In the mass of painters, Cemal Gürsel Soyel’s work struck me right away due to its high formal quality, aesthetic power, and visual beauty. His painterly commitment and the consistency of his work have brought him far during the challenging years of his artistic journey. The oeuvre is characterized by the search for the essence of painting through a profound analysis of colour, form and syntax. That is why his pieces are based on a formalist understanding of art. Following the tradition of l’art pour l’art (art for art’s own sake) the only thing Soyel cares about during the creation of his large abstract paintings is the work itself. His only goal is to form a strong painting, whereas artistic power is measured according to his own standards of technique, visuality and aesthetics. Though, however he works, it is impulsively, and expressively. His treatment of paint, and the selection of format and material, as well as his depiction of shapes, lines and dots in his all-over-compositions follow a radical understanding of contemporary abstract painting. Though, he does not really care about temporality, trends or styles. Like I mentioned above, as a formalist, the only thing he wants is to create a strong painting
In Soyel’s organic abstractions, the world is kept outside, as no reference points to another reality than the painting’s intrinsic form of being. In the school of formalism it is believed that art cannot directly change the world, or influence its state; a painting cannot prevent wars or solve conflicts. The logical conclusion must be that it then should not pretend to do so. According to formalists, art is not serving anything or anyone anyway, as it contains no messages or stories. That is why they understand art as a self-referential system of codes that is bound to nothing else but art itself. Only then can art and artists be freed from all social and contextual boundaries, and work in autonomy. Actually, most of the classic modern avant-gardes understood art as autarky an autonomous system at the beginning of the 20th century. Later, with the help of Clement Greenberg’s writings, Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Carl Andre’s specific objects and Joseph Kosuth’s understanding of conceptualism, it seemed that art achieved this goal after World War II. During art’s struggle for absolute freedom, it was believed that the artist would get rid of all symbols or contextual references in order to solely focus on the core elements of a painting, its colours, shapes, brush strokes, and their organisation into a composition. Tachism, as the European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism, followed this formalist idea of abstraction. Starting in the late 1940’s, organic and lyric abstract painting strategies dominated the art world until the end of the 1950’s. Tachists would cover their canvases with expressive strokes, hastily painted forms, drippings and splashes. Action painting became the new way to work. Different from Kandinsky, and other early modern abstract painters, who carefully planned every form, line and colour, these artists directly acted according to spontaneous outbursts of emotions. Instead of a story or a plan, improvisation and expression were influencing the artistic practice.
It is no wonder that every now and then, people link Cemal Gürsel Soyel’s work to the school of Tachism. He does not have a problem with that. Actually, it makes sense, as he has spent a great part of his life in Vienna, where after being a student of Neşet Günal and Neşe Erdok at the Mimar Sinan Fine Art Academy, he has continued his study at Vienna’s Fine Art Academy. There, he naturally came in contact with the European school of great abstract painters, so that his oeuvre is influenced by a deep insight into the tradition of modernist abstraction. He knows it well and has found an individual approach for forming his own style, which is both impulsive and reflective, as well as poetic and aggressive.
In general, his paintings are characterized by the dialectic approach of construction and deconstruction. First, he paints the canvas black, because he does not feel comfortable with putting paint on a white ground. Soyel believes that the black monochrome background serves the colours better. Then, he starts spontaneously by putting various layers and structures of paint onto the mainly large canvas. During this process, he intuitively and spontaneously paints in a hasty manner with wide brushes or spatulas. Layer after layer, the painting is constructed in a process between randomness, improvisation and observation. Every now and then, he has to stop in order to step back and carefully reflect on the piece. Then, he returns to the production, and becomes one with the piece by thinking about nothing else but its elements and parameters. Step by step, the paintings evolve out of a creative “give and take”. Actually, a painting never ends for him, as the artistic process could go on forever.
The paintings are not only characterized through the application of paint but also through erasing and eliminating. Through scraping and scratching, he takes away parts of the painting in order to reveal deeper layer of colours. Here, the fundamental artistic matter of “painterly space” gets a real physical meaning and presence. At the same time, the scraping adds an appealing aesthetic of destruction and reconstruction to the syntax of the pieces, and strengthens the intermingling of its many colours. In any way, no colour in his paintings is bright or pure. Together with the scratching, he breaks the shiny tones of the oil paint through the mixing of various colours directly on the canvas. Through this process, multiple textures occur, so that the all-over-aesthetic appears rich and complex. Also his play with lines, shapes, drippings, and splashes gives his pieces a strong expressive visual power. Compared with previous series, the number of layers, lines and drippings has increased, whereas the size of the colour shapes has decreased, so that the matrix is now much more complex, and the composition appears as more vivid.
The artist loves this traditional material, and values it as basic platform for artistic thinking and designing. That is why he works extensively with it. Though, the aesthetic of the paper works slightly differs from the canvas pieces, as they are made with an even higher speed in comparison to the paintings on canvases. Due to the smaller number of layers, and the quicker method of production, these pieces are even wilder and more expressive. They possess a very dynamic character and deserve a great attention in his oeuvre.
Cemal Gürsel Soyel’s consistent and passionate artistic attitude as well as the radicalism and bravery of his paintings make his oeuvre outstanding. Through his powerful abstract painting style, his masterly use of colours, and the creation of complex compositions, his pieces appear as conscious reflections on the history and present of the art of abstract painting. In this context, they are great examples of a contemporary understanding of colour, composition and the inner nature of painting. So, his works discuss formalist and philosophical issues concerning the being of art.
*Assoc. Prof. Dr., Yeditepe University, Fine Arts Faculty / Resident Curator, Plato Sanat