Füsun Onur’s “Variations” at Maçka Sanat Galerisi, Istanbul

Merve Ünsal

November 8, 2012
Maçka Sanat Galerisi, Istanbul
October 9–December 1, 2012

Füsun Onur (born 1938) is an artist whose practice is defined by the persistent use of modest materials. While her work recently met with a greater audience this summer at Documenta 13, in the local Istanbul context she has been showing with Maçka Sanat Galerisi since 1987. Her fifth solo show there remained on a characteristically modest scale.

A slightly below ground level storefront, Maçka Sanat Galerisi is covered wall-to-wall in light brown-yellow tiles, from the steps leading to the entrance of the gallery into the gallery itself. Onur has employed the unusual space as both a catalyst and central element for “Variations,” with the muted lighting acting as a subtle deviation from the very particular architecture. The installation in the front room, at first glance, is almost invisible. From a distance, the tiled wall seems to be speckled with colorful dots, but upon closer inspection, the work is revealed as barely but fully three-dimensional. Each tile is covered in sheer plastic that is peeling off on one edge, weighted down by colorful paper clips. Here we find a subtle threat of being dismantled—the fragility of the materials in clear contrast to the flawless yet weathered unity of the tiles, suggesting a graphic modernism, self-contained albeit wounded.

The second part of the same installation is displayed on a recessed wall, lit by a hidden fixture. The nook keeps the viewer at a diffident distance—an understated feeling furthered by the lighting. This specific installation has a twofold function: by installing a second version of the same work, Onur underlines the artwork’s shifting impact when rendered in a different space. The second function, perhaps more importantly, is the way in which the installation mimics the flattened nook; the continuation of the tiles in both the foreground and the background renders the space dimensionless. With her installation, which recedes and advances into and out of the viewer’s perception, Onur makes visible the monotonous, monochromatic space of the gallery and reveals that it is anything but neutral.

And if this first room sets up the stage for a muted emigration from modernism, the canvases in the back room of the exhibition mark her defection back in, her willing return to a modernist state (if there can be such a return). The surfaces have been stitched in gold, a color the artist has frequently employed, whose connotations of reverence are diluted by her use of a pale blue. The canvases share a calculated silence, a self-conscious serenity.

This blue takes me back to 1995, to one of Onur’s previous solo exhibitions at Maçka called “Kadans.” For this show, the only materials that the artist brought into the exhibition space were sheets of pale blue tulle and beads. Metal rods, which form the existing display structure at the gallery, were the only other elements on view. Here too responding to the specificity of Maçka’s architecture, Onur had covered up a trash container in blue tulle and placed it in the center of the exhibition. The permanency, the heftiness of the tiled interior of the gallery space was hollowed out by the subtlety of the artist’s addition to and re-contextualization of what was already there.

“Variations” is Onur’s markedly respectful de-construction of the venue of an institution with which she shares a long-term affiliation. At the crux of this exhibition is the artist’s gentle, playful handling of the gallery’s architecture and tricky setting. Once again, she has chosen to treat the space as an accomplice, striking an uneasy alliance with its quirks and limitaftions. It is an impossible gesture acknowledging the fledgling experimentation that has defined her work from the very beginning.

Modernism, Installation, Architecture

Merve Ünsal is a visual artist based in Istanbul. In her work she employs text and photography, possibly beyond their form.

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November 8, 2012

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