Pulsating light and energy burst from forms that suggest life at its most basic in the provocatively beautiful paintings of Basil Alkazzi. In the deepest dark of winter, an exhibition of Alkazzi’s work shines light at the Rider University Art Gallery. Just let go and allow the beauty to wash over you – the large luscious canvases say far more than words.
Yet many want to embrace visual art with language, as a handsome catalogue 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.
A spiritual breakthrough came to Alkazzi’s work in 1979, according to art critic Donald 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’…”
Basil’s father’s family originated in Arabia (before the Saudis), then part of the Ottoman Empire, and his mother was Kuwaiti. Alkazzi was born on a British ship en route from Kuwait to England.
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 hospitalization for a breakdown.
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 Grieg, Handel, Bach and Mozart to Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Puccini. It was the salvation he needed.
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.”
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, remarks Naar, has the power of the Fauves and the symbolic qualities of Kandinsky, the dreamlike qualities of Rothko.
It was through Alkazzi’s association with New York Foundation for the Arts that Judith K. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita, visual arts, at Rutgers and curator of An Odyssey of Dreams, got to know him and became involved in 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.
Basil 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, Basil 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 on-going deep engagement in the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of abstraction.
Basil Alkazzi–Odyssey of Dreams: A Decade of Painting, 2003 – 2012, is on view at Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, through March 2. From Secularism to the Mystical in Contemporary Art: A Conversation about the Art of Basil Alkazzi will be held Thursday, February 20, 7 p.m.
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.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.