Those who live on the Anatolian peninsula are accustomed to getting a good shake. Two major slip faults run through the Turkish bedrock, both capable of delivering terrible shocks. Earlier this year, an earthquake leveled buildings and killed tens of thousands on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. More than a million survivors were left without shelter.
Is Istanbul prepared for a quake of similar intensity? Some of the Turkish metropolis — a sprawling, ancient city of more than fifteen million — has been aggressively temblor-proofed, but many other buildings are too old or too hastily constructed to survive a seismic shock. The threat to Istanbul can be felt in the work of cosmopolitan Turkish artists, but so can a compensatory faith in the city’s impregnability. It isn’t unlike the dualism maintained by Californian creators from Ed Ruscha to Raymond Chandler to the Beach Boys: eternal summer on the one hand, impending doom on the other. The land is beautiful but haunted, fashioned into a human habitat in defiance of geological forces, fragile but indestructible, a Tower of Babel taunting the earth gods, who, sooner or later will send the whole thing crashing down.
Unless they won’t. In “Colors of Hope,” a quietly moving exhibition at the IMUR Gallery (67 Greene St.), Turkish artist Cemal Toy and three of his students present us with images of the city as an amalgamation of human efforts and desires, imperiled but resilient, rendered in fragile lines and surrounded by turbulence. The tone of the show is nervous but cheerful. Toy’s pledge to dedicate sales money to earthquake relief isn’t the only way in which the show acknowledges the possibility of cataclysms to come. Call this a ward against misfortune, and a prayer in color and shape. God couldn’t possibly visit disaster on scenes as winsome as these, could he? Shouldn’t the illuminated city, radiant with Easter pastels, be immune to disaster?
Apprehension and defiance are both visible in “Pisa Tower,” a watercolor on paper by Zafer Ors. The painter gives us an edifice leaning at an angle noticeably more extreme than the one you’ve seen in postcards and tourist polaroids. It peeks around the church like a timid giraffe. But the flagpole on its top platform is standing tall, and the tower is rendered in bolder color than its surroundings. Just as the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul has bronco-ridden countless earthquakes without getting thrown, the Tower of Pisa has weathered storms and erosion, sun and degradation, and kept its tipsy balance through the centuries. Ruvyeda Gormezoglu directs her paintbrush toward another quake-haunted place: Portugal. “Lisbon Gates” is a representation of eighteen doorways, holding fast in a grid, as the world around them resolves to shifting color. Gormezoglu renders the doors with care and attention to detail, capturing glasswork, bricks, and mosaic tile. Her Lisbon is a place of transcultural conversation with architecture as a unifying language. Vertical stripes in candy colors reoccur in “Incan Women,” a smaller oil painting. Tuba Ahsan’s four characters hover over the pointed rooftops of an Andean village united by a staircase at a steep angle. One of the Incan women keeps a foothold on a step. Others are completely untethered. But they’re all haloed and head-dressed, and they stand up straight as the mountains. These could be protective spirits of the city. Or they could be ordinary people, ennobled by the precarity of existence, keeping their poise despite the exigencies of daily life.
It feels rhetorically inaccurate to write that the teacher’s shadow falls all over these works by his students. Nothing about Cemal Toy’s painting is cloudy. So instead, let’s say they’re tickled by rainbow beams from the master’s prism. Toy works in Aegean Sea blues, egg yolk yellows, and sunset pinks. In “Fairytale,” homes, domes, and insulae emerge from tufts of watercolor. The buildings are humble and friendly-looking, huddled as they are on a hillside (there are peaks in the background here, as there often are in Toy’s work) like cells in a beehive. Toy’s “Ascension of the Soul,” an oil painting, is an abstraction — but it’s got an architectural feel to its composition anyway. It looks like one of Toy’s vertical villages completely subsumed in streaks of color, as if hundreds of blameless souls were raptured all at once, leaving nothing behind but pastel skid-marks on the heavens.
But for an artist whose work evokes fantasy, Cemal Toy is at his best when he gets specific. The metropolis on the Bosporus is his great love, and when he’s painting his city, his brushstrokes are like caresses from a lover’s hand. He’s protective, too: in “Red Istanbul,” he surrounds a clutch of azure-domed buildings and fortress-like edifices with a square, and then he surrounds that square with another square, and for good measure and extra cuddling, all of that is placed within a third square. From the lights in the towers and the moonlight blue of the city walls, it’s clear it’s night; Toy is tucking the city in, making sure it’s safe and sound.
His two “Colors of Istanbul” oils are lively and bustling, but never boisterous, dense as a quilt, chromatically harmonious, and carefully arranged. Toy depicts church spires and mosque walls like he’s reminding God that the city is paying attention. We’re devout, his paintings seem to say, so don’t tread on us. All of this comes to a head in an inspired but guarded painting of the Hagia Sophia, which the artist boxes in with his decorative squares and sets right in the middle of a delicate cityscape. Toy likens the temple to the ka’ba, the great, imperturbable rock that sits at the center of Islamic devotional practice in the rectangular Masjid al-Haram. This is his wish for Istanbul: that it be worthy of reverence and as solid as stone, full of load-bearing right angles, but with plenty of room for a softer kind of beauty. He drapes his town in spring colors and makes it too exquisite for any but the most callous deity to damage. Then he braces for what comes next.