Yüksel Arslan was born to working class parents in Istanbul in 1933, at the height of Kemal Atatürk’s secular modernizing regime. It was a relatively fertile pocket of time for Turkish national development, during which the rest of Europe was enmeshed in the Second World War. The son of a factory worker, Arslan was a self-taught painter (he skipped the academy and studied art history at Istanbul University) although significantly, his education in Western literature and philosophy shaped the Surrealist thrust of his expansive corpus.
On the occasion of Santral Istanbul’s vast retrospective, Arslan returned to Turkey for the first time since 1969 (he has lived in self-imposed exile in Paris for almost fifty years). Organized by Levent YÄ±lmaz, the show spans three levels, with more than 500 wall-mounted “artures,” the term the artist coined for his specialized representational form that slips between drawing and painting. The exhibition also includes mixed-media bricolage collages, Arslan’s journal entries, preliminary sketches, and documentary footage of the artist accusing Le Corbusier of taking credit for work he had not completed. Most of the material is arranged in mostly chronological order, which is convenient but also follows from Arslan’s penchant for numbering rather than naming.
The bulk of the show is devoted to artures produced after 1961, when Arslan supposedly mastered his his method, rejecting conventional painterly materials for store-bought pigments. The colors he produced come from multi-colored stones and ochre rubbed into paper and specially prepared with an ointment of butter, honey, sugar, salt, tobacco juice (to prevent organic decay), urine, dirt, and egg whites. A provocatively proletarian prescription for producing works on paper, each arture required a minimum of five to six months of labor depending on dimensions and detail.
The influences weighing (and they weigh heavily) on Arslan become readable over time: Freud figures early when the artist toys categorically with illustrations of bestiality; the phallus is later conflated with the minaret, among other towers; and still later veritable alphabets of orifices yawn, variously disembodied. Series “Capital” and “Updating Capital” from 1969 take as their subject Marx’s Das Kapital and reflect on the French Revolution, while Turkish social reform is in close relief. American capitalist appears frequently as a jackal-headed or smirking figure. In arture 179, a spare French flat is wallpapered in (hand-drawn) facsimile heating and electricity bills.
The 11th Istanbul Biennial, which just closed, also capitalized on Arslan’s homecoming by showing a small selection of artures from “Capital” in the Antrepo exhibition hall. The illustrations culled for the Biennial portray yellowing, bull-headed human bodies, men merged with machines, and an enlarged hand (with a suit’s cuff visible) grasping across the clustered homes of a working-class Paris suburb. Mounted in isolation, his iconic images seem didactic, and are too easily put to work underlining the curatorial aims of the cheekily anti-West Biennial without hinting to the works’ raw complexity (even mild Eurocentricism).
At Santral, the influence of Western thought on Arslan’s unique figurative style is more readily evident—he unabashedly illustrates his influences, doodling the faces of various thinkers and poets alongside hastily-penned notes, or grouping them together in anatomic classification according to, for example, hairstyle (in arture 313). In his unceremoniously titled “Influences” and “New Influences” series, the formal portrait faces of Nietzsche, Diderot, Marx, Rabelais, Voltaire, Goethe, Rousseau, and even Walt Whitman are sometimes nestled into comprehensive surrealist landscapes, abd elsewhere float in various, natural history-like constellations.
Arslan’s figuration and method are almost ritualistically consistent. His engagement with naturally occurring means of production, uncertain (and here un-elucidated) relationship to the iconographies of Islam, and concern for constructive social critique loosely define the work of a man grasping for suitable identifiers in a 20th century culture of diaspora. An outsider who rubbed shoulders with Jean Dubuffet, belonged to no particular avant-garde, and had a buyer in Georges Pompidou, Arslan is a maverick without an establishment.