Narrative hidden in the surface: Çağla Ulusoy

A modern day nomad, Turkish born artist Çağla Ulusoy’s abstract art is an assemblage of fragments and traces of the many spaces and places she has lived in and passed through. Her work, which emphasizes surface details, is a rich tapestry of personal references and memories. Working in a wide range of mediums, and often in large-scale, Çağla builds up textural layers in her paintings that become embedded with narrative. Recognisable objects are discernible in some of her compositions, but these remain disassociated and unmoored from context, signs and symbols in Çağla’s personal visual language.

Çağla completed her Master’s Degree in Visual Arts from Art School Creapole ESDI in Paris in 2013, and the same year moved to New York where she started attending classes at the Art Students League of New York. In 2018 she graduated from the Royal College of Art, London with an MA in Painting. But in addition to this formal education, Çağla spent several years assisting in the studios of renowned artists who were prominent in the abstract and color-field movements of past decades. Here, we speak with Çağla to find out more about her painting background, transience and the narrative of abstraction.  

AMM: Hi Çağla! You’ve attended art schools in three countries. What have been some of the most important learning or other experiences that have shaped you as an artist and your work?

CU: I had the chance to meet and work with artists from diverse backgrounds and from different age groups in countries I lived in. The person who introduced me to abstract painting and made it become my full-time passion was one of the first women American color-field artists, Pat Lipsky. I worked as her studio assistant for a couple of years.

It was one of the most intense and interesting art education experiences I have received until this day. She taught me about color and gave me insights about the 60s and 70s New York art scene. Another artist I worked with in New York was Bruce Dorfman, Bob Dylan and Ai Weiwei’s teacher in the 80s. He made me overcome the Greenbergian point of view about painting and encouraged me to work with spatial elements. After years of working in an intimate way with artists, I decided I needed to be surrounded with people of my own generation which led me to apply to a master’s degree. The RCA was a sudden introduction to the English approach to painting. A cultural shock, especially after having worked with artists of another era.

My whole learning experience in art was like living an accelerated version of the last century by the agency of artists belonging to different movements. The master’s degree grounded me to today’s art scene. I learned the importance of honesty and diversity from my generation of artists, which helped me gain introspection in my work, as my paintings became more personal and inspired by my roots.

AMM: Have you always worked in this style? How has your art changed over the years? What has inspired this?

CU: My work has and keeps changing as I become older. For a couple of years, I devoted myself to understanding abstract painting and color. I would spend hours mixing colors. I made harmonious soft paintings for a while. Once I was familiar with color I started playing with different mediums, introducing contrasting elements and understanding the surface. I was always hesitant in adding a narrative, abstract painting to me said only one word. I thought the work had to be figurative in order to tell a story. It was a relief to discover that a dialogue between the different surfaces in a painting forms the narrative already. I have the tendency to obsess about inspiring people or specific objects. I know it sounds traditional but I enjoyed having master-apprentice relationships with artists I worked with or using the same subject matter until I fully embrace it.

AMM: In what ways does your art represent or relate to your own experiences?

CU: My life experiences and my practice aren’t separated from each other, I cannot be productive if I am not inspired by my environment. This becomes tiring after a while since I end up moving from one country to another every couple of years. Whenever I go to a new city, I think of how I will live there and what will my living conditions be like, what will be surrounding me? I enjoy embracing and appropriating unfamiliar things and places that are specific to the history of another culture. As a result, ambiguous objects and unknown places come through in my paintings and help me create the unsettled feeling I try to acquire.

Meanwhile, rituals and repetitive actions that keep the home alive also intrigue me. My living space is sacred wherever I go. Even if it is for a short amount of time, I always make sure that everything is in a certain order and tidiness. This requires care and physical work.

I recognize I tend to bring the same kind of order and structure in my work especially when I try to solve a painting. Since most of the decisions I make while painting are automatic and thus similar to the way I act impulsively in my domestic environment.

AMM: You often work in a large format. What appeals to you about painting in this scale?

CU: The format I use usually depends on the workspace I have. The work I did in New York was on a much smaller scale because of the lack of space. Also, I had this fascination with the attitude of American artists working recklessly with big scales.

I was lucky to have enough space in London, so I started working on bigger scales. Large formats are always more challenging to me because of its physicality and the amount of material I have to work with in order to build an interesting surface. They are like a blow-up of the smaller works I do. It helps me read the relationships between surfaces and build a specific language. Once I can control the language I feel comfortable with, I translate it into smaller size work. The smaller-scale paintings feel more intimate and accessible, I usually make them at home instead of the studio.

Brittle Carapace, oil on canvas, 131 x 171 cm

AMM: At first glance your paintings seem to be abstract, but as you look familiar objects begin to be recognisable. Please tell us more about your style of painting and the objects you include in your compositions.

CU: I believe this is related to my process most of the time. I start by building up the surface in my paintings by prioritizing different thicknesses and color relationships. Eventually, a semi-recognizable space appears. If I am satisfied and estranged enough by the created space it starts suggesting to me objects that I then start rendering. These spaces are no-spaces with no-objects. They do not represent a specific object but they carry a history.

Sometimes I have fixations with objects I encounter. For example, last year in Adana, Turkey, I saw an ostrich egg hanging in one of the oldest mosques. Apparently, only one egg in a closed space is enough to repulse and avoid spiders and their webs on high ceilings. I was so fascinated by this egg hanging out of its context that I made dozens of drawings and paintings around this scene. Even when the subject is obviously represented in the work or through the title, I would like for the viewer to perceive the thingness and the feeling of the place or the object instead of concentrating on the subject matter.

AMM: In a statement about your work you describe the surface of your paintings as a “network of narratives”. Can you tell us more about this fascinating notion?

CU: I work with the visual matter in many different ways. Not only as a painter but also as a graphic designer and illustrator. Having worked with many brands in the past, I was attracted to the power of image and the connotations each element carries. Through this experience, I thought a lot about the nature of imagery and realized that I am responsible for whatever I decide to put out there.

None of the visuals we see in the media are neutral nor innocent. They all refer to something else, as if everything has touched each other before, every visual information has something in common. There is no surprise unless images are transformed and alienated.

I can play with transformation when I paint. In my work, I try to give a hint of the familiar and I use it as a referential point to bring in other elements of contrast.

For instance, when looking at my work I sometimes recognize familiar color combinations that I probably saw at random occasions maybe on a shampoo packaging or an inspirational interior from the 70s. Then, I try to bring in an element that has totally different connotations, it disorients me and makes the obvious become ambiguous.

I am interested in making those networks as wide as possible until the viewers lose themselves in trying to connect the references and understanding (or making up) the narrative.

350 gr, acrylic and pastel on canvas, 135 x 200 cm

AMM: The layers in your paintings have a strong gestural quality to them. Please tell us about your process of working.

CU: I try to make sure that the gestures remain natural and stay instinctive and honest, they reveal traces of the artist’s attitude. They might be the most important thing in a painting for the work to be true to itself. Meanwhile, I decide on their intensity depending on the narrative I want to talk about. For instance, in my latest show, I worked on a series of paintings inspired by my grandma’s diaries. A narrative about her family’s migration from Caucasia to Turkey with detailed descriptions of the interiors of the houses they lived in, it was all about mobility and partial stagnations. My gestures in this series were structured on the rhythm of the movement present in the stories. I first build the surface with larger gestures and then rendered the objects as they appeared with detail. The larger gestural strokes brought lightness and movement whereas the placed objects carried a heavy history, to depict their weight I used smaller and dense brush strokes.

AMM: What ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

CU: I am currently interested in the combination of text with painting. I always avoided and disliked writing, I thought I was incapable of connecting my thoughts. Then, in my last solo show, I decided that instead of putting together a statement I would try to translate my thought process into words and sounds. Even though it was random words one after another in different languages, it ended up working well with the work and set a rhythm to the show. I grew up speaking three different languages, it was difficult not to shift from one language to another at all times. This created a lot of confusion since a concept existing in one language would not in another. Materializing words into a surface helped me see how things connect in my mind. The painting becomes a reflection of my thought process. I’m trying to push this further now, to work out both, written words and painting together.

AMM: In what ways are you influenced by your surroundings? How does this feed into your art?

CU: My paintings are mainly based on memories of spaces and objects. I have had a very nomadic life since I was very young, changing countries and moving objects from one place to another. Building and then abandoning spaces made me become nostalgic and melancholic of the memories of places and things I have left behind. I am interested in chasing these blurred memories and bringing them back to life in my work as semi-abstract ambiguous objects, perhaps in order to solve their unsettled nature and freeze them in time.

AMM: Have you considered working in other mediums besides oils? What are your thoughts around this?

CU: I work with all kinds of mediums including acrylic, pastel, sand, plaster, etc… I am interested in the estrangement of the material I use, I try to make sure the medium isn’t recognized at first glance in order to create curiosity. Since the narrative is hidden in the surface most of the time, the viewer should be tempted to approach the work and discover the language created through depiction and by the choice of material. At some point, I was interested in building frames out of different materials, however, this can be tricky when the frame stands out like a completely separate work. I want the painting to exist by itself as an individual without the need of external supportive elements. Therefore I think twice before incorporating any kind of material into my work.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

CU: I am enjoying being in Turkey for the moment, I have settled into a studio and I am considering staying for a while.  A solo show in Istanbul is my next plan, I am not sure if I want it to be in a gallery context this time, perhaps a car showroom or a wedding venue. Painting is a very individual practice, I want to be able to bring something back to my own culture. Lately, I have been working on preparing a basic teaching program, an introduction to painting for those who are interested. If it works out well, I might apply to give workshops in Turkish universities.

Find out more about the artist: www.caglaulusoy.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

The juggler, oil on canvas, 125 x 155 cm