Tsunami and Rebirth

Tsunami and Rebirth

By Jesse Hamlin

Black Smoke from the Tsunami Series, 2011. Photo courtesy Amer Kobaslija
A new exhibit of Bosnian-born artist Amer Kobaslija at the Dowd Art and Art History Building looks at devastation, cleanup, and restoration through the act of painting. 

Amer Kobaslija, the Bosnian-born artist who escaped his war-wracked homeland in 1993 as atrocities were being committed against his fellow Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, was teaching at Bowdoin College in Maine in 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. He was watching the catastrophe live on TV, horrified by the destruction and loss of life yet drawn to the imagery, which in a “perverse” way, he says, played out on the screen like some Hollywood production.

Kobaslija—whose lush, vital and sometimes wonderfully disorienting landscapes and interiors go on view Jan. 9 in the gallery of SCU’s new Edward M. Dowd Art and Art History Building—impulsively scratched his planned trip to the Middle East, where he wanted to meet with Israelis and Palestinians, and flew to Japan. His Japanese father-in-law managed to gain access to the devastated port city of Kesennuma.

“At first I could not process the scope of the destruction,” says Kobaslija, whose paintings of tsunami-shattered houses and incinerating industrial sites find a kind of terrible beauty and wonder in the swirling clouds of black smoke and ruins of homes now exposed to the sky. Like the multiple-perspective paintings of his own studio, these pictures combine meticulous detail with loose painterly gestures and abstract passages in a way that seduces the eye and pulls you in.

“You want the audience to enter into that landscape, not look at it. The painting seeks to convey what it means to be there,” explains the painter, who will be on the SCU campus March 8-15, lecturing and working with students as a visiting artist.

This survey of Kobaslija’s widely exhibited work includes some of the disquieting human-altered landscapes from his ongoing Florida Series, with their seagulls and sunsets and landfill (the artist lives part of the year in Jacksonville, where his family settled in 1997 after the U.S. granted asylum to Bosnian refugees); Vermeer-like pictures of humble custodial closets and empty public bathrooms; and works from his potent “100 Views of Kesennuma” series, which nods to “100 Views of Mount Fuji” by the great late-18th-early 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai, whose woodblock prints influenced Kobaslija’s sense of pictorial space and simultaneous use of multiple points of view.

“I wanted to create a chronicle, to paint the devastation, cleanup and rebirth,” says the artist, on the phone from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he now teaches. “It was my way of engaging. Being from Bosnia, a person who experienced a different kind of devastation and tragedy—one caused by human hand, one caused by nature—it was my way of saying I care. I’m looking for meaning through the act of painting.”

Kobaslija was 17 when his parents smuggled him and his younger sister out of Bosnia to Croatia. They made their way to a refugee center in Germany, where the family was reunited several few years later. A fluid artist who learned to draw by copying his grandmother’s needlepoint renderings of portraits by Frans Hals and other Old Masters, Amer studied at the Kunst Aademie in Düsseldorf, and after moving to Florida got his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Ringling College of Art and Design, followed by a Master of Fine Arts at New Jersey’s Montclair College of the Arts.

Kobaslija had explored his painful Bosnian past and questions of memory in his earlier work, but as began grad school he felt the need “to embrace my present, and engage with this new world,” he says. He roamed Manhattan, looking at everything and painting pulsing streetscapes. They were competent, he says, but didn’t go very deep. It wasn’t until the artist found himself alone, monk-like, in his windowless little painting studio in New Jersey that something came to life for him.

“I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I was happy to be there. All that mattered was painting,” Kobaslija says. “Without realizing it, I was meditating on the nature of that space.” He describes the studio paintings he’s made over many years as “self-portraits without one’s own likeness. You don’t see the person, but you have all these windows into their mind.”

In 2010, the widow of the late French master Balthus allowed Kobaslija to paint the artist’s studio in the Swiss alps, untouched and unvisited since Balthus’ death a decade before. Three years after making those dynamic paintings, with their vertiginous viewpoints and telling detail, Kobaslija painted a birds-eye-view portrait of Jackson Pollocks’ suitably paint-splattered studio floor in East Hampton on Long Island.

The pictures of his own various studios—with their books and paint palettes, old sneakers, stacked canvases and half-empty boxes—carry what Kobaslija, referring to Emily Dickenson, calls “the sum of my experiences. I’m revealed. Ever since I fled Bosnia, I’ve lived in so many places I don’t remember all the names. It’s been nomadic, and at worst, frenetic. Painting those spaces – they’re like chapters of my history.”

They’re also open enough to let viewers roam freely, and maybe see something of their lives mirrored in the imagery. “Artworks are never one-liners, never illustrations,” Kobaslija says. “They’re platforms, for the viewer to find whatever they need to find.”

He found that by photographing rooms from various angles, and then bringing those multiple viewpoints together in a single painting (a kind of Cubism), he could create the feeling of a room revealing itself as if you were moving through it. The paintings are anything but static.

In skewed overhead-view pictures like “Sputnik Sweetheart of New Orleans” from 2006, “you have the weird sensation of being able to observe all four corners of the room at once. You’re everywhere and nowhere,” says Kobaslija, who speaks of the pervasive feeling of in-between-ness that migrants experience. “That’s where that sensation of vertigo comes from – looking down while at the same time in the painting you can see the ceiling.”

Then there is the unexpected grace of works like “Vacant Restroom,” from the artist’s 2008 Public Restroom Series, and “Janitor’s Closet,” a beautiful still life with a stained sink, buckets and a mop painted with the vibrant brushstrokes and colors of a Degas. There’s something worth contemplating in these seemingly unremarkable and not particularly pleasant places.

“There is no such thing as ordinary,” Kobaslija says, “as long as you’re looking closely and paying attention. There’s energy in everything.”

Jesse Hamlin is a Bay Area journalist who wrote about music and art as a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he still writes a weekly arts column, and covers a range of stories for various print and online publications.

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