Interview with Levent Tuncer

Levent Tuncer

1.     Tell me a bit more about your past series.

Memory has been a consistent theme and motivator in my work as has cross-culturalism.  Looking back all the way to the “Deep Galaxy” series of the 1980s I can now say that these paintings are ultimately about remembering.  I made them not with brushes but using rags with oil pigments applied in many transparent layers. The resulting surface conveys space and depth and thereby a new visual reality in the same way that memory produces new understanding of past events.  For like these paintings, memory has many layers.  Things are remembered with a particular transparency and density. Very old memories can be sharp and clear while recent ones can be clouded and hazy.  So to be a bit reductive about it, the metaphor here is that the surface of these paintings functions like a visual equivalent to recollection.  Of course, there is more than surface to these paintings, and I am only speaking broadly of these things. It is always challenging to bridge the gap between abstract paintings and the mental and emotional concepts that drive them.  In actuality, this metaphoric level probably has little to do with the actual experience of looking at the paintings. Viewers report that they see complex, abstract paintings that are often beautiful, emotionally generous, and stirring despite the absence of any narrative content.  This bifurcation between the painting and what lies beneath it personally for the painter is often, I think, the root source of the difficulty of talking about meaning.

The “Two Rivers” series considers memory as well.  It establishes geometric fields, different systems if you will,  and superimposes them on the same plane, thus creating a new and vital space. This visual complexity is for me a metaphor for the way New York City reflects and affects the realities of being an immigrant. I have tried to create a visual analogue of the way that systems of thought, expression, and belief, when superimposed on each other, yield a new cultural reality.  For this is what New York City represents for me—the most cosmopolitan city in the world where people from every corner of the globe live, love, and produce.

The “History/Fiction” series makes use of some of the same tropes as “Two Rivers” (such as pattern repetition and superimposition) but adds extra themes. I started off wanting to work with a really simple idea, a single sixteenth-century Ottoman tile design, and set about to see how far I could take it by manipulating it in various ways—manually, in the computer, through color. These geometric patterns could stand for or be the visual equivalent of any patterns, any systems of order, especially unquestioned patterns of thought, received ideas which are both necessary and oppressive and are rich grounds for exploration. 

The “History/Fiction” series also probes figure and ground issues by creating a three-dimensional surface that exists on the same plane as its visual imagery. That is, it explores the way our minds organize what we see, our tendency to want to resolve meaning in a singular way by separating a physical form from its background.  This interest in negative and positive space is old; it goes all the way back to Aristotle.


2.     How have the various environs you’ve lived in impacted your approach to artmaking?

Living in London and New York, where art has a strong currency and where many talented artists live and work and deal with their ambitions provided an amazingly creative atmosphere where I felt truly at home and free to look inside of myself!

I have always arranged my life, whatever it took and wherever I  have lived, so that I could paint.  It’s the central fact of my existence.  My constant ambition has been two-fold: to make the next painting; and to ensure I have a suitable studio, no matter where I have to live.

Both London and New York provided an exhilarating circle of colleagues and friends—other painters, writers, composers, artists of all kids.  These cities also have a plethora of museums and galleries where one can participate in the global conversation about art.


Oil on Canvas / 87” x 120” / 2019

3.     What individuals or events have had the greatest impact on your artistic development?

The shape of my life has determined much about my art. I grew up in the European part of Turkey, in a large secular family at a time long before current Islamist attitudes,  yet Turkey was not a good fit for me, so I moved to London at age 18 with very little money in my pocket and no knowledge of the language.  In London, the culture and the educational institutions enabled and rewarded my development.  I graduated from the Hornsey School of Art and was offered a full scholarship at the University of Hartford, Connecticut.  I got my MFA there in 1981 and then moved to New York City.  Although I loved London, I felt truly at home for the first time in my life in New York.  So, both London and NYC were very influential for my art.

Also, reading and writing have always been crucial for me. Beginning with “The Little Prince” at age seven, books have been a key part of my life, a sort of second simultaneous existence.  I’m often reading three or four books at once.


4.     Can you describe your artistic process?

In the last decade or so I have been painting from what I call a Proustian space.  This is a cultivated, meditative mindset halfway between sleep and wakefulness. There, my past fluoresces and shifts, often defying clear retrieval but always enriching my work through the elastic and porous boundaries of memory. I work mostly in small spurts of perhaps an hour or two.  Then I often go to sleep for a spell and upon awaking start again from the Proustian space. Painting is as constant in my life as sleep and both are events one must have to stay alive.  Sometimes I will work on only a single painting; other times I work on paintings of different sizes at the same time.

My process also depends heavily upon the essential fact that my paintings are hybrid paintings.  They occur at the fertile intersection between Eastern and Western art historical traditions.  Obviously,  I have had to develop and furnish my own cross-cultural painterly lexicon.


5.     How many works will be in this upcoming exhibition?  And what is the medium?

There will be six to ten paintings, depending on how the show is hung. All of them are oil on canvas.


6.     What are the main themes in your upcoming solo show?

Please refer to the copyrighted catalogue essay, Jinns Among Us, by Enid Shomer, which addresses this question.

-------------------- INTERVIEW copyright 2019 by Levent Tuncer