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If somebody looks at art just as a way of passing the time, or at a work of art as a means to delight men's eyes and heart and to open his mind, an artist's portrait like the one depicted by Özdemir Altan could be rather enigmatic. Eyes being used to see a bowl with apples and oranges next to a vase filled with roses on the canvas will feel themselves rather like solving a riddle when dealing with the circular shapes in Özdemir Altan' s "Family Trees" or with what he thinks about and lectures on space.
But mounting empty painting tubes on a canvas, using strange materials, naming pictures like "Four precautions against radiation that enters all the way into the house", "Methods for catching kidnappers" or "Developing procedures for the recovery of wristwatches being dropped into the Izmit gulf between the years of 1925 and 1965" altogether focuses on his interest around issues which may be summarised under the heading "depth".
Let us have a look on Özdemir Altan's materials. Since a long time Özdemir Altan uses everything as material for his art, even his grandchild Yağmur. It is because Özdemir Altan knows very well the evolution of art from the beginnings with the early cave paintings up to the fine arts of these days. His knowledge of art history equals his proficiency in practising arts. And contrasts have occurred in art every time, in history as well as up till now.
We don't need to look fare away: As a well known example we can take the Ambassadors of the younger Hans Holbein from 1533, now kept in the London National Gallery. In this oil painting Holbein combines objects, which by no means go together: Wooden musical instruments, the ambassadors' robes made from softly flowing fabrics trimmed with fur, the marble floor etc.
Özdemir Altan however does not confine himself to capture incompatible objects with brush and paint on canvas. He uses such objects directly as materials and in this way gets his view to the point, that in the art of the 20th century everything is material.
This by no means will say that the artist is revolting against traditional western art being permanently something searching, finding, compelling or analysing. On the contrary it shows that Altan founded his very own art on the base of western art which he completely has assimilated. In other words, Özdemir Altan's art rests on solid foundations. What Özdemir Altan opposes are petrified or tabooed concepts in arts, the easiness of conservatism. At no time from his early days up till now he was a superficial artist. Beginning his search on "depth" as a student, he devoted himself in total awareness to this issue after 1970. Material serves as the means best expressing his understanding of depth. Depth is according to Özdemir Altan not restricted to creating the impression of the third dimension on a two-dimensional canvas. Apart from the pure artistic issue he as well is interested in the socio-cultural aspect of depth. Art on the surface is synonymous with superficial art for Özdemir Altan and therefor he works with reluctance just on the surface of the canvas. He feels the length and breadth of the canvas surface as primitive. Working on the surface is equivalent to introducing monotonous and primitive thinking into art.
For him this concept is best illustrated in the classic music and to some extend also in literature. He says: "Music originates from sounds and plastic art from shapes, bodies and colours". Naming "sounds" he addresses the polyphony as represented in the pieces' score. From the main works of literature e.g. the numerous manifold and closely interconnected events in "war and peace" have influenced him.
In this connection nevertheless an important remark is necessary: The media mainly speak about Özdemir Altan as somebody who has no message. Considering however that every piece of art is a message (a medium) per se, this statement can not be upheld. No doubt Özdemir Altan expresses in his works his experiences, findings, himself, his thoughts and various issues relevant to the current situation. Surely our friends from the media want to express that Özdemir Altan leaves no room for literature in his art. Indeed, he has been influenced by literature, but by its depth related aspects rather than its descriptive ones. As in human life in Özdemir Altan's art coincidence plays an important part. He has prooved this first with his four panel work at the "Osman Hamdi Hall" of Mimar Sinan University on October 24th, 1988, realised with various materials. In this work artists with completely different understanding of art, different philosophy and personality and belonging to all age-groups without any previous trying, have combined various materials on four panels, which were completely incompatible and have at least proven Özdemir Altan's thesis that "objects being completely different regarding their concept, origin, and meaning, combined alltogether yield art".
Concerning the objects mounted to the mentioned panels, we are dealing with: an accordion, cookies, a toy gun, various black and red painted wooden bombs, a poster, photos, plastic letters, a radio belonging to the University's printing shop's master, hard board templates etc. All these logically completely incompatible objects put together, yield and perfect the term "space". With these collages and assemblages going back to Cubism or even more to Dadaism Özdemir Altan realises his characteristic "space". He transfers the procedures tested in his panel works equally into his paintings. Working with paints, paper, small objects, structures, contrasting colours, that is with the logical contrasts of a variety of different objects he places his compositions into the empty space.
Which are accordingly the topics of Özdemir Altan? Up till now Özdemir Altan has passed various periods creating works in a variety of styles and that way has proven his ability to accommodate to a rapidly changing world. His topics may be summarised under the common headline observations and reactions. We recognise in his works, his reaction to the superficial way of Turkish thinking and to conservatism. As in physics, he thinks, opposites attract and enrich life. That is why he does not support harmony but dissonance. Since, he realises that harmony needs sacrifice and concession. That community means mutuality, and mutuality means depth. There is no room in Altan's way of thinking for concepts like renunciation, timidity and vagueness at the expense of harmony.
In the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition at the Derimod Cultural Centre in 1989 his works are split up according their topics, techniques, materials and plastic elements into the following phases, which has to be completed with the Family Trees and Panel Works with multiperson today:
Naturally all the successive years of the artist make a whole. Nevertheless one may state that the first distinguishing marks of the works of today appeared in the 12th of March period. The pictures of this period show Özdemir Altan to be a witness to the turmoil happening in the name of maintaining the stability of the country, show him shattered, suffering painful years. The following New Figuration period was a time where his figures grew mechanical, but the artist had discernibly good hope. In this time concepts like "Joining the strange" or "alienation" began to consolidate. Both, methodically as well as philosophically, big differences exist between the Wagnerian seeming "Twice St.George and the Dragon" (1964), created in the Romantic Period, and works like the "Encyclopaedia of rascal dogs" (1986), "Centralised Camp for the Care, Training and Support of critics" (1986) or "The problem of accommodation of the children of eastern emigrants" (1988). The influences of Delacroix and Turner now have made room for influences on his environment. Passing years have made Altan a philosopher. In the naming of his pictures one can see a certain sense of humour in his point of view. To watch the meaningful and the meaningless to be synonymous in his country, to see black humour becoming more and more a part of daily life, would have made the others nihilist. It's effect on Özdemir Altan however was completely different. It made him look for depth not only in space but in everything beeing a part of life. Since 1990 Özdemir Altan works on his "Family Tree" series. Simple rounded shapes connected to one another. The shapes in these "Family Trees", released from any attempt to be pleasant, nice or chic, undertake the role of a conveyor of the "depth" term; to emphasise his view that the combination of completely different concepts, logics and structures creates art. Putting Özdemir Altan's message in his pictures into words, one can state that he wants to say: "Take care of depth in life. Break taboos, don't be conservative. Be free, acquire your freedom, but equally take care of the freedom of others, so you will become aware of all the wealth of the life!" Possibly one way to comply with this message might be to become plain, to be clear and to a certain extent also to grasp the essential.