Ahmed Alsoudani’s reckoning

By BRITTA KONAU  |  September 19, 2013

More typically, compositions combine a wide array of organic and mechanic shapes, from recognizable to indistinct. Broken ribcages, dismembered feet, intestines, upside-down trees, and largely indecipherable organic forms coexist with gas masks, pipes, medical tubing, and mechanical birds. Improvised forms of no clear origin supply the connective tissue in this maelstrom of body parts and industrial shapes. These all-encompassing epics induce a state of vertigo between recognition and confusion, not unlike living in a state of constant limbo between safety and threat. Only a few paintings contain fully developed, intact representations of objects, such as a monkey illuminated by interrogation lights (“Untitled,” 2011, 87.5 by 63.5 inches), offering relief from the unending misinformation and deformation. The paintings’ backgrounds either contain stripes and fields of color that seem to mock self-absorbed abstract painting, or depict simplified renditions of interior spaces, bringing the horror home.

As much as Alsoudani’s forms move in and out of shape, they are ending points of a long process to be begun again by the viewer, switching from intention to reception, yet remaining firmly within the realm of feeling. As the canvases pulsate with the will to take on form against entropic forces, they are expressions of visceral and muscular emotion much like Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued, and demand to be perceived as such. The all-pervasive formal distortion, destruction, and instability register as visualizations of violence and terror. Any specific references to the war in Iraq, or torture, Hollywood movie violence, and video games, as some writers have suggested, are projections and liberal interpretations. This is not to say that they are invalid or that the artist may not have been thinking along these lines. However,

Alsoudani’s work draws much of its power from not addressing violence and its effects in a literal way, which would become mind-numbing and is, after all, the result of massive media coverage.

The only exceptions are Alsoudani’s satirical dictator portraits executed at the beginning of the Arab Spring, which do contain specific military insignia, although they too remain in the realm of allegory. The heads are built up from disparate objects and most obviously reference precedents to Alsoudani’s work, in this case Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s figures assembled from fruit, vegetables, and other objects. In spirit though, they are closer to Otto Dix’s merciless depictions of Weimar society and its warmongers. Alsoudani has expressed admiration for several artists dealing with similar subject matter and has acknowledged their influence, among them Francisco Goya, Philip Guston, and Francis Bacon. Like most of them, Alsoudani also sometimes uses humor. “Untitled” (2012, 71 by 108 inches) includes cartoonish characters à la Dr. Seuss, half-disintegrated but nevertheless cute. As coping mechanisms, humor and madness are not far from each other.

Technically speaking, each painting’s groundwork is laid out in charcoal, the material embedded in the canvas, richly worked and modulated, almost old-fashioned in style. A smaller work (“Untitled,” 2011, 32 by 30 inches) has remained in that state with only the background painted a saturated blue and is thus the most volumetric of all works — and perhaps the most sinister one too, lacking false coloristic cheeriness. Most pieces, though, are painted sparsely with all the tricks of three-dimensional suggestion, yet remain flat and graphic like illustrations or concessions to the mediated nature of much of what we encounter today. The vibrancy of Alsoudani’s colors, however, imparts just the right amount of life without taking over and away from the forms. The black-and-white of dreams and nightmares is thus partially obscured by the day-time reality of color, and experience is presented as a safe engagement with and contemplation of desire and horror at the same time, much like Jacques Lacan conceived of painting’s taming social effect.

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