Gökçen Cabadan, Hiddenface, 2020, oil on canvas, 27 1⁄2 × 19 5⁄8".

Gökçen Cabadan, Hiddenface, 2020, oil on canvas, 27 1⁄2 × 19 5⁄8".

Gökçen Cabadan

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, forty-year-old Gökçen Cabadan is the most skillful Turkish painter of his generation. Since his solo debut in 2008, Cabadan has often considered uncanny objects—dressed mannequins in a shopwindow, part of a skeleton inside a fountain, a man playing with a set of Russian dolls—in his oil paintings and pastels. Working from images found in magazines or online ads and using bright colors, passages of pure abstraction, and various types of estrangement effect, Cabadan presents us with figures who seek shelter and privacy even as they find themselves on public display. His subjects’ gaze often meets that of the viewer, complicating the identities of the former and the assumptions of the latter.

There was a shift in the work in Cabadan’s most recent exhibition, “Gaslighting,” which featured mainly human figures and treated identity as at once self-projected and publicly defined. Untitled, 2021, is based on a photograph of British chess player Marcus Harvey—not to be confused with the English artist of the same name—peering at a chessboard on a red table, pondering his next move. The painting manipulates Harvey’s gaze by eliminating the board and replacing it with a hand mirror. The table divides the composition, putting the player at a distance while supporting the object that is key to his self-discovery. A similar red table appears in Structure the Past, 2021, in which a man plays Whac-A-Mole as liquid spills from the large blue mallet he’s wielding. In place of small plastic moles, frogs’ heads anxiously watch the man’s moves. The player’s bland expression nevertheless suggests his absorption in the futile task at hand.

Heavy Chest, 2021, portrays a man in medical garb in a moment of introspection. Cabadan says that he captured the image from a YouTube video about a Middle Eastern surgeon treating Covid patients, and that his idea was to offer a fleeting glimpse of a moment of breathlessness that might end up in asphyxiation. The surgeon clutches his chest, the gesture interweaving femininity, self-scrutiny, and anguish, while the framing, by cropping out the eyes, erases the subject’s individuality and reduces the figure to a profession. Hiddenface, 2020, employs a similar a tactic. Beginning with an image of a man who, on a gay dating app, redacted his features with a black square in an attempt to remain anonymous, Cabadan replaced the square with a navy-blue dot. The oil-on-canvas portrait oozes the slippery liquidity of identity. The man’s arm and head are perched on the side of a pool while his body rests in the water. Along with the dot covering his face, another one and a pink oval appear on the pool deck’s wet tile surface. Having emerged from the water only halfway, the man suggests a condition of in-betweenness: One can transgress the prison house of subjectivity, if only for a moment.

This reckoning with the self takes a different form in Untitled, 2021, a pastel portraying a headscarfed woman testing a skin-whitening cream. Captured from an Instagram ad, the portrait reveals another conflicted self. Pointing in opposite directions, her hands shield her brow and chin, distilling a moment of self-making. An orange wave shape covers the right part of the frame, contrasting sharply with the austere coloration of the uneasily smiling figure and hinting at a prospective deviance from identity and history. Yet again, Cabadan pairs a seemingly listless abstract plane with nostalgically realist figuration, so that the awkwardly cropped, imaginatively blurred compositions illustrate the puzzle of subjectivity.