Yeşim Akdeniz Graf, Love, 2011, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 90 1/2".

Yeşim Akdeniz Graf, Love, 2011, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 90 1/2".

Yeşim Akdeniz Graf

Dirimart Istanbul

Yeşim Akdeniz Graf, Love, 2011, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 90 1/2".

For her exhibition “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Turkish-born Yeşim Akdeniz Graf (who studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, then lived in Amsterdam and Berlin before moving to Istanbul two years ago) showed new, predominantly large-format paintings. These works are marked by a characteristic, strikingly imaginative pictorial language and a repertoire of symbolic images. Often these were animal figures, such as the tigers in Love (all works 2011) and Retrospective. Both these tigers recline in the same pose, gazing directly at the observer. They are the principal characters in an allegory that Akdeniz Graf contextualized using architectural or landscape settings and further specified by adding in particular objects that serve as attributes of the central figures. For example, a red rope lies at the feet of the tiger in Retrospective, while sex toys and shackles appear in Love. In the latter painting, Akdeniz Graf draws the viewer’s gaze into the distance, with a suspension bridge (suggestive of Istanbul) in the background that seems to open the horizon even wider; the interior space in Retrospective is organized into sections that decrease in size according to the laws of central perspective, culminating—and apparently continuing as well—in a picture within a picture, an abstraction vaguely reminiscent of Josef Albers. In both cases, the gaze moves deeper into the image and thus into the imagination. Akdeniz Graf is concerned above all with introspection. Representative of the subliminally disorienting effect typical of her work in these animal portraits is the way she equips her beasts with human gazes. These are imaginary hybrid creatures that express human emotions without losing their animal characters. She sometimes refers to these animal pictures as self-portraits.

The show’s title set the stage for the imaginative foundations of Akdeniz Graf’s work: It is taken from a tale by Edgar Allan Poe in which a murderer, driven by the intensity of his own imagination, hears the heart of the man he has killed continue to beat. It’s not the story itself that particularly interested the artist, and she has not illustrated it in any of these paintings. Rather, the title served as a sort of subtext for the show, pointing to the unfathomable, subliminally powerful force and vitality of the images we carry within us—just as they are clearly meaningful to Akdeniz Graf herself. In Cocaine Nights, for example, the female figure captured as she reclines on a couch recalls pictures by Balthus and Rousseau, and Akdeniz Graf’s work most certainly suggests a similar timelessness and also a comparable poetic stylization. She emphasizes her figures by using vivid colors and simple compositions: Practically everything in her pictures focuses on the symbolic actors and their props—there are no unnecessary details to distract us. A few of the paintings presented images of individual buildings, often seen from curious perspectives—for instance, towering up as viewed from below. This makes them appear emotionally fraught; they are virtually psychograms or portraits—the building as a symbol of personal identity. Youth, Hatiralar Müzesi (Memory Museum), and Villa are works of this sort. Vagina City, on the other hand, is a timeless, stagelike expanse of landscape, in which architectural and plant elements combine to form a hybrid phantasm—a construction whose simultaneously open and ambiguous symbolism seems to be invoking a utopia of femininity.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.