A ‘Familiar’ ring: VACI exhibition of Turkish work serves as artistic reference point for week’s lectures

Guest Review by Anthony Bannon

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Gül Ilgaz’s “Folding Sheets,” 2009

The view of Turkey in Strohl Art Center is as if at the end of a telescope, condensed close-ups by six women in that crossroad country, six women with six notions, six topic sentences, six ideas. The show then is focused still tighter when squeezed into the intimate Bellowe Family Gallery on the second floor.

The late poet John Ciardi, a frequent friend of Chautauqua, pointed in his texts to the union of sound and sense in fine poetry. This exhibition is mostly sense. It is content over style; function over form, substance over accidence. Hopefully, the show will be a launch or a reference point to the Week Eight theme: “Turkey: Model for the Middle East?”

A video and a wall of frame grabs from the motion picture by İpek Duben wonders “What is a Turk?,” and continues to consider how the nation fits both into Europe and into Asia and thereby into the cultures geographically described. Physically divided in Istanbul, the nation falls a little bit into Europe and the rest into Asia, across the Bosporus.

The exhibition speculates in a similar voice about Turkish identity and culture, about its history and place. Roberley Bell, the exhibition curator, cast her net across additional language sets, also indicting such issues as the natural and the manmade, the old and the new, the local and the global.

That is a lot of weight for a handful of pictures and two videos, though the little show does its best. Ms. Bell teaches art at Rochester Institute of Technology and is a familiar presence in western New York, enjoying exhibitions of her work in most every cultural arena, including the programs of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution (VACI).

The artist-curator won a Fulbright Senior Fellowship for a six-month residency in Istanbul in 2010 and returned with the makings for a show, which she called “Asina/Familiar,” reporting that she learned “asina” is the Turkish word for “familiar.”

While looking to the future, away from the familiar, citizens in Istanbul still cling in their references to locations long ago replaced by Western chain stores. They call these places by their familiar, age-old names. Nancy Atakan photographically takes note and summons their past through superimpositions — a Western jewelry store, for instance, at one street corner, a fast food restaurant at another, where once venerable landmarks staked out the familiar for the citizenry.

Similarly, in a grid of eight inkjet images, Özgül Arslan depicts rich black and white image of sensuous lace patterns, textures, and folds, each bearing the over-stamp of a manufacturer’s label. Arslan also projects video upon the floor — it depicts a woman on hands and knees, scrubbing clean a surface — as if to erase the old ways.

A mother and daughter fold a sheet in a long horizontal inkjet image by Gül Ilgaz, conceptually the finest piece in the show. In seven panels below the long horizontal, the daughter folds the sheet, inefficiently, step by step, image by image, alone.

This is the new against the old, and the challenge to find a path into the future that is appropriate to the complexities of both tradition and progress. Perhaps participants during Week Eight will find occasion to amplify the images in the gallery with discussion — even actions — that enrich the topic.

An artist’s book by Ms Bell will serve as allegory for the process. It takes on the challenge by juxtaposing vernacular photographs from the past century which depict Turks posed beside living trees. During her residency in Turkey, Ms. Bell documented the strange plentitude of denuded trees she met along the city streets — stumps, severed, topped, stripped of branches, none with leaves. The two images — past and present; presence and absence — create a crucible for conversation.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and research professor at SUNY Buffalo State.