Art In Conversation
Ahmed Alsoudani with Ann C. Collins
“I find my home in my painting.”
On ViewThe Fabric Workshop And Museum
Ahmed Alsoudani: Bitter Fruit
November 12, 2021 – May 1, 2022
Ahmed Alsoudani’s work carries memories of trauma and the loneliness of exile. His distinctive vocabulary throws viewers into spaces roiling with the complications of being as shapes and colors struggle to co-exist. Settling in to look at his work, I find that the initial shock of his imagery softens as the familiarity of his forms elicits a feeling I can only describe as a deep empathy, a recognition of our collective state.
I spoke with Alsoudani over Zoom about his residency and exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, his show this spring at Marlborough Gallery in New York, and Cut of Time, his series of small-scale works. Along the way, we touched on painting in three dimensions, how COVID lockdown shaped his practice, and the importance of reading without guilt.
Ann C. Collins (Rail): I went down to Philadelphia to The Fabric Workshop and Museum to see Bitter Fruit. When I got off the elevator and entered the exhibition, I was overwhelmed by that mix of incredible color and horrifying imagery. And yet, after walking around the work and sitting with it for a while, I found it very difficult to leave. Everything is so intimate in your work; it’s so organic and so alive that I felt like, “Oh, I really don't want to leave these guys!” I wanted to stay with the pieces.
Ahmed Alsoudani: Well, thank you. I’m glad you liked the show. I’m satisfied with how my two-year residency concluded. It allowed me to explore a physical space and create my first large-scale sculptures.
Rail: So maybe we can talk about that a little bit. These were similar to your paintings, or a lot of the imagery that you’ve created previously in your career, but transformed into large-scale three-dimensional figures. How did you find your way to this and to The Fabric Workshop?
Alsoudani: Yes, for sure the sculptures are related to my paintings. However, it wasn’t a direct transformation. My experimentation resulted in this project which was distinct from, yet related to, my paintings.
I started my residency in the spring of 2019. When I first visited the museum I met with a studio team of six amazing artists whom I would work with for the next two years. They gave me a tour of the museum’s facilities and I was especially fascinated by their fabric collection. Their archive room introduced me to the over 40-year-history of their residency program, which includes great artists like Louise Bourgeois, Howard Hodgkin, and Ann Hamilton, among many others.
The tour opened my eyes to unlimited possibilities for my project which led me to come out of my comfort zone of painting and to think of making large-scale, three-dimensional work. I considered the gallery as a blank canvas and started to wonder how I was going to “paint” it.
For the next six months I began building ideas and making sketches and drawings between my Chelsea studio and the museum’s studio. Avery Lawrence and Nami Yamamoto (from the studio team) and I looked at various materials and considered different scales while figuring out a way to bring some painterly elements to three-dimensional objects.
And, the pandemic started. I stopped going to my studio and spent most of my time in Connecticut. The project completely moved to virtual meetings and phone calls. Avery turned some of my selected drawings into 3D renderings. For the next year, we narrowed many drawings down to five pieces after endless trial and error.
I started to go back to Philly last spring where we began translating the organic forms of the renderings into the large-scale sculptures with the whole studio team. This took another six months. These forms were then placed throughout the gallery as if they were growing from the space itself. It was like a painting with five organic, alive forms.
Rail: It is like being inside of an Alsoudani painting. It’s stepping into it. Not that it’s the happiest work; the subject matter is so complicated.
Alsoudani: It’s interesting you mention “complication.” These five imposing, outsized sculptures represent the complicated world we live in. The corporeal forms are disturbing in their manifestation of pain and suffering, yet captivating in their intrinsic humanity.
Rail: I wanted to talk a little bit about your personal history, because I think that that’s so inherent in the work that you do. Were you always drawing as a kid?
Alsoudani: No, I was not. I was more into reading. I was focused on drawing more than my classmates in high school, although I never thought I’d be an artist. I got some cheers and attention, but I didn’t see a clear path to a career as an artist. About a year after I finished high school, I left for Syria. It was a long journey and I finally arrived there a year later. I was almost 20. I stayed at my older brother’s friend’s house. He was a poet, so most of his friends were writers, journalists, or actors. I lived there for four years and then arrived in the United States. I spent my first year in Washington DC, taking English classes and planning to apply for art school. I then moved to Portland, Maine where I was accepted to and attended the Maine College of Art while working at a nursing home. I had been feeling out of place and not belonging. At school, I knew that at least I had four years of being protected by an institution. I had a goal—something to work toward. Then I was accepted to Norfolk in my junior year.
Rail: That’s the Yale summer program?
Alsoudani: Yes, Yale Norfolk School of Art. The program opened up the world for me. At Maine College of Art, I was a full-time student and also had a full-time job working 50 hours a week. At the residency, I experienced life as a full-time artist for the first time. The program, led by Sam Messer, offered great facilities and invited interesting visiting artists. Three meals were prepared for students everyday and everything was taken care of so that we could fully focus on our art practices. So, you could not ask for more than that. It just put me in a different mindset in terms of how to be an artist. During classes, the concept of art making was discussed more than the basic, formal aspect of making work. What I gained from Norfolk was how to think about paintings rather than how to make them. When I went back to Portland for my senior year, I decided to pursue a higher education. I applied and was accepted to an MFA program in Painting at the Yale School of Art in 2006. The intensive two-year program greatly helped me shape my thoughts and artistic practice.
Rail: What kind of work were you doing during this time?
Alsoudani: I made large-scale work on canvas and paper in response to the fragmentation of ideas. As I didn’t begin with preparatory sketches, I made marks, buried and deleted them, and built on top of the initial gestures. There was a conversation between my body and the painting itself, since much of my work was on such a large scale.
Rail: You arrived in the United States shortly before September 11th and the invasion of Iraq. Is that finding its way into your work?
Alsoudani: Yes, it did later on. I had already been in the States for three years. The attack happened during the first week of my first year in school. I remember the morning. Everyone, including myself, was in shock. The school closed, I went back to my apartment, and all of a sudden, the attack put me face-to-face with some issues I never thought I would ever deal with in my life. I started to question my identity, like who I was and where I belonged. September 11th made all these issues a reality for me, and I had to deal with that from that moment on.
Soon after the attack, the conversation about invasion of Iraq started to pour into the media. It was a long nightmare I had to deal with emotionally. And the invasion happened, and I still vividly remember the moment when my hometown, Baghdad, was burning in front of my eyes on TV. The scene has been haunting me ever since. The invasion itself and its consequences have affected my work both directly and indirectly.
During my years as an undergraduate, I made paintings that illustrated my thoughts and ideas. They didn't go through channels of experiences to marinate them, but came straight from my head to the canvas. I studied and gained more tools throughout graduate school which allowed me to process and filter my thoughts and to detach from my emotions. My life experience was used as an extra layer to enrich my paintings.
As an artist, I am on a fragile platform. The feeling that is haunting me all the time is that I don’t belong. I am a person in exile. The exile status provides me with some kind of advantages in life because I’m in the middle of two cultures, two places, and two memories which allow me to have an interesting perspective. On the other hand, it’s a painful perspective. So, I live my life and I make work. A French-Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, said, “It is no nation that we inhabit, but a language.” I find my home in my painting.
Rail: So, the painting is your home.
Alsoudani: It is. I never feel like I belong in any place more than in my studio.
Rail: You’re creating these spaces, and there are these amorphous shapes oftentimes placed within a space, a room, or an interior space of some sort—is that kind of creating a home around you?
Alsoudani: Exactly. If you look at my work, it’s mainly built from fragmentation of imageries and ideas. Space in my painting is more cubist than abstract. I create some place that looks like a real space but there are other elements connected to it which imply that it’s not a real space. I’ll give you an example. Purple Cell, one of the paintings from my latest show at Marlborough, has a background that looks like a room, a room with a purple wall and bars on the ceiling. It’s not a real room, it’s not a real cell. But it is a space you can identify. I create an invisible home in my studio and imaginable space in my painting. The Bitter Fruit exhibition provided me with a great opportunity to physically navigate the space in my work. I would call it 3D painting.
Rail: Can we talk a little bit about the “Cut of Time” series, which you did during Covid, when you were in Connecticut?
Alsoudani: The title came from a French-Egyptian writer and poet, Edmond Jabès—a wonderful writer. I'm fascinated by his writing and life journey. When he was in his mid40s, he was kicked out of his birthplace during the Suez Crisis because he was Jewish. He lost everything. Not just financially; the memories of his life were gone. He relocated to Paris and found himself in a different part of the world. It is interesting to reflect on what people like him have gone through and how I relate to them. I feel connected to Jabès, who went through such a life journey, and his writings strongly influence my art practice.
I spent most of my time in Connecticut during the pandemic in 2020. I set up a small studio in a room and started to make a series of small works on paper. It was like a diary for myself with no intention to show. Then I felt that the works looked okay, and they could survive by themselves as artworks more than just a diary. Then my gallery wanted to do a show.
Rail: That was Marlborough?
Alsoudani: Yes, my last show in May at Marlborough. The gallery wanted to see what I had been up to and I showed them the works on paper. They loved them and we decided to include the works with new paintings. I started to go back to my studio in the city in early December of 2020, making large works on canvas with the echo of the “Cut of Time” series in my head. It was a surprise because the small works were done with different materials, scale, and approach. But it actually helped me a lot to make the large paintings. “Cut of Time” was very close to my heart. It was an intimate conversation just between the work and me. It’s like a whispering.
Rail: They feel that way.
Alsoudani: Yes, they do.
Rail: I read that you love literature, and so I want to ask you about that.
Alsoudani: Yes, I do. I love reading and I do steal from poets more than from artists.
Rail: In what way are you stealing from the poets? What literature or poetry is important to you?
Alsoudani: When I was young, I was into Russian literature. For the last couple of years, I’ve been interested in Japanese literature, especially from the 20th century. I recently read Yasunari Kawabata’s books, Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and Beauty and Sadness. I also read Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima. They experienced war and occupation in their own country firsthand. I’m fascinated by how these events have affected their life views and their writings. In Snow Country, Kawabata expresses the lost soul of his county by describing a small Japanese village covered by snow.
I like the poetry of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Charles Simic. I enjoy reading Simic’s poetry, especially that which describes ordinary people in their daily lives in New York City through the lens of his own experience as a poet who grew up in his war-torn country and came to the States at a young age with his mom. I also like Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s work, especially his work that describes details of the brutality of sectarian war in his home. Sylvia Plath is another poet I enjoy reading. Pain and beauty co-exist in her writing. My favorite poet is Pablo Neruda. I read his poetry when I drink my coffee. I often grab his book when I’m stuck with my painting. As Simic said, Neruda had an extraordinary ability to write about almost any subject.
All of these great writers take me to imaginary and sensational worlds and then bring me back to reality. Their work puts me in an uncomfortable, unstable situation. I’m sometimes pushed to the edge and, in order not to fall, I go to my canvas to do something with it.
Rail: In terms of other artists who have had an influence on you, I've seen Philip Guston, Francis Bacon, and Francisco Goya mentioned.
Alsoudani: Yes, I’ll add Picasso and Max Beckmann to that list, who are the most influential artists in my work. There are some artists I learn from at a certain stage of my life and then I put them away. There are other artists, like Picasso, Beckmann, and Guston, who I first learned about at a young age and they’re still important to my art practice today. I go back to these artists’ paintings like I do to Neruda’s poetry when I’m stuck with my work.
Rail: And at this point in your career, there's such a specific language and such a specific feel to your work, it's not as if you're stealing from anyone, you are just looking.
Alsoudani: T.S. Eliot said “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” After going through all these years of learning, copying, stealing, filtering, and processing, I’ve established my own voice and vocabularies.
History and culture are built with layers of influence on top of each other. You can see it in any creative field, such as philosophy, literature, and art. I love what Gandhi said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Rail: In any of those forms, you’re part of this evolution. I think it’s interesting that you’re saying that Sylvia Plath or Seamus Heaney is coming into the work just as much as Philip Guston. It’s all coming into your work.
Alsoudani: I don't feel like there are clear boundaries among painting, filmmaking, or literature in general. Francis Coppola infused Edward Hopper’s painting into his movie, The Godfather. At the end of the day, I have no problem with being influenced by anyone so long as it will feed my work in a good way.
Rail: You had a show at Marlborough in May, as well as The Fabric Workshop show. When you finish a show, do you go back into your studio and just allow yourself to see what happens?
Alsoudani: The moment works leave my studio for a show, I put up new canvases on the wall and start to work a bit. Then I stop, in order not to repeat myself but to evolve. After the two years of my residency and the opening of Bitter Fruit, I’m observing this unique experience and taking a long pause in my studio. In the meantime, I’ve started a conversation with Beyer Projects about making a new sculpture.
Rail: Did the decision to work in a sculptural mode come from the Fabric Workshop experience? Has that come into what you're doing right now?
Alsoudani: Yes, to some degree. Although Bitter Fruit is my very first large-scale installation of sculptures, I actually made my first bronze sculpture with Beyer Projects in 2014. The two years of residency opened up the conversation about the second sculpture. I'm currently procrastinating in my studio. I’m reading a bit and feeling guilty about not making work. But, I’m pretty sure this pause will bring something different to my work.
Rail: It’s like bringing paint into your studio, your supplies. The supply of the unconscious.
Alsoudani: Thanks for making me feel better. That’s what we try to convince ourselves.