Özlem Altin

Review

Özlem Altin

By Zachary Royer Scholz October 19, 2015

The work of German artist Özlem Altin requires patience. Though the individual pieces in her Kiria Koula exhibition each possess their own internal import, their more significant impact lies in the constellation of relationships that emerges between them and the context they occupy. These relationships, like threads, produce a net that entangles viewers in an open and ongoing production of meaning in which their own memories and subjective navigation are active participants.

The five photo-based works and the two small oil paintings that constitute the show initially seem divergent.  The black-and-white prints combine images Altin has culled from various sources with photos she has taken herself. Some images are carefully staged; others are captured off the cuff with her cell phone. These various photographs are sometimes presented as-is, and sometimes printed one over another to produce layered amalgams. All of these pieces contain depictions of hands, though these hands are fragmented, approximated, alienated, or obscured.  

In the work Sleeping statue (2013), an image of a pair of disembodied feminine hands are overlaid on the head of a slumbering monkey who seems unaware of their comforting or menacing presence. Untitled (permaklik) (2014) shows an arm reaching through a basement-level security grill to either retrieve or offer a strand of prayer beads. In Dangling (2011), a human figure walks hunched over, either weighed down by their own hands or playing at a peculiar sort of evolutionary regression. And, while there are no real hands in Untitled (Arm auf Teppich) (2015), a crudely constructed approximation of an arm lies inert on an Asian carpet like a dropped murder weapon or a remnant of a child’s game.  

The pair of impasto oil paintings Prophecy II and Trauma, both 2015, at first seem nothing like the cleanly framed photographic works. But they too started as images of hands that Altin either found or took herself. These base images were reworked over several years through repeated tracing and layering with oil paint, ink, and other materials. The hands and arms buried deep within can no longer be seen, but still echo in the brushstrokes covering them.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the hands in Altin’s pieces is their ambiguity. The hand is often used as a metonym, to stand in for the self, in part because hands are active agents within the world, and partly because, unlike faces, we can see our own hands in the flesh. Substituting the hand for the whole assumes that identity is durable and intelligible enough to be represented by a fragment. The ambiguity of Altin’s hands undermines this assumed stability, and suggests instead that identity is a work in progress, a continually reauthored configuration of mimicked gestures and borrowed positions that is open to external influences.  

Altin’s installation reinforces this repetitive, reauthored logic. The seven individual works are deliberately scattered throughout the gallery in carefully selected locations, positions, and relationships. These orchestrated situations produce particular resonances within the immediate context, but more significantly, as viewers wend their way through the gallery from work to work, each new piece is encountered with a ghostly memory of previous ones shadowing it like the phantom residue from a bright light. Meanings and similarities accumulate and fade. Aspects of one piece prompt a circuitous return visit to previous ones, and these revisitations result in still new paths and new return journeys.

Altin’s seemingly small exhibition cannot be seen from a single vantage point, and exists wholly only as a memory. Like all memories, its boundaries are soft, allowing influences from the space around to seep in. The pale-green-edged brushstrokes in the painting Trauma look uncannily like the paint-scraped surfaces of the gallery’s two tall wooden columns, and it is unclear if the work, which was finished this year, was intentionally made to echo them or if this coincidence is a carefully orchestrated accident. Similarly, in Echo (2013), the hands of a hunched figure grip at a head that they seek to either comfort or punish. The piece sits on the floor propped against a low tile wall beneath the gallery’s light-flooded front windows, with an acid-etched remnant of graffiti dripping down toward it from above. The creeping marks make the huddled figure in the work seem at risk of being dripped on, adding a newly protective reading to the grasping hands.

Özlem Altin and Patricia L Boyd; installation view, Kiria Koula, San Francisco. Photo: John White.

Navigating the paths between Altin’s pieces, viewers need to step around and past the work of the other exhibiting artist, Patricia L Boyd. Boyd’s three large silkscreened floor works and hanging silver gelatin photogram capture and re-present marks made on the exhibition space and the artist’s own body.  These works are powerful and evocative in their own right, and largely impervious to their interspersed installation with Altin’s pieces. Yet Altin’s works manage to gently coopt these other works for their own ends.  

The creeping, porous boundaries of Altin’s exhibition extend all the way back into the attached bookstore, where titles selected by a growing series of artists are available for sale. There Altin’s work creates unexpected imagistic resonances with the currently displayed books, selected by Julie Peeters and Scott Ponik, most notably with a remarkable cover image on a Paul Outerbridge Jr. monograph. Altin’s works also create fascinating conceptual ripples within other texts, including complicated ones involving trauma and truth, within volumes, selected by Paul Chan on Hellenistic Aesthetics and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Özlem Altin’s exhibition at Kiria Koula is a wonderful rarity. It does not present viewers with clear answers because it is not the finished result of an exploration. It is an exploration in progress, in which viewers participate—a generous though daunting prospect. Altin’s work underlines that we never occupy a fixed perspective but always a fluid one, produced through the repetitive reinterpretation of past events. Like the recursive relationships in Altin’s exhibition, we continually revisit our own memories, reauthoring the past from the perspective of the present and justifying the present from the perspective of the past.

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Özlem Altin is on view at Kiria Koula, in San Francisco, through October 24, 2015.

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