The 20th-century poet William Carlos Williams famously suggested that poetics be fueled by “No ideas but in things.” The meaning of his statement has been argued for decades, pointing to the compositional, psychological, spiritual, and all points between. Whether through accident or intent, painter Amer Kobaslija embodies this tenet, pulling abstraction into a steady focus on mundane rooms and expansive landscapes. “Painting is a form of language aiming to articulate what otherwise cannot be articulated. Not so different from a poem except it’s non-verbal,” says Kobaslija. “The story is open-ended and open to interpretations. Paintings are portals. They are also mirrors, revealing as much about the seer as the seen.” His current exhibit at the UNF Gallery at MOCA, A Sense of Place, is a collection of 33 pieces ranging from miniature to medium to large scale, giving us entry into Kobaslija’s portals and mirrors, visions both revelatory and reflective.
In the exhibit, the confinement of artist’s studios, bathrooms, and doorways is explored, along with often jarring exterior settings. Kobaslija describes his work as “hardcore painting,” an apt description for works rendered on panel or Plexiglas, swirls of oil paint applied in thick, meaty brushstrokes.
“Growing up in pre-war Bosnia, then onward into the war years as well as the years of exile that followed, art has been a way of connecting to the outside world. Through painting I have found myself, and my place in that world,” says Kobaslija.
Amer Kobaslija, born in Bosnia in 1975, fled the war-ravaged country in 1993, finding refuge in Germany. In 1997, he and his parents moved to Jacksonville. After earning a BFA in printmaking at Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, he received an MFA from New Jersey’s Montclair State University. Kobaslija has been awarded the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant (2005), a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2006), and in 2013 received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. Since 2005, he’s been represented by New York’s esteemed George Adams Gallery, who issued an impressive monograph of his work, while his paintings continue to sell at increasing prices. In addition, Kobaslija is an instructor at Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg College. Kobaslija now divides his time between the college, his studio in New York City, and Jacksonville. “I know one thing that matters in this line of work is perseverance,” says Kobaslija of his hard-won achievements. “The best ones in our ranks know that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Like a chess player, you have to think long-term.”
Kobaslija’s preparatory work is a combination of photographs, sketching, memory, and imagination. “Basically, internalizing the scene and the narrative is what it boils down to,” says Kobaslija. “The trick is not to limit oneself to a single source of information.”
The largest piece in the show, the triptych Sputnik Sweetheart of New Orleans and the End of the World (oil on panels, 2007), deals in the currency of an artist’s studio. A jumbled arrangement of wooden frames, a cluttered bed, canvases, paints, and ladders appear both chaotic and comforting, elevating a creative space to the sacrosanct.
Whether dealing with the domestic or natural domain, Kobaslija seems to enjoy working with controlled, fixed parameters, as his landscapes contain this same sense of measured, controlled space. “Interior or exterior, through painting I seek to transmit the feel of the scene in question. It is not as much about faithful, yet spiritless, rendering of the surface of things, as it is about conveying the phenomenological experience,” explains Kobaslija. “Which is why these compositions appear skewed in the perspectival sense, nonetheless accurate as they speak about what it means to be in that environment. With the interior scenes the room walls provide structure and help keep things in place. As for the open spaces — once the walls are no longer there — I achieve structure by establishing a strong figure-ground relationship: cliffs and water, for instance. For the figure to exist I need to solidify the ground and vice-versa — and together the two establish a sense of plausible space. If that relation is not resolved, I am left with indeterminate space, which in turn is the closest thing to no space at all. Every painter knows this.” While other painters may know these types of compositional methods, not many can put them to good use in the way that Kobaslija crafts these kinds of snapshots of a reality both recognizable and otherworldly.
Many of the room paintings, tethered by the perspective of looking downward from the ceiling, give one an almost out-of-body sensation, as if rising and falling within these staid, somber compositions. For example, with the piece Before the Deluge (oil on panel, 2010), the viewer is aiming directly downward at a studio; while the eye moves naturally toward a clutter of newsprint, chair, and paints, the activity on the surrounding walls seems to push one upward, rather toward the room. Whether this is a kind of parlor trick of a painter savvy to optical techniques or simply a byproduct of seeing a room from an unconventional angle, it deepens the sense of atmosphere and presence in the painting.
Additional pieces in the exhibit include selections of his ongoing series that are stark ruminations on the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that decimated Kesennuma, Japan. Ruined House Near Kesennuma Port (oil on copper) and View of Kesennuma I (oil on zinc panel, both 2011), the latter with its ships flung along a shore like corpses and burning fires, are blunt reminders of the malevolent edge of nature. Conversely, Ichetucknee, Midpoint (oil on Mylar, 2013), features soft, sparse strokes to evoke the bucolic, hinting at Kobaslija’s admitted influence of the Ukiyo-e printmakers of the 17th-century Edo period.
The collective experience of viewing Kobaslija’s exhibit is one of both reverie and nostalgia, the resonance of place and repose, of passing through, physically leaving but somehow remaining.
“On a daily basis, I sense my past seeping into present. Faded memories of Bosnia affect the way I perceive the new world. ‘A silent trial that never ends’ is how my professor Leslie Lerner once defined immigration. You’re a part of a new world, and in due time you find yourself fully implanted into the new ground,” says Kobaslija, of a life that has been one of both expatriation and sanctuary. “In a country as welcoming as this one, many of us refugees prosper. And yet the feeling of ‘floating’ in a mental interspace persists. Our roots were severed and what’s left of us has been transplanted into a new soil, is how I explain it to myself. We have assimilated, but deep down we exist on the margins of our memories and days that lay ahead. This ‘in-betweeness’ is what I am interested in as an artist.”