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The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is the oldest public art museum in the United States. It was also the first to incorporate contemporary art into its vision as an encyclopedic museum. Founded in 1842, the Wadsworth exhibited the Hudson River School painters, and it brought America its first exhibition of Surrealism in 1931 and its first Picasso retrospective in 1934.
Building on that legacy, since 1975 the Wadsworth’s MATRIX solo exhibition series has specifically championed the work of emerging contemporary artists. Through MATRIX, the Wadsworth has mounted the first U.S. solo museum exhibitions of many artists who are now considered influential figures in contemporary art, including Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, Gerhard Richter, Adrian Piper, and Glenn Ligon. The list goes on.
So, as if representing Iraq in the Venice Biennale last year wasn’t proof enough, artist Ahmed Alsoudani, presenting his first solo museum show in the United States is in very, very good company at the Wadsworth.
After living through two wars and emigrating from his native Iraq, Ahmed Alsoudani began his study of art in the U.S. shortly before the events of 9/11. Talk about timing. To say this history has influenced his work would be an understatement — it may well be its defining characteristic.
Alsoudani’s paintings exist in a liminal space between figuration and abstraction. They are beautifully troublesome shambles, with a surreal fringe, like an artist playing a game of exquisite corpse with himself. But then again, Alsoudani is also of two cultures, and perhaps, as it is for many immigrants to this land (myself included), understanding what it means to be an American is like trying to interpret the hidden meaning of a dream.
I caught up with Alsoudani at the Wadsworth the other day. Here is some of our conversation about art, politics, culture, and the canon.
Samuel Rowlett: So, you were born in Iraq and came to the States to study art, and eventually became a U.S. citizen. How was your naturalization process? Did you experience any xenophobia when you came to this country?
Ahmed Alsoudani: I’m in a unique position because where I come from we’ve been involved in the war for six or seven years with the country that I’m adopting as my home. So emotionally, this has something to do with my state of mind when I make my work. Believe it or not, Iraqis consider me more American, but here on the other hand, maybe because of my skin color or my name, even being in New York, I’m seen as more Iraqi than American. I don’t think about my identity when I’m working.
SR: Where do you feel you are between Iraqi and American? Do you feel your work fits in with the whole Western canon or more of a Middle Eastern aesthetic?
AA: Mentally I was prepared to adopt this place before the place itself adopted me. I would be happy if my work would relate to more than a specific region. I studied here, so the influence is from here. I’m not trying to deny where I come from, the painting itself carries a lot of where I come from, but in terms of visualizing my thoughts, the tool is European/American.
SR: Do you ever feel conflicted about this as an artist, or was it something you readily embraced?
AA: I live in a place that is exceptional in many ways. In New York we don’t have a New York or American-style. There is diversity at any level. We would have a different conversation if I lived somewhere other than New York, even in Boston. In my case, I’m privileged to live not in the margins, but in the center of the art scene, I work there, I live there.
SR: From where do you draw your imagery? Is it memory or fabrication? Do influences operate with complete autonomy from one another in terms of your process?
AA: Not just memory, I will say memory, which is related to history. My work doesn’t document something that has happened but something that is happening. So time, as an element, plays a visual part in my work. The imagery is not from imagining, but from experience, covered with a layer of the vision of the artist. Sometimes I use a certain color palette to relate to a certain environment or a certain place. The imagery is really a mixture of different influences.
SR: I see a lot of formal things going on in your work. Can you talk about some of your aesthetic decisions?
AA: Well, you’re an artist, a painter as well, you know we are privileged to live in a time where we have all these “schools.” Right now New York functions as an artist’s city, as like a melting pot, where you can put everything in, so that applies as well to my work. I don’t really have specific boundaries where I need to stop when I feel I have to stop, or specific rules I need to break in order to be free from certain rules. On the other hand, and I’m talking to you as a painter, painting functions like math. You calculate everything, but in order to make it work you should not be able to calculate it.
SR: Totally, I think that might be the real struggle — you know, when to say when. Do you see these paintings specifically as products coming out of that melting pot?
AA: I do believe so. On a personal level, I came from one culture and was educated in another place, in different culture. There was a conflict and we met, and I saw myself as two people, we met in the middle and came up with a solution. The solution is that you see a surface, you see influence, you see many elements related to where I am living. But also, the painting has been loaded with a lot of symbolic elements to relate where I come from. So that’s why I say there are no boundaries, or specific lines between the memory and the moment in which I live. That’s why I like the idea of the experience of the artist’s vision.
Postmodernism is a perfect example of what is going on in painting, in the same way that French philosophers like Foucault or Derrida approach their themes by grabbing something from here and something from another place, and through the process of exploring ideas you get lost and it can seem like they’re saying nothing. But actually they are building layer upon layer of meaning, and in the end they have the freedom to take whatever suits their approach in reaching their conclusion. I think I approach painting in the same way. No artist makes a perfect work, there’s no such thing. It is like a melting pot, you put some things in it and you make a soup.
SR: If we can follow that metaphor, what I see is that those elements, or ingredients, when they go in the “pot” still retain their identity in a way.
AA: That’s a really nice point. That’s very important. Making a painting is like making a soup. We just ate soup [the artist had come from lunch] and it didn’t taste like they said it would, it really wasn’t good, it looked good, but it wasn’t. If you give a professional chef a dish made from 10 ingredients they should be able to taste at least six or seven of those ingredients. In my work I use the influence of things, I don’t put that there, I smell something, I taste some of this, I hear some of that, I see some of another thing, some of it just reminds me of the shade of something.
The elements, as you said, they work to support the painting as a whole. I don’t know what you call it, but they move in the same “circle” of the painting? They are still a part of my painting, this is the hardest part, to take different elements some of them 20 years old, some of them 500 years old. I’m talking about the artists here, you take from Renaissance, you take from contemporary, et cetera. The hardest part is how you bring them together, and you put a layer of your identity on top of it.
SR: Isn’t it the artist’s eternal quandary, how to maintain your identity? But also in some way there’s this joining of a stream, or there might be a defining movement at work?
AA: Another great thing about the time we live in, we don’t have one dominating movement, the art scene is wide open, so we have the privilege of many scenes, many styles, and many schools working together. You have hundreds of galleries, over 300 art fairs! It puts the pressure on you, but on the other hand you have a lot of freedom for experimenting with different things from different angles. But, how do you maintain that? Probably drink a lot of whiskey!
SR: As in sometimes it’s what you don’t put into the soup, or painting, that is just as important as what you put into it.
AA: Yes, yes! In the end a great painter has to be a great decision maker.
Ahmed Alsoudani’s MATRIX 165 runs at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut through January 6, 2013.