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AMER KOBASLIJA: AN INTERVIEW

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The Montréal Review, January 2022

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Through January 29, George Adams Gallery is presenting a solo exhibition of work by artist Amer Kobaslija at the Gallery’s new Tribeca location in New York. In Passing brings together a series of Kobaslija’s expressive-realistic paintings created over the past 18 months, documenting the suburbs of Orlando and Jacksonville where he now lives. 

With In Passing, Kobaslija continues his practice of painting friends, family, and neighbors, depicted in their local surroundings. But here, reflecting on the isolation and emptiness of the pandemic, many of the familiar faces are removed. The central figures in many paintings have been replaced by scarecrows, costumed trick-or-treaters, circus and street performers, and even his daughter's toys.

The paintings included in the exhibition capture Kobaslija’s impressions made while driving through his surrounding neighborhoods during the changing seasons. Halloween decorations vie with political signs in front yards, and street corners are populated by buskers and residents alike. Kobaslija meditates on his local surroundings through portraits and landscapes that are infused with understanding, resulting in work that are expressive, emotive, realistic, and deeply tied to a place.

Kobaslija was born in Bosnia and immigrated to Florida in 1996 as a refugee from the Serbo-Croatian War. He majored in painting and printmaking at the Ringling College of Art and Design and then graduated from Montclair State University with an MFA in painting. Following teaching stints at Bowdoin and Gettysburg Colleges, he returned to Orlando to teach at the University of Central Florida. Throughout his many relocations - an outsider who quickly became enmeshed in a place - Kobaslija has become a master documentarian, capturing the specificity and particularities of local people and places in paint with an unflinching, yet deeply empathetic, eye.

You immigrated to the US from Bosnia, and have moved around quite a bit since that time. How has your personal history, and your experience often being a newcomer in a place, impacted your practice?

It’s a little bit like a blur or a dream. I have been on the road ever since leaving former Yugoslavia almost thirty years ago. The old country fell apart and new republics were formed. Decades have passed but the political situation remains tense in the Balkans. All that never leaves you. Those memories keep on resurfacing, seeping into the present, more now than in the early years. I lived in Germany, New England, Gettysburg, New York City, now in Florida. My wife is from Japan. Our three-year-old daughter is like the first Bosnian ninja. It’s tricky to make sense of it in my head – lacking a sense of belonging, being at home everywhere and nowhere, floating in-between. It’s a nomadic experience. You always remain an outsider. The good thing is that if you are a painter, you can mine that strange land that you physically and mentally occupy – it can be a fertile soil.

Amer Kobaslija. Scarecrow with Ducks (2021). Oil on unstretched canvas with grommets (81 x 61 inches). Courtesy George Adams Gallery

This show reflects a shift away from some of your earlier works, particularly with regard to the anonymity of many of your subjects. What has been top of mind for you as you painted these?

Ours are strange times. That’s where these visual tales are coming from. All the turbulence and uncertainty out there. Anonymity does not exist anymore, yet we have never been more alone and insulated, in and out of touch with reality. This is the age of great solitude. And it’s not only because of the covid. I am intrigued by that paradox. These paintings are attempts to reflect on my own situation as a father, husband, son – and life in the age of a pandemic with the society becoming more and more polarized. There works implicitly reflect on a personal yet in many respects shared human experience and condition. 

Amer Kobaslija. Suburbia, Blue Skies (2021). Oil on unstretched canvas with grommets (60 x 70 inches). Courtesy George Adams Gallery

The pandemic has obviously played a role as you shift your subject matter to look at the people and places close at hand. How do you think it has impacted the creation of and experience of looking at art?

The pandemic, as problematic as it may be, is quite different when compared to the plaques ravaging humanity over the past centuries, wiping out entire cities and villages across Europe and Asia. We don’t live in medieval towns surrounded by walls, not knowing what’s out there, what divine punishment for our sins might be coming. It’s strange to be isolated yet have access to everyone and everything via social media – from family Zoom sessions, chatting with strangers, ordering food online, to watching Netflix. It seems that we’ve never had it so good, yet we are somehow lost and broken. There is something disturbing, grotesque, profoundly sad yet comical about it, all at the same time. It’s very interesting if you are a writer or a painter. May you live in interesting times, as the saying goes. When if not now should I engage. As an artist you try to reflect on the society and your own place in it. Partially, such response is rooted in reason but for the most it’s impulse and intuition. Making is thinking. I think artists are highly intuitive creatures, deeply attuned to various external and internal realities. That’s our superpower.

Amer Kobaslija. Ventriloquist, Alafaya Road (2020). Oil on aluminum (17 x 15 inches). Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? What is your inspiration and starting point for a work?

My focus has shifted because the times are what they are. The context defines the narrative. My daily encounters find their way into the work. It is through that prism that I see the world. But regardless of the circumstances, painting is about looking, paying attention. The act of looking leads to seeing, hence developing awareness. Not knowing but being aware. Asking questions. That is not a small task. That’s how you develop a sense of urgency – a need to respond. Inevitably, you pick up your brushes and engage. Recognizing visual and expressive potential, recognizing the extraordinary in seemingly the most banal.

Amer Kobaslija. Trick or Treat (2020). Oil on aluminum (18 x 15 1/8 inches). Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Is there a work(s) included in In Passing that resonate with you particularly? What else can you tell us about these paintings?

It’s hard for me to pick one painting over another in this grouping. I find all works included in the exhibition - large and small - to resonate in some way. They are poetic and visually compelling, loaded with possibilities of interpretation. Strangely beautiful yet distressing, I think. Rich in associations. I usually don’t know what they are about initially when starting to work on them, but I discover it along the way – the narratives, however elusive, announce themselves at one point or another.

Amer Kobaslija. Pumpkin Heads (2021). Oil on unstretched canvas with grommets (71 x 60 inches). Courtesy George Adams Gallery

What artists and writers have been most foundational to you? How have they impacted your personal and professional trajectory?

I learned a lot about pictorial space from the traditional Chinese landscape painters, along with the Japanese Ukiyo-e printmakers. The space that is internalized in those works rather than merely descriptive and bound by the principles of linear perspective. How to convey instead depict? Topopoetry over topographical rendering of the surface. Mindscape over landscape. Compression of time and space rather than limiting myself to a singular position. There are so many artists I admire, old and contemporary masters. Bosch. Bruegel. The darkness in Goya. The light in Ferdinand Hodler, the timelessness and modernity of his seascapes. The twisted color games in Bonnard. The juicy, creamy, gooey surfaces of Soutine or the great Thiebaud – paint transcending whatever the subject, the medium’s expressive potency to articulate where words may fail. As for the present, if there is one contemporary painter that rises above others, I’d go with Paula Rego.

Amer Kobaslija. Street Musicians (2020). Oil on unstretched canvas with grommets (77 x 65 inches). Courtesy George Adams Gallery

Is there anything you are reading or looking at right now that is impacting your work?

Rereading Haruki Murakami in German, now that I am back in the Swiss Alps. It helps me brush up on my Deutsch, and you can’t go wrong with Murakami. The places that he takes me to with such vividity keep on lingering in my head. I read all his novels when I was a student – and even then, I sensed the day would come to read them again. Like good paintings, his books have multiple points of entry. Something for the initiated ones and something for the masses.

Amer Kobaslija. Still Life with Nails and Fly (2021). Oil on unstretched canvas with grommets (75 x 66 inches). Courtesy George Adams Gallery

What are your interests outside of art? What keeps you returning to the studio?

There are places I keep returning to when I am not in the studio: from Florida’s spring-fed rivers snaking through the flatlands; to the Dalmatian Coast where I spent many days of my childhood; to the old city of Mostar and its centuries-old, destroyed during the Bosnian war and now resurrected Old Bridge; to the shimmering Lake Nojiri, nestled in the mountains above Nagano where my daughter was born, and on to the Alps. It’s an incessant longing.

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