating from 1955 to 2011) in roughly chronological order in the Kunst-halle’s temporary home, with the earliest on the first floor and the most recent on the third. The drawings made before and just after Arslan’s move to Paris show the artist negotiating between conflicting pictorial and cultural traditions and are the most stimulating of the works on view. Arture 123, Jésus, Mohamet et la politique (Jesus, Mohammed and Politics), 1968, for example, portrays an inconclusive encounter between the two religious figures. In Arture 105, Contrearture (1966), a herd of cattle walks toward a swarm of menlike creatures with tentacle heads approaching from the opposite direction. A giant’s leg intrudes into the picture and a rat chews on a frame drawn around the scene. The main action is rendered as a frieze in a traditional Turkish style, without linear perspective, while the rat and the human hand shown pulling on its tail are depicted in a classical Western fashion.
From this point onward Arslan’s style becomes less experimental and his fixations ever more pronounced. Much of the 1970s was devoted to producing didactic illustrations of Marx’s Capital, images chockablock with fat, grasping capitalists and lumpen factory workers. Other cycles of Artures include pseudoscientific drawings of eyes, testicles, breasts and penises; various creatures copulating and hybrids of men and insects; dalliances with mysticism; and portraits of artistic and philosophical heroes including Kant, Beckett, Cage and Brecht (in the series “Influences” from the 1980s and the 2000s). Over time, pictorial complexity is abandoned in favor of more diagrammatic treatments. Arslan has no qualms about examining his unconscious and could get points for stamina, but when his works are seen en masse, the depths plumbed seem pretty shallow.
Photo: Yüksel Arslan: Arture 416, Man 57: General Paralysis, 1990, mixed mediums on paper, 153⁄8 by 133⁄4 inches; at Kunsthalle Zurich.