Istanbul

Mehmet Sinan Kuran, Le pain quotidien (Daily Bread), 2020, ink on found photograph, 14 3/8 × 10 3/8".

Mehmet Sinan Kuran, Le pain quotidien (Daily Bread), 2020, ink on found photograph, 14 3/8 × 10 3/8".

Mehmet Sinan Kuran

Anna Laudel

Mehmet Sinan Kuran received no formal art education. He worked as a bootlegger in the 1980s, when he was in his twenties, and, identifying with Charles Bukowski, filled notebooks with grim sketches of the denizens of Istanbul’s bohemian quarters. “Painting is a mode of writing for me,” he said in 2013. That year at Istanbul’s Çağla Cabaoğlu Gallery, for his first solo show, Kuran displayed notebooks that abounded with miniature pen-and-ink drawings in the style of Edward Gorey. They featured disembodied limbs and Surrealist props—wandering eyes, animals in colorful costumes—as well as quotations from novelists and philosophers. A subsequent work, the ink drawing Gezi, 2014, reflects the schizophrenic energy of the previous year’s uprising at Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The decentralized figures in the chaotic composition—consisting of bricks, heads, towers, and trees cohabiting a common space without hierarchies—and the lack of one-point perspective rhyme with the Gezi movement’s radical politics.

Later, the artist’s style became more elaborate. Untitled, 2017, an ink-on-paper tondo, recalls the works of Hieronymus Bosch, showing a burning heart at its center, from which graffiti-like figures spiral outward. A handmade embroidery variation on that work, Magical Forest, 2019, was featured in Kuran’s latest exhibition, “Posthumous”: Gloomy ravens, traveling tree branches, clouds spewing rain, and a flying whale—all drawn with the eye-catching energy of Keith Haring’s works—populate its concentric circles. A woman depicted as a religious icon adds a spiritual layer to the fantastical composition.

Kuran’s trademark is a mixture of Christian iconography, cartoonish figures recalling those in Ottoman miniatures, and symbols of American consumerism. In the installation Pray, 2020, a Christ figure with handmade wooden wings stands next to glass flowers attached to a wooden pedestal without a vase, just behind a bell jar containing an epoxy woman. The work appeared in a dark room where a Vivaldi concerto played in the background. Beneath the pedestal, a mechanically operated spotlight illuminated these figures to create the effect of a shadow play. The secondhand and found materials that compose the tableau energized it, aiding the impression of a transcendental moment.

Le pain quotidien (Daily Bread), 2020, features an ink drawing on a photograph purchased from an antique store in the town of Urla, Turkey, a cultural center of the Hellenistic period. The photo—which carries the legend PHOTOGRAPHER TO THE QUEEN on its mount and was taken by the firm Walery of 164 Regent Street, London—is a portrait of a Victorian man. Kuran’s lines deconstruct its respectable-looking subject: A teardrop appears below one eye; an eye adorns the knot of his tie; a naked leg bursts out of his trouser placket. These doodles playfully underline and undermine Victorian signifiers of gender.

Kuran’s practice is versatile: Painting, sculpture, installation, textile, neon, wood, and ceramic works filled the gallery’s three stories. For Veda (Farewell), 2020, Kuran wrote (in Turkish) on a wood-framed mirror in permanent marker: POVERTY DEVASTATES ME. WHATEVER. GOODBYE. The quote comes from a letter by early-twentieth-century Turkish artist Fikret Muallâ to a journalist friend. Muallâ, a Fauvist famed for his paintings of Parisian street life and circuses, spent twenty-nine years in France in poverty. He was institutionalized multiple times and, having been kicked out of a string of hotels, lived in the parks and subways of Paris, exchanging his paintings for food and wine. In this homage, Muallâ’s words addressed the mirror’s viewers, echoing Kuran’s own struggles with poverty. Meanwhile, Veda reflected paintings that invoked Muallâ’s own, with their similarly strident colors, wild abstractions, and maker’s passion for chronicling his milieu.