Mustafa Özel

Portraits of an invisible reality

It takes courage to have your portrait painted by Mustafa Özel. Courage to know yourself. The real, true, warts-and-all you. An x-ray of your soul. More honest a reflection than that of any mirror could ever be. And so while Özel’s oil paintings may be somewhat of a risky affair for his subjects, for the art world they are an absolute gift. Portraits of rarely seen depth and intensity. Viennese Modernism in 21st Century Istanbul.

by Felix Brosius, December 15, 2021
Mustafa Özel in the Studio
Mustafa Özel in the studio

Mustafa Özel paints portraits that get under the skin – in the truest sense of the word, because his oil paintings are just not limited to depicting the outer appearance of those who sit for him, but also reveal traces of their life, the inner state of their soul. The expressive intensity of his works has an enormous power and allows the viewer to truly see the person, the very essence of them. Özel’s style is at times highly reminiscent of Egon Schiele, even if not intended consciously. His modelled portraits expose people with all their conflicting facets of outer strength and inner vulnerability, reflecting disappointment and confidence, hope and pain.

Mustafa Özel, Francisco, 2003
Francisco, 2003

Making reality visible

Özel regards himself as a figurative painter who strives to depict reality, both the obvious and the perceived. He tries to penetrate the attitude with which his subject goes through life, to capture emotions, to portray the inner being of the person. He robs his models of their outer protective shell and radically exposes what’s inside. He often paints his models naked, to express particular vulnerability. He spends a great deal of time trying to find the right posture, a certain perspective, a tension that reflects perfectly the inner state he is seeking to convey.

Mustafa Özel, Beyza & Beyza, 2021
B&B (Beyza & Beyza), 2021

The resulting, largely realistic, depictions nonetheless have an enormous expressive impact. Against a neutral background, the figures draw the viewer’s full attention, at times lifted by elaborate, stylised shadow lines like an outline onto a stage they were certainly not looking for, appearing rather to have fallen into the spotlight quite unexpectedly, their entire demeanour and body language self-aware, looking inwards, anything but a performer vying for attention.

Mustafa Özel, Portrait of Beyza, 2017
Portrait of Beyza, 2017

Expressive traces of raw colour

The expressive effect of a mirror of the inner state of the subject’s soul is achieved through remarkably simple means. Özel only permits himself to draw on stylisation and colour enhancement to a limited extent, but these bear crucial importance for the impact of his portraits. »The use of colour has two functions in my portraits. On the one hand, colour serves to create the organic, or objective image. On the other, it also has an expressive effect through individual traces of raw primary colours.« Özel predominately applies these expressive traces in the faces of his subjects, without them being perceived by the viewer as alien; rather, they seem to merge with the natural disposition of the model, and so bearing the stamps of life to the surface and making them visible to the viewer.

»The use of colour has two functions in my portraits. On the one hand, colour serves to create the organic, or objective image. On the other, it also has an expressive effect through individual traces of raw primary colours.«

Portrait painting in a reactionary autocracy

Özel painted his first portrait at the age of 16, using a good friend as a model. Portrait painting has been his raison d’être ever since. From 1980 to 1984, he was a student in the Department for Visual Arts at Marmara University in Istanbul. The year in which he began his studies was also the year in which the third military coup in Turkey’s history took place. An event that had far-reaching consequences, including for schools and universities, because “to restore peace and order”, social life became heavily regulated and freedoms restricted. At the time, it was therefore unthinkable to paint from a model at the university – a major limitation for a portrait painter, but one which evidently spurred on rather than discouraged Özel.

»If I weren't an artist, my purpose in life would probably be mundane.«

Even today, simple portraits can become political art in an autocratic country, all the more so if they are expressive acts in a country in which the state claims interpretive sovereignty over history and social norms and in which questions of origin, identity and historical references are not openly discussed. Consequently, Özel’s works in Turkey also do not conform to the traditional canon of established contemporary art and are sometimes perceived as “inappropriate” or undesirable. At the Istanbul Art Fair 2017, for instance, his paintings were removed by the police, the reason being that they represented inappropriate nudity. Even if from an enlightened perspective such an incident may seem laughable, it imposes considerable restrictions on artistic development. For fear of coming into conflict with the system, established galleries and art exhibitions avoid displaying works like those of Mustafa Özel, with the result that art that challenges the normative view of the country and society is effectively pushed out of public perception in the space. Kafkaesque conditions for artists who perform their noblest task of making the unseen visible, but precisely because of this, find themselves transformed into pariahs of society, excluded and deprived of possibilities to be seen.

Mustafa Özel, Body in Space-Series, 2018
Reference to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” in Özel’s studio, from the series “Bodies in Space”, 2018

What remains is a counter-public on social media such as Instagram, on which Özel has a big following, exhibitions outside the established art scene, of which Özel has already had over 20, and the reception of his work abroad. Today, he is represented in renowned collections both in and outside of Turkey and has participated in a large number of international exhibitions. At the same time, however, he is at odds with the contemporary art scene, which he believes does not strive for art but rather uses art, and in this sense does not consider himself an artist but a painter. He admires painters such as Brueghel, Goya, Munch and Hopper for their ability to draw the viewer into their world, and masters such as Uccello, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Diebenkorn and Uglow, for their ability to teach the viewer what art is. Above all, however, he admires the artist Joan Mitchell, one of the leading exponents of abstract expressionism. A logical selection for an artist whose portraits draw the viewer into their emotional world with expressive impact, making them not only look at art but almost physically experience it.Art.Salon

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