German-born Turkish painter Taner Ceylan didn't choose his painting style. It chose him. "I always painted hyperrealistic by instinct," the artist, 46, explains. "I always wanted to see the texture of the painting." It was this innate drive that led Ceylan to create sensual images of men—often nude and often together, in various sexual poses—that seem to invite the viewer to participate. Art is an innate refraction of reality, one that's always evolving, but not always activated. These images, all painted between 1997 and 2002 and often featuring Middle Eastern men against European interiors, were political by their very subject matter, but also, according to Ceylan, they're political to their core. "Art is political because of its nature. If you are doing art, that means you are already acting, creating and thinking as you wish with your free will — not what the system demands you."
Men and their sexuality are the subject again in Ceylan's latest exhibit, "The Lost Paintings," showing at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City Sept. 18 through October 26. Where Ceylan's previous works engaged the classical European style, these paintings are more engaged with Orientalism, the West's view of the East. In many of them, the interiors fall away to give the subject the floor. "I try to finish the whole story with the figure itself," he says. "My stories are now a confrontation with art history. Orientalism has become a challenge for me."
Being an openly gay artist in a secular, yet Muslim country such as Turkey may have gotten easier over the years, but it took a little outside inspiration as well to spark Ceylan's creative fires. Ceylan was studying classical painting program at Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Instanbul in the late 1980s, and was struggling with his gay desires. Seeking help for as-yet-unexplained anxieties, he turned to a therapist, and it was she who suggested he come out. "She advised me not to try to change myself," he says. She told him about gay bars and spaces, as well, all of which "was a kind of an earthquake for a young person in my position." Feeling more daring, Ceylan began integrating homoeroticism into his works, a move that was not well-received by his teachers or local galleries.
Instead of throwing in the drop cloth, Ceylan immersed himself in his work. "I stopped all relationships with the world and decided to paint like classical masters and follow my dreams freely." Spending most of the 90s honing his craft resulted in the aforementioned nudes, as well as other, even more graphic images, like one of a bruised, bloodied boxer in the ring, another of a man spitting into his desirous lover's mouth, and one of a Marc Jacobs polaroid covered in an erect penis and its byproduct, all so lifelike that you can almost smell them. (Sexualized women appear as well, though with lesser frequency.)
Even as homoeroticism and male desire continue to dominate his works, Ceylan seems ambivalent about homosexuality. He doesn't believe theocratic societies like Turkey, a nation straddling both East and West, will ever have a completely inclusive culture. While LGBT groups have emerged in recent years and have been welcomed into the recent Occupy Gezi protests, Ceylan says we "should admit that this is a Muslim country and it’s almost impossible to see Islam and homosexuality side by side." And as for homosexuality in general, Ceylan remarks, "Beyond religions, homosexuality is a game of nature which marginalizes a person from society. At the same time, it moves society forward with ideas and suggestions of the gay view which heterosexuals don't have." His position is undoubtedly influenced by the well-defined but clandestine spaces in which many gay men still operate in Turkey. It's an open secret, one often tucked into back alleys, parks, and unmarked bars.
That doesn't interest Ceylan, he says. "The days which my life was ruled by sexual drive are over." He's more committed to his work explaining, "My paintings have evolved and continue to evolve. There's no doubt that I have more to do on canvas but I'm not rushing it. I’ve been watching myself, waiting with big curiosity." One thing that won't change, however, is Taner's commitment to painting in a world obsessed with instantaneous micro-events broadcast via Instagram and forgotten moments later. Painting is an "endless moment," Ceylan says, and photography can never compete. "The camera is documenting the light it conceives, however a painter documents thoughts and feelings."