I am getting ready to leave Istanbul.
In a lot of ways, I have left already. I have sort of contracted into a ball here, walking around the city in the morning and coming back to the hotel in the afternoons to sleep for a few hours. Then going out in the evening for dinner at a couple of kebap houses near Tunel Station. It's really great food and it's very cheap.
I think I have exhausted my time here.
So many things were greater than I expected. To see the work of Sinan
, tiles from Iznik, the multiple layering of cultures, has been beyond belief really. I have so many ideas for painting that I cannot wait to get back to my studio. I have started making drawings and some things are coming into place for the work. I am developing some ideas based on the grid that were not really available to me before I came here. I also am wondering about the Tablet paintings and if they need to be figurative at all. I have been really rethinking how I make these paintings. Is color and light enough for the pictures? Even the Savannah paintings have started to change with the insertion of various portraits into the schema of the grid. The tiling here has really brought out the idea of pattern as an end to itself. I am not sure if I can make a picture like that. The figure to me has never been a thing about a way to investigate shape, it was the content of the picture for me. To start making pictures without the figure is a thing that is coming up very much in my thinking and I have to start to deal with it.
At the same time, the ideas that I was looking at in the Tongue paintings have REALLY come back to the fore. Seeing people walk in front of a tiled wall has really impacted me. It is such a simple thing really. I just started seeing it in a new way. That space between can be flat and ornamental at the same time. It is something Gregory Gillespie has done and even someone like Christina Renfer
is doing now. It is really the difference between painting the atmosphere and painting an area. I was always the kind of painter who if I didn't know what to do with something, I just made it flat. Now that idea is not enough. I think the tile is a way into this, a way to have a dialog with pattern, flatness, content and character in the work. I have been thinking of a way to bring the Tablets and the Tongues together. Istanbul is giving me that, I think.
The other thing, the hard thing, the thing I did not
expect, is that I have not really been able to relax here. Turkey does not have a very diverse population. I really stick out here, and people stare - a lot. At first it was interesting to me because it didn't seem weighted with the racism of home. I was like "The Brother From Another Planet
," or something. I took photos with school children who were shocked that I said "Merhaba" when they said hello. That was the nice part of it. The not so nice part was the cops, the stares on the subway, people putting my change on the counter instead of my hand. The accusatory way they ask "Where are you from
Apparently, I look like I come from the Arabian peninsula, and since the end of the Ottomans there is not a great deal of love between the Arabs and the Turks
. Also, I have been taken for a "gypsy" or one of the Roma
people and let me tell you, there is not a great deal of love for the Roma anywhere
. In light of all of this, I walk down the street feeling very uncomfortable and very vulnerable here. I know that I am safe, but the looks on people's faces are not exactly welcoming. I don't think I could ever get used to being looked at that way. You might think that all of that kind of prejudice is the same, but it really isn't In America, you get looked at like a criminal or a danger. Here it is like you are a freak or something. It is very unsettling, especially since the Turks are such nice people and cannot understand American-style racism at all
. But when they think you might be "arap
" or from Iran, or gypsy, it gets a little weird.
I had a moment at Topkapi's Hall of Relics where I got a little worried. I was in line to see the mantle of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) when I felt this man looking at me. I turned and he said "Where are you from?" I usually start speaking French at this point (and I thank my mother for making me take 5 years of the language) but this time I answered in English that I was from the United States. He glared at me said "I hate your President." I said that I understood. "Bush wants to kill all the Muslims," he said. "Well, we won't let him," I said. Then we both stood in front of the window that looked into the golden room, with the golden stand, holding the golden box in which was a piece of cloth worn by Mohammed. We shook hands and departed each other. My friend Michael made me promise that I would stop telling people I was from the United States after that. I didn't, but I did speak french in public a lot more.
I think I was chasing the experience that James Baldwin
had when he went to France and got treated like an American. Not as a negro, or colored, just some knucklehead writer from the US. I didn't get that in Istanbul. I got a real reminder about being different, being outside. It is the position of the constant observer, really, the flaneur
, the "Painter of Modern Life
My father used to say, "You're black wherever you go." It was a warning about the way the world saw my brother and I.