Jale Erzen – You and I had both returned from abroad in the early 1970s, I believe. You were launched into the academic world in Turkey with the incredible energy of a fireball. I clearly remember your paintings from those days. At the time, they seemed to me like an act of rebellion, an expression of insurgence—despite all their aesthetic appeal. At least, that’s how I perceived them and today, that energy of yours still prevails.
Mehmet Güleryüz – I think it continues without interruption.
The energy palpable in your paintings today is -still- concerned with the body, with people; do you experience the same drama, the same rebellion with respect to these concerns? I’d like to begin with that.
It is a rather accurate remark in reference to the part that you have observed...The time prior to and outside of this period is also at play, though. Coinciding with the time before I arrived from abroad, that period encompasses my impulses in the early days of my youth, my perceptions, internalizations, and psychological make-up.
I suppose your varied interests in your younger days also determined your present.
For a young person, dedicating a larger portion of his time to such interests also designates his path in the future. Unaware of this fact at the time, you make certain choices based on instinct and focus on the things you select as a natural outcome of your behavior. I am not a conformist by nature. I would say that I tend to side with the collective; I am not necessarily discordant(!), but eternally contrarian.
Which interests are you specifically referring to?
I have harbored a love for the theater and an urge to act since my childhood years. Yet, I also have a passion for painting. These two have pulled the carriage, so to speak, as two horses, running side by side. Sometimes, I dismounted one horse and rode the other further, but I always maintained a connection with the other horse. I kept it as spare and nurtured it... I sought ways to harness the two together again.
So you went into acting?
Since the age of eighteen, or what I would call my younger days, I sought opportunities for acting. At a time when I felt the need for some serious training, Haldun Dormen had, coincidentally, just returned from Yale (1958). I attended courses at the pocket theater he had established. In the ensuing years, we took over the theater, where we staged plays for a couple of more years. In the meantime, I was still a student at the Academy.
Do you recall the plays you staged?
Short plays by Turkish playwrights under the direction of Erol Keskin and Özcan Er. Yılmaz Guruda’s Susanların Sonu, for example, Plautus comedies, and even Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug. We had to stop due to financial struggles. Theater is the essential response to my existence and vitality; an area into which I can pour my energy, while testing my bodily limits and creating my expression. Interestingly enough, painting was always my possession, much like my body; I always belonged to painting.
There is a physical expression both in painting and in theater. In your paintings, in particular. We see that in theater as well. Speaking through one’s body, the tenseness or gentleness of human relations -which often emerges as tension in your case. Yet, this physical expression also constitutes the space. As Merleau-Ponty says, for instance, the human body relates to a space that is lived. That space is your body.
The body is the primary space.
Primary, yes, but the dynamics of your body are reflected upon the space or the room you are in. That is how you perceive all the spaces, the spaces you enter—both through your own and through the dynamics of others’ bodies. Such intense energy creates a web of energies. Your paintings have exactly that. What do you think about that? Would you say that it’s an accurate observation?
That is exactly the place of intersection for theater and painting. The expression of drama, as part of staging.
As an artist, who also considers himself a thespian and theater person (for, in addition to acting, I designed costumes, scenes, and masks, etc.), what concerns me most is not what my own acting or the theater demands from me, but what I expect from the theater... As I contemplate painting, I question the ways in which the drive to create is born out of and dispersed from theater. How far can this drive and energy spread? I discovered sometime later that as a writer, philosopher, actor, and visual artist, the versatile Antonin Artaud also experimented with issues similar to mine through a broad range of works.
From what I gather, you came to know yourself in theater and through what you saw in Artaud.
The theater is a structure that offers you a breadth of opportunities. It demands you to know your physique, understand the dimensions of your psychological composition. Painting tells you, in the end, that you should have questioned all this. An artist must live through the preparation stages of an actor. In my workshops, I create a process that prioritizes emotive studies as an educational method. The main source of that is the search to discover the essence of the self. The conditions that allowed me to answer my own questions born out of the ideas opening up to me in the steps I have taken towards understanding and studying the psyche as part of myself and my advances in theater played a critical role in helping me resolve the knots I encountered in the paintings I created.
So, it provided you with more opportunities than your training in art did.
In painting, I recognized the accuracy of my criticisms from the consequences of academic education I instinctively questioned and the shortcomings it entailed. The majority of the propositions theoreticians offer on physical and emotional control in their research of the theater often comply with my questions on the role and mind of the body in painting.
You explain it very well, for the “Cartesian Divide” is no longer accepted today.
This entire problem becomes the issue of the people who remain outside of this.
In other words, you are thinking about the ones that think differently; they are the ones that engage in that kind of questioning.
The theater answered my questions of the body; the question of rhythm, the question of rhythm with respect to the body and acting, the rhythm in painting. I understood painting through theater. Moreover, when I thought I found the answer, it was not merely the structural part, but the intellectual aspect of it as well. The question of improvisation for instance; improvisation is a common point of theater and painting. It goes as far as this: you may act what’s written in the script and create a role, but in that entire process, improvisation would not mean stepping outside of the script, but rather reinterpreting it! This may be a point that an actor misunderstands—which I felt as an actor myself. As an artist, there were times in which I found acting constraining; my speed at creating an image or a construct in painting was limited by a script in acting. In the course of affective memory exercises in the Actor’s Studio, all the exercises they offer and everything they expect of you amount to one thing: developing the ability to relate to the feeling you need to convey as if it is running through all your capillaries.
I understand that you approached the theater with creativity as well.
I believe I discovered my own possibilities in times of improvisation. The one or two most important aspects of my acting were recognized by directors. The first was the suppleness of my body. Since there is visual depth in the lissome expression of the physique and an expressionist stance, it offers the construct of an image. Creating layers in one’s own construct leads to a solid foundation for a fine actor. Why would that make a potentially good actor? Because you can contribute to the script and its direction as an actor who has the ability to question and recreate. Let me give you an example: in the process of a play, you may not rush into memorizing the script, but allow the layers of emotion born out of improvisation to amalgamate with the body and the script; imagine, however, an actor, who first memorizes the script shows up at rehearsal the next day as fully remembering his lines. This is a relatively good thing. And it even puts some directors at ease. You are quickly building a metal construction by doing so. This metal construction is often embraced as a safe choice, but it limits experimentation and improvement in your acting; it compacts or freezes it. Its counterpart in painting: the dominant drawing method in academic training, both in antique sculpture drawings and live model sketches in the studio are based on models and closed contours as the final sketch or drawing of a model. There is no opportunity to offer a solution rich enough on the color level that goes beyond painting the interior of a closed form association with a predesigned space.
During my years of teaching at the Academy, I felt that this method suffocated the energy to move forward, the vitality, and the interaction between space, figure, and setting. I went to great lengths to ensure that drawing would not set limits, but rather bring forth its open, long-winded role in brushing paint and trigger the kind of improvisation that will help create the extraordinary union of drawing and paint, released from their constraints and emulating a light-based liveliness. In my own studio classes outside of the Academy, I advise my students to forgo any concerns of form, yield entirely to bodily rhythms, and pursue particularly what appears absurd to them. The longer they can extend that process, the better. In other words, I begin by almost forbidding figure-oriented drawing. The point is to hear the internal music that flows from dance to the brushing of paint, transforming the bodily movements into line and form.
That is the case for all things, Mehmet; depicting the dynamics of life is markedly different from doing your lesson well. Someone well-versed in his studies, doing everything right, but is not alive. For, this is the lyrical activity we call ‘poiesis,’ bringing something into being that didn’t exist before, entirely on one’s own. Even when the text is there, you knead the text into a different form. What you refer to is physical expression. It is visible in each of your paintings, in all the figures. Each figure -such as the one I see in the painting behind you, for example- suddenly adds an utterly different dynamic, an ‘aura’ to its setting with rather delicate bodily movements. Therefore, isn’t your experience in theater and, at the same time, your ability to do this exact thing on stage possibly due to your formation as an artist? Your art is what breathes life into your surroundings, your relations with people, the setting you are in, the books you read, or the letters you write. I believe you shape the world with the breath of your art.
I suppose my art is dominant, always saying the last word.
You mentioned text. Each playwright has a focal point and an overall text in theater. What is yours? The text in your art, in your relationship with the world? I could say that politics is the prevailing way of thought or approach; what is the dominant attitude and the stance reflected in your painting? Do you have a text that you create or use in your expressions?
There are several texts. They are mine, as much as the viewer’s. I enjoy making room for viewer texts that can be formed through the works; I provide pointers to facilitate that. I offer an important clue. Recently, in the last two and a half to three years, all my paintings are dated from the first day onwards. This can help with one thing: Tracking the flow of thought. How is the next thing I say related to its precedent? Where does it lead to? It is also a way for me to follow with which priorities and preoccupations the flow makes way, to determine the correct path, and the course of my thoughts.
Do you keep a diary of your works with notebooks?
The compositions that run across –and, in principal, never make it to the canvas– the notebooks I keep right next to my paints; sometimes a notebook is finished in one day. How does the drawing evolve? It is quite evident. It is also important in terms of keeping track.
You trace the history of your own work. This is also critical for understanding an artist. I think very few artists do that.
Each notebook is a performance. It begins, continues, and can be followed. It is a kind of cinematographic approach. And in the way I construct it; first page, second page, third page, or a continuity of four and a half meters on a single page, folding out like an accordion. All of this accounts for the flow, the linear changes of thought, its characters and –I won’t call it story– its narrative aspects; how each condition, the energy of each stagnant state, consecutively and with no repetition –neither the line, nor each character or incident repeating itself– flows. A certain sense of certainty is required for that. It needs to be based on something. The reason I mention theater so much is as follows: The improvisation in theater is often used during rehearsals. From there, you breathe a vein to your role and the construct of your performance. This, in fact, is similar to sketching. On one hand, there is a sketch that evolves into a drawing, attaining the quality of a drawing, and, on the other, is each improvisation creating unity for the entire play. This is the end goal! That’s what I study. These drawings appear spontaneously, as part of an exciting continuum, spanning countries in an air balloon, so to speak.
Not acting by rote, but by living, taking risks!
Then you are airborne, you must constantly calculate the wind. So, the risk here is of critical importance. There are certain classic cliches regarding the way the viewer follows an artist: “the touch or brush strokes.” Now, people seek the traces of life in those touches or brush strokes. In other words, they constitute clues or handprints in getting closer to the artist. Almost like breathing. The handprints and the breathing of an artist are very significant. They constitute the action, the speed in the energy of a painting. The speed of thought. The process of “action painting” led to this, in fact. And the functionality, effect, influence attained in questioning the source of energy in that process... Being seated at the front row of the theater is highly desired; to be closer to the actors. If possible, the viewer wants to get up on the stage and stand next to the actors to see how they act.
Is the same true of painting?
As for painting, the touch or the brushing of paint.... When an artist is being watched, the question that befalls the viewer is in which order and with what energy and thought the work progresses...and the trace there, in fact, indicates the speed of thought. In my drawing, I look for the thing that facilitates the opening of the speed of thought, controls the opposite state of the construct of the consecutive flow and the entire composition, and, at some point along the road, impedes all the rote drawings.... You must go against your own skill; I look for mastery in other things. I seek mastery not in what is acknowledged as mastery, but in the masterful way you stand against yourself. It’s very important to resist what you know. Therefore, the paint here, the paintings here, all that will be looked at in this book as well, it’s all part of that process! There is one thing behind all that paint: time. The day a work is executed reflects the actual date. If the paintings in this book are lined according to that chronology, they will create an entirely different reading. However, is it possible to include more than a thousand drawings next to the paintings? If, perhaps, a number of different drawings are made part of the selection here, it would allow the works to be read as “improvisation.” The unexpected is the very foundation of my work...what even I don’t expect...
That breath or the experience in that moment is not a rehearsed skill, but a ‘poiesis’ created in that instant... Now, there is both your paintings and your drawings. Although the instant we see thirty-nine consecutive drawings constitutes a process, I call that the ‘text,’ in the sense Roland Barthes intends it.
Yes, a text not yet resolved; meaning created by some automatic writing. This is precisely why unity must be preserved in the notebooks. Each of the drawings on separate pages constitute a text. The common denominator of consecutive drawings reaches some content integrity. Much like Alysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit.
Where do you begin, in your drawings? The head, the ear, or wherever it is your starting point, it feels like your hand is moving on that figure you see with your hand, think of, or imagine. As if it is moving in from the contour. Each move, each movement of the line and the hand is like a different inhalation, continuing with constant quivering and questioning. Once you finish, that line activates the paper over which it runs. It activates it entirely, even when there are no other lines to speak of. Yet in your paintings, you re-fill, in a way, the paper, canvas or whatever medium you are using. I don’t think you begin to paint by drawing; I would surmise that you take over the surface directly with paint and brush in a much more active, spontaneous and direct way, such that each movement of the brush brings into existence the next one and the entire whole within that space. This is quite different, of course. It is identical to drawing in terms of approach -I don’t want to call it technique-; one involves paint, and the other, a pencil. Drawing, much like singing, is something the body sets forth directly. Like a song, or breath, it comes out spontaneously. Yet paint, painting, filling an entire canvas is completely different. What can you say about that? The essence might be the same, both that instantaneous movement, approach, and your way of constructing the text inevitably elicits a different execution in drawing than it does in painting.
I don’t think of them as being different. There is the element of color in paint... So, you prioritize that. And monophonic, polyphonic, weaving, opposite energies, a stain that determines its own space—these are all ways of brushing the drawing... The reason I engage in painting without prior construct or preparation is to maintain the spontaneity in my drawing or my approach in the way I apply paint... Indeed, as I cover an area with paint, I am simultaneously drawing. My painting technique makes room for that.
Is there a design or is it spontaneous?
Maintaining full spontaneity in narrative painting has certain demands of course; it dictates its own sanctions. In my approach, that demands a complete unity of rhythm from beginning to end. This is why I often have to finish a painting in an entire session that lasts a long time–ten hours or even more sometimes... The drawing determines the dominant role, the purpose, setting into motion the energy of the color areas with the inner drawing. In the end, the goal is to allow the viewer to follow the speed of applying paint and the breathing that dominates the entire surface of the work. Plunging into an empty space with free strokes is a source of enthusiasm, a childhood joy for me. Having determined the color I will put on the spatula is not, most often, in force. I find myself initiating a harmony that goes beyond the prepared colors with another shade that I had not thought of until then. Allowing my body to assign the sound value of that first contact with the surface enables the shapes –evoked by the stain that the color-laden spatula– to appear one after another.
So, it is entirely spontaneous and not pre-determined or designed...
I often think of Jackson Pollock as I begin to paint. The resurfacing of the unexpected, of the records and recollections that I carry unknowingly. Recently, I have grown an interest in Francesco Del Cossa. I’m trailing behind Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome paintings, the geometric depictions of the flagellation of Christ. I feel elated when I discover profound connections with my oeuvre.
We never cease to admire Piero della Francesca... The naiveté and simplicity of the line and the construct...
Coloring the interior of the lines; I am firmly against it. My paint is, in essence, a drawing paint. Painting dominated by drawing.
There is also the act of filling the space in your paintings...
I do not fill any space. I have been against it from the onset.
No, my wording was incorrect. I meant like a reflection, or an echo of the figure there...
Line’s power to carry a discourse without needing anything else, the dramatic role of color. These are the issues that I pursue.
Naturally, color assumes a critical role in your art...
There is certainly a common point to this process. Fifty-sixty years from past to present... Yet, when you look back on the past, do you see a difference between your past and present pursuits? You mentioned continuity at some point...
Of course there is. It was the desire to attain a better understanding of the common denominator of years spent with painting, the theater, and education, spread across many years. The more I learned, the more my needs increased. My readings in philosophy and texts on the philosophy of art challenges the assembly and disassembly of the paintings I’ve done.
In any kind of education or training, something always remains missing and you complete that if you have the right instincts, isn’t that so?
Between you and I(!), I’ve always felt incomplete.
Countless people were fascinated by your art from the onset and were influenced by it. The same is still true today as it was in the early days, in the 1970s.
The 60s even.
Of course. So, what is that? Why are people so drawn to it, so affected by it?
My paintings were deemed off-putting for a while and not considered appealing. For one thing, they were not purchased for quite some time. What’s even funnier, I always demanded a higher price than the average. Frankly, paintings were not widely sold back then.
Is that so?
Well, this is how artists gain recognition. You must first be accepted by other people of your profession and given room amongst them. You can’t expect that of viewers. Artists, people who know and understand art -and they are few in number- recognized my art as distinct. Of course, there was a state of “lone-ness.” Viewers perceived my art as adverse, ugly, repulsive, and disturbing for quite some time. I was called the “eternal contrarian.” The level of satire in the humor of my art, the level of social criticism was unconventional Yes, as an eternal contrarian, an adverse character, I chose to refrain from compromising with the status quo. I stood outside of the “accepted.” “Accepting to be unaccepted.” The state of being unaccepted is, in a sense, an affirmation of the correctness of your path!
Why? Can you explain the reason?
There were several reasons.
This resistance or defiance, rebellion creates an incredible charisma at the same time. I saw that. Perhaps, this charisma is partly due to the fact that you are constantly concerned with people. Drawing, painting, acting, whatever it is, your focal point is human relations and the human tragedy. Kind of like Sophocles’ approach to people, questioning the fundamental things of people, wondering what happens when two people get together...
My interested in that was never exhausted or worn off. I unknowingly continue to record these somewhere at the back of my head, for I see their reflections in the works I produce.
We see that. I can recognize it in the videos you sent me as well, for example. You go out in the street and ask, “How do people move? What does that movement mean? How is it a reflection of an inner world?” I believe that is what draws people, this interest you have in them. The human drama, human relations, and a person’s place in the world. An animal or a tree. I remember a painting of yours, portraying the struggle of a man that had fallen into a pool of water. A constant struggle, an endless effort to keep up the dynamics of life. The lines and colors in the painting both demonstrate and express that effort or struggle. As though it finds shape through that. Essentially, this aspect of your painting is what appeals to people, it seems.
From the 1970s onwards -and for a long time, perhaps some twenty-five years and occasionally manifesting itself again- I did a series of monkeys; there was no mention of humans. They were human-oriented works in the metaphorical sense. Next, I did a huge nature series. Destroyed nature. These paintings are, in a sense, the affirmation of a psychic state of forewarning. Highly unappealing subjects. Then, there is the “water” paintings series. Again, no humans there. There are no humans in any of the fourteen 3.5 by 3.5 m paintings at Ankara Sheraton. Yet, humans are there. They are there in their absence. All that state of evacuation and desolation points to nature destroyed, in the 1990s, when no one had begun to speak of ecological destruction.
Above all else, art is primarily geared towards people, is it not?
First of all, I am against any kind of domination. I stand opposed to roughness, oppression, and the wielding of power over children, women, animals, and people in general... I remember that I began contemplating the state of women as a child. The things I learned as a close witness of the way my mother lived an upstanding life, without making any concessions or remarrying, and at the cost of staying even away from me for having made the decision to separate after two years of marriage... The things I learned from all that served as my guide. The subjects she broached without insistence, in her comments and evaluations were like discourses on the male world, rather than advice to her son. The things she transmitted in an undertone, in line with her nature, the value of which I understand better with each passing day, were perhaps even more deeply ingrained in my brain due to her implicit style.
It is so wonderful for you to have connected with your mom.
As of 1967-68, my work came to be centered on women. In 1968, I set forth with an exhibition titled, Woman. Even the Çadır Tiyatrosu (Theater Tent) painting currently in the Collection of the Central Bank of Turkey was part of that journey. A winged ram descends from the sky into a wooded area as an object of sexual desire to rape the actress of the theater tent. I painted this work as I was doing my military service, to submit it to the competition opened for the Istanbul Opera Building, which burned down later. Of course, I was certain it would be rejected, but I had thought at the time that at least I could enjoy the pleasure of making the jury members squirm a bit.
You made many people squirm with your paintings in those years... I think you came to be accepted increasingly more easily over the years...
Years later, this painting was added to the Collection of the Central Bank. Women always take the lead role for me. The way women were viewed changed in the world once women changed the way they viewed themselves.
It seems that the impact of theater always constituted a basis, a foundation...
Don Perez –who had even worked with Lee Strasberg– was offering playwriting courses at the Actor’s Studio directed by Beklan Algan. In articulating how important it is for a writer to take an issue of vital importance to himself as his starting point, he said, “If you had the power of God, what would you want to change? Starting off from needs of this kind is the right driving force, a correct reason.” Each person should set off from his/her own issues. The first and most essential thing is to be genuine, sincere. Be sincere. You are strong if being liked or disliked means nothing to you. You can swim against the current. I believe, in a way, the truth to life is nor too far beyond the most basic elements. There is nothing beyond the human being.
Ankara-Paris, October 21-27, 2021