What kind of art would you make if you were always on the run? If you lived in fear of arrest and were always moving across borders from one strange place to another? And how would your art practice change if you suddenly landed in the lap of luxury?
These questions arise from the life and work of Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani, a man who defaced a poster of Saddam Hussein on a whim when he was a teenager and now, at 33, finds himself opening a solo show of new paintings at Chelsea's Goff + Rosenthal Gallery this weekend. After the minute Ahmed defaced Saddam, he was a marked man, who fled to Syria, living four dicey years there as a kind of non-person.
With the help of a friend and the U.S. State Department, Alsoudani decamped to Maine, all the while helplessly watching his family, from afar, under different kinds of assault, the death of his father and the displacement of his mother, a Shia. Accepted in the MFA program at Yale, Ahmed described it as "a hospital," so clean and comfortable was Yale after his young years on the run, and then he met Mel Bochner. Bochner, always a rigorous, disciplined mentor, compelled Ahmed to destroy his paintings and start over.
The work that emerged has one overarching purpose: to express chaos, a regurgitation of the helplessness twinned with surprise at the empowerment that Alsoudani now feels, as if the role of the artist is to bear witness to the psychic tournament of the culture he fled and yearns for. Esthetically, Ahmed's images split right down the middle, between bulbousities of color out of Peter Saul and Robert Colescott, and distressed stick figures which recall the "fear and loathing" cartoonist Ralph Steadman.
Yet, these associations are overshadowed by Ahmed's biography even as they are infiltrated by it. Whether he will be trapped as an artist by his displaced situation, or move beyond it, remains to be seen.
"Ahmed Alsoudani," Apr. 30-June 12, 2009, at Goff + Rosenthal, 537B West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).