Pulsating light and energy burst from forms that suggest life at its most basic in the provocatively beautiful paintings of Basil Alkazzi. These canvases are reminders to stop and pay attention to beauty in this world, a deep feeling we can all experience if we open our eyes and hearts.
In the deepest dark of winter, an exhibition of Alkazzi’s work shines light at the Rider University Art Gallery. “Basil Alkazzi — Odyssey of Dreams: A Decade of Painting, 2003 – 2012” is on view until Sunday, March 2. Just let go and allow the beauty to wash over you — the large, luscious canvases say far more than words attempting to describe them.
Yet many of us want to embrace visual art with language, as a handsome catalog accompanying the exhibition proves, with three essays and an interview, and quotes from Alkazzi peppered throughout.
Alkazzi points to the irony that writers are never expected to paint an image to explain their meaning, yet artists are expected to elucidate their paintings in words. “If words are required to express a painting, then either the artist has failed to express himself, or the viewer has failed (to allow) the images to penetrate that region of thought and feeling where words are not needed,” he writes.
Michael Royce, New York Foundation for the Arts executive director, describes Alkazzi as “my angel, for I felt and still feel that is what in fact he is: a warm assuring presence whose humanity is expressed through enveloping paintings and films, generous acts, and carefully thought out speech that guides one to a better self.”
“One can regard Alkazzi’s odyssey of dreams as a journey from darkness to light. For Alkazzi, the aim of art is spiritual enlightenment,” writes art critic Donald Kuspit in his essay. He likens Alkazzi to an artistic Odysseus, wishing to return home, dreaming all the adventurous way.
A spiritual breakthrough came to Alkazzi’s work in 1979, according to Kuspit, when “pure forms, geomorphic and biomorphic, became emblematic of spirit in action — pure spirit in Kandinsky’s sense of being possessed by ‘inner necessity.’”
As a young man, Alkazzi suffered what he terms a “nervous breakdown.” Clearly he was gifted with sensitivities that he had not yet found an outlet to express. “The psychoanalyst Henri Ellenberger has famously argued that all significant creativity emerges from what he called a ‘creative malady,’ suggesting that Alkazzi’s later work is the creative cure for the malady that seems evident in his earlier work,” writes Kuspit.
Basil’s father’s family originated in Arabia (before the Saudis), then part of the Ottoman Empire. “He represents for me, the population of the future — a mixture of ethnicities and backgrounds,” says Judith K. Brodsky, professor emerita of visual arts at Rutgers and curator of “An Odyssey of Dreams,” which travels to four other university galleries on a U.S. tour.
“Basil is careful to say that his father came from Arabia, not Saudi Arabia, which came into being when the Saudi family took over Arabia,” Brodsky writes. His mother was Kuwaiti. Alkazzi was born on a British ship en route from Kuwait to England and lived in London from age 17.
Alkazzi recounts that his childhood was not a happy one. “London in the 1950s was bleak,” he says. “This was just after World War II and the smog was oppressive in winter. It was a very difficult and painful period in my life. I could not conform to the rigidity.” This was compounded by an oppressive life at home, leading to his hospitalization.
Following his release Alkazzi spent a year in Greece, drawing, reading (Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and James Baldwin, among others), and writing poems and short stories. Returning to London, he continued these practices while working at odd jobs. He also fed his inner life with cinema: de Sica, Rosellini, Kazan, Fellini, and others. He frequented museums and theater and sought musical sustenance from composers ranging from Handel and Bach to Tchaikovsky and Puccini. It was the salvation he needed.
When he asks his muses for help, Alkazzi says, they enter, they whisper, they flow through him, and he may paint to the sound of rain or wind, the cry of a gull, the chirping of a passing sparrow, or silence.
Alkazzi’s process begins, he says, in the mind’s eye, where he sees a visual image of a thought. He may sketch this, but once he starts painting he lets the Muses guide him. “I am very critical and objective of my own work,” he says. “Not all that I create is worthy of being exhibited, much has to remain in the studio, some to be destroyed.”
“I have always been deeply involved in spiritual matters,” he continues. “I am not a man of religion, but of faith, and I have always believed in spirit entities, in the life of a soul that continues to live in spirit form. My paintings of nature are the life force embodied in nature, all of nature, and that includes mankind. I like looking at, and have always liked looking very closely at, how a plant grows from a seedling. I can and do spend long periods of time gazing at the sky, the sunrise, the shifting light on land and sea . . . and the dazzling green fields of any countryside of our very beautiful planet Earth.”
Rider gallery director Harry Naar notes that Alkazzi has experimented with different approaches: direct observation, dream worlds, the cosmos, and embodiments of philosophical ideas, as well as photomontages reminiscent of Dadaist imagery. Alkazzi’s color, Naar says, has the power of the Fauves and the symbolic qualities of Kandinsky, the dreamlike qualities of Rothko.
The mounting of the exhibition coincides with the 75th birthday of Basil Alkazzi, who lives in Monaco and is unable to travel at this time because of a family matter.
It was through Alkazzi’s association with New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) that Brodsky got to know him and became involved in curating this project. One of Alkazzi’s generous acts is supporting young artists who were not born with his privileges. In 1986 he established the Basil H. Alkazzi Foundation Awards at the Royal College of Art, London, and in 1987 he established the Basil H. Alkazzi Award (USA) for young and emerging painters. In 2010 he established two biennial awards for excellence through NYFA.
“His commitment to helping younger artists comes from a deeply felt moral obligation to help those who don’t have the financial resources he is fortunate to have,” says Brodsky.
Prior to this project, Brodsky didn’t know Alkazzi’s work as an artist — she was more familiar with him as a philanthropist. When asked to curate the exhibition, “I went on his website and found his work to be very beautiful, striking, and thought provoking, and agreed to take on the project,” she says.
As founding director, with Ferris Olin, of both the Institute for Women and Art and the Feminist Art Project, and founding director of the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, as well as curator of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series at Rutgers, Brodsky is taking a step in a different direction with Basil Alkazzi.
“I usually stick to women artists and prints,” Brodsky says. “In the course of working on the exhibition and tour, I became more involved because the work is so compelling. I’m also interested in art that’s different from what is being talked about at the moment. The involvement in the metaphysical and the spiritual seems to be happening.
According to Brodsky, “The Encyclopedic Palace” exhibit by New Museum associate director Massamiliano Gioni at the Venice Biennale last summer was the first major recent show to focus on art that referenced such issues. “The entrance to the exhibition from one direction was the installation of the Encyclopedic Palace. The big gallery that was the entrance from the Giardini Pavillions was filled with Jung’s mystical drawings. And many of the artists included in the exhibition were working from their inner beings rather than making political statements or other kinds of worldly art,” Brodsky says.
As an artist as well as curator and scholar, Brodsky adds, “Perhaps because I’m making images right now that are about the vastness and mystery of the universe, I was drawn to Basil’s work. Perhaps it’s his comprehensive view of the world — the ideas of our times expressed in other fields, such as science — that led me to spend so much time on his work. Looking at his work leads to considering the mystery of nature and the universe in ways that political art, formalism, or identity art do not. When I look at Basil’s work, I’m reminded of how one can sink into the mystery of Rothko’s paintings and lose one’s sense of the immediate surroundings. I believe Basil’s art works the same way.”
Alkazzi’s long and distinguished career spans four decades from 1973 to the present. He exhibited regularly in London from 1978 to 1987 at the important avant garde Drian Gallery. Since 1985 Alkazzi has lived in New York at various times. From 1995 until 2000 he was granted residence in the United States under the immigration rubric of an artist of exceptional ability in the arts.
This exhibition covers Alkazzi’s work of the decade from 2003-2012. The enigmatic and mystical paintings reference the sublime in nature, the culmination of Alkazzi’s ongoing deep engagement in the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of abstraction.
Basil Alkazzi — Odyssey of Dreams: A Decade of Painting, 2003 – 2012, Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Through Sunday, March 2. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Free.
From Secularism to the Mystical in Contemporary Art: A Conversation about the Art of Basil Alkazzi, Rider University Art Gallery, Thursday, February 20, 7 p.m. Free.
Art historians/critics Donald Kuspit and Matthew Baigell will discuss Basil Alkazzi’s work within the broader context of a shift among artists away from the secular concerns of the 20th century and a renewed interest in communicating their spiritual feelings and sense of the mystical. Michael Royce, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, will give introductory remarks. A reception will follow the program.
609-895-5588 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.