Nejat Sati, Nelumbo Nucifera, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 14 1⁄8 × 10 5⁄8".

Nejat Sati, Nelumbo Nucifera, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 14 1⁄8 × 10 5⁄8".

Nejat Sati

Since his debut exhibition at Istanbul’s Apartment Project a decade ago, Nejat Sati has become a rarity in Turkey’s installation- and video-dominated art world, thanks to his devotion to canvas and paint. Out of all the forty-two works in his earlier shows—“Hypoglottis,” 2010, and “State of Mind,” 2012—only two were mixed media: Tongue, 2010, a sculpture made from colorful pills, and Totem, 2012, an installation comprising one hundred paint cans lined up end to end to form what looked like a pipe. Acrylic abstractions with a metallic sheen made up the bulk of his early shows. Energetic in their dance of colors, those works were introspective; only a handful, such as Melancholy VI, 2012, which mimics a broken ATM display screen, hinted at an interest in social concerns.

In the summer of 2013, after the Turkish government crushed an uprising in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Sati fled the city, settled in the Anatolian countryside, and began painting in black. His 2016– series “Cracks” marked a turn away from the briskness of his early works, with layered shards of paint reflecting a newfound pessimism. The shift might seem to echo Kazimir Malevich’s switch from colorful Cubo-Futurist works in the early 1910s to darkness in Black Square, 1915, but Malevich’s turn wasn’t rooted in pessimism. Sati characterized this time as his “black period.” But in 2017 the artist mounted the exhibition “Light in the Dark,” whose great theme, as its title suggests, was hope.

Sati’s recent exhibition “Wild Flowers” marked a further development in his practice. It was inspired by a 1997 botany book featuring color photographs of plants—many familiar from the surroundings of Sati’s hut in Izmir. The fifteen canvases of identical size, about fourteen by eleven inches each, resemble abstracted landscapes, but in fact depict the colors of petals and reproductive parts of wildflowers. In these microscopic views, lines and shapes are indiscernible. Many of the flowering plants, fruit crops, and ornamental vines that featured in this show were of the type that Sati cultivates in the garden outside his studio.

Hepatica Americana (all works 2019) portrayed a pink liverleaf, the yellow, petallike shape at the bottom of its canvas resembling sand in a dreamy landscape. The purple color gradients of Ipomoea Sagittata, representing a salt marsh morning glory, recalled a seascape. The strongest works in the show were those most open to interpretation: Droseraceae studied the color of a carnivorous plant, similar to the way Turner studies a sunset. Dicentra Spectabilis, a hypnotizing light-pink canvas, was based on a bleeding-heart poppy. Its plastic paint seeps beyond the edges of the canvas, to good effect.

Sati’s cycle of blossoming and fading plants also included, for instance, Nelumbo Nucifera, which focuses on the petals of the Indian lotus, and Papaver Rhoeas, which is a representation of a poppy of the kind that’s come to symbolize fallen British soldiers. Despite the challenge of global warming, the world’s plants have retained their colors, and Sati’s work celebrates this endurance. There is an added poignancy to his painting these plants during the sixth mass extinction, when one in five plant species is expected to die out. As they disappear into impressionistic canvases, those flowers signal Sati’s growing politicization. Campaigning on a promise to bring “spring at the end of March,” Turkey’s main opposition party recently scored many victories in local elections across the nation. The artist says this is what inspired his return to color. But despite a sense of refreshed political optimism, the destruction of wildlife continues across Turkey, and the canvas seems destined to be the resting place of much of Anatolia’s rich flora.