The twenty-two paintings in this ten-year survey of Amer Kobaslija’s work at the George Adams Gallery varied widely in size. The two largest were well over six feet across, while the smallest measured three-and-a-half inches to a side. The subject matter fell roughly into two buckets: interiors with the flattened perspective of a fish-eye lens, and panoramic, often equally distorted views of desolate or ruined landscapes—Kobaslija’s “spaces” and “places.” For all these scenes, people were noticeably absent, as if they represented empty stages waiting for an entrance. In a few exceptions there was at most a solitary figure in the picture, usually with his or her back turned. Kobaslija’s virtuosic paint handling—the true dramatis personae—united this body of work. While the larger pieces had wonderful passages, the densely packed brushwork of the very smallest paintings was electrifying.
Kobaslija was born in Banja Luka in 1975. He fled to South Florida with his family in 1997 when war tore his home city apart. As an ethnic Bosnian, he was undoubtedly no stranger to the conflict of his youth. The results of all wars, chaos, anomie, and oblivion crop up again and again in his paintings. For example, in A Man Riding Bike, Kesennuma Port, March 18, (2011), Kobaslija’s paint strokes limn a sea of junk across the width of the landscape. The painting documents the horrific results of the tsunami that demolished parts of Japan’s east coast in 2011. Through the wrecked cars, trashed houses, and garbage heaps, the eponymous bike rider wends his way slowly from center foreground to the bottom of the painting, with the fisheye distortion making it appear as if he were about to fall out of the picture. As the only figure in the landscape that stretches far into the mountainous background, his isolation seems to press in from all around him—and yet somehow he manages to get on with his life. What matters is that he is still alive, and that he has managed to hold onto some sense of purpose.
In this survey, Kobaslija surprisingly never presented any scenes that directly addressed the destructive power of war. There were two paintings with black smoke, Untitled (Smoke) (2013), and Black Smoke No. 4 (2012), but it was not clear from the images how the burning buildings caught on fire. In these works, disaster seems to simply be a part of the natural order of things, as inevitable as the onset of winter. Against landscapes where nature was at best indifferent and often devastating, Kobaslija’s interiors—mostly studios or bathrooms—all had a claustrophobic, hemmed-in quality. The combination of the fish-eye distortion and the exaggerated viewpoints led to a vertiginous feeling of falling into the spaces. Con Te Partiro (2013) cocks the floor of the studio at a crazy angle, which threatens to pitch the clutter right out the lower right corner of the painting. In the center is a camera with the lens facing out, to the side are packed bags ready to fall out of the picture plane. Who is the “Te” in the title that Kobaslija would be leaving with—the viewer looking at the painting, a friend, a lover, or a family member? Clearly the second person singular implies a level of intimacy. Kobaslija appears to be making the case in these cluttered, cramped, and messy interiors for a commonality of experience—a critique of subjective experience with all its quirks, limitations, and dirty secrets. After an indifferent if not outright hostile outside, here was the second piece of the puzzle to the palpable urgency Kobaslija brought to his surfaces: the humble truth of our very circumscribed insides—our minds.
It seems that for Kobaslija the act of painting is what bridges these two extremes. On the west wall of the gallery were five small pieces from 2013 painted on Plexiglas, and no larger than five inches to a side, which best embodied that belief: Con Te Partiro; Studio with Chairs (Miniature); Nainoraki (In Memory of Leslie Lerner); Ruined House Near Kenesumma Port II; Untitled (Smoke). Two are studio scenes, the rest are disaster landscapes. In all five paintings the sense of the painter’s touch is amplified in two ways: through the stiff, smooth, plexiglass surface which brings to life the minutest variation in the pressure of the brush, and the tight packing of the brush strokes themselves, which almost threatens to blow apart the very images they mean to convey. This powerful sense of connecting through touch, almost as if painter and viewer were sharing skin, is in the end Kobaslija’s answer (through painting) to the dilemma of navigating between the isolation of interiority and the trauma that experience inexorably brings to living. Painting, at once the most visceral and cerebral of media, has, for Kobaslija, the power to create a community of shared experience in the teeth of the many forces that divide.