Ahmed Alsoudani's Collateral Damage

Ahmed Alsoudani: MATRIX 165

Runs through Jan. 6, 2013, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford. (860) 278-2670, wadsworthatheneum.org


Ahmed Alsoudani's meteoric rise as an artist with a worldwide reputation is the sort of success story America used to shout about to the proverbial four corners. There's a catch, however, to Alsoudani's achievement. The 37-year-old Iraqi-American painter, whose work is on view until Jan. 6, 2013 in the Wadsworth Atheneum's MATRIX Gallery, creates images that reflect the horrors visited upon his homeland, his family, friends, mind, body and soul during his lifetime — much of it caused, at least since 2003, by his adopted country of America.

The six large untitled paintings on view in MATRIX 165 were created in the past two years, all done with charcoal and acrylic on canvas. Though each contains a different configuration of nightmarish, even garish, images, they are all of a piece, and sitting quietly in the middle of the gallery surrounded by these works has a powerful visceral and psychological impact not unlike that of Picasso's "Guernica" mural. The viewer is "embedded" not with the soldiers but with the victims of "collateral damage."

Colors, shapes and figures squirm like bottom-dwelling sea creatures, floating about in a vacuum of interrogation lamps, eyeballs, oil barrels, destroyed machinery, broken heads and gutted bodies. Waiting off to the side of the central figures are organs in mason jars, half-filled bottles, gears, wires, metal pipes that look like intestines, oil barrels, torture devices with just enough facial elements to suggest living creatures under all the gore. If Jack Kerouac's poem "The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception" were a painting, this is what it would look like.

Though they seem a random phantasmagoria of brutality, a closer look at the paintings will reveal the careful planning of the canvases by Alsoudani, who was obviously influenced by the work of Francis Bacon and Philip Guston (with whose work his paintings will be shown next year at a New York gallery). Some of the same energy and beauty-amidst-chaos found in Willem de Kooning's larger works can be found here. He's an artist in full flower, not a shrinking violet.

"There are symbolic elements to all of the images included, such as the monkey which connotes mimicry of corrupt political leaders," says Patricia Hickson, the Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art who first saw Alsoudani's work at last year's Venice Biennial. "I saw his work everywhere in Venice and every piece had his unmistakable unique style of acrylic paint and charcoal, which was striking to me given the worldwide waves of violence. The work is personal to Ahmed but it's universal too. He's an avid political junkie and has seen these images of violence in the media and firsthand when he was growing up in Baghdad. He's a modern political painter and activist whose work is important and powerful."

Born in Baghdad, Alsoudani came of age during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the Gulf War (1990-91), sought asylum in Syria in 1994, then immigrated to the U.S. in 1999. In remarkably short order, he learned English, worked a series of jobs to save money and then moved to Portland to attend the Maine College of Art and eventually earned an MFA in Painting from Yale. He now lives and works in New York, but the rest of his family is still in Iraq, a fact that explains some of the torn-apart quality of his art.

In a recent interview, Alsoudani explained, "I've been in the unique and painful situation of observing the war and being in the U.S. while my family remains in Baghdad. I'm away physically, but I talk to my family very often, so I feel caught between. The state of being 'between' two places and two worlds allows me to see and hear things from a different point of view."

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