Serpil Mavi Üstün
Born in Turkey in 1979, Serpil graduated from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in 2008. Her work has been exhibited and sold in Istanbul and across Europe since 2006. Since April 2016, she has been living and working in London.
Serpil’s latest works are structured around internal conflicts, defense mechanisms, the need for attention, and the daily struggles that border on the neurotic as the individual goes about their daily life; trying to shape it to suit the standards of the society in which they operate. Through her main character, Serpil underlines and draws attention to these little tensions despite life appearing to be on track for her subject. She places her characters in the centre of the scene, putting them in simulated environments with symbolic objects. This helps to reference the character’s story whilst strengthening their expressions and evoking empathy in the audience.
Interview with Serpil Mavi Üstün
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Serpil. You’re originally from Çanakkale, Turkey. What were some early sources of inspiration for you while living there?
I grew up and lived the majority of my adult life in Istanbul, so it’s shaped me more than where I was born. I also had my art education in Istanbul in Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University which is the art school with the most roots in Turkey and I was also lucky as Istanbul was the centre of culture and art. I knew the education style of the school beforehand and I had chosen it because I knew it suited me. My leaning towards figurative art was encouraged and developed, at the same time I studied antique fresco, mosaic and sgraffito.
Are there any other artists in your family? Can you tell us about your path to becoming a painter?
There are no other artist in my family but my father is a creative person. He still does ceramic sculptures as a hobby. I remember, when I was a child, I used to try to draw portraits of my friends. However I never imagined myself becoming an artist. Art was always seen as just a hobby by the people around me. By the time I got to university I realized that art always stayed as a part of my life.
You’re now based in London. Do you feel your work reflects certain aspects of the city?
I definitely think that London has palpable effects on my art. Being able to be so close to the artwork that I used to look at in books or during short touristic visits is truly an amazing feeling. I can even go to a museum just to look at a specific artwork without worrying about time. I can follow the exhibitions of international artists that I like as well. For example the Kiki Smith exhibition last year had really excited me. These are all things that are very nourishing for my art.
The motif of houses in the background in my works started when I came here. Houses and windows have always attracted my attention but the architecture here really inspired me. Of course, instead of staying true to the technical architecture, I adjust them and give them roles as the painting requires. Sometimes I use it as the outside world and sometimes as a home. The questioning of home and belonging which reflect on my work is actually one of the effects of me having moved here, to London. Even though I chose to live here and really love it, I still miss Istanbul too.
What initially drew you to working in oil on canvas?
Oil on canvas is the medium that best suits the form and content of my art. Even though I find that oil on canvas suits me the best, I’ve recently grown an interest for papier-mâché which I’ve been newly experimenting with.
Your paintings often portray similar, solitary figures within various neutral interiors. What is the significance of these settings?
Since my childhood, subconsciously I've been drawing my subjects as solitary individuals. I’ve always loved observing people as individuals and I’ve always been interested in human psychology which is one of my biggest sources of inspiration. I can convey any kind of psychological element through a lonely figure by using body language and other forms of expression. I also put the figures in the centre of my paintings so that the viewers can directly empathize with them. I don't derive from one person and try to show their character. I get inspired by a psychological situation and then try to find the fitting character and face. That’s also exactly why I don’t use models. Making a portrait of someone real doesn’t interest me. The thing that truly excites me is finding that unknown face and bodily expression.
I tend to create bare environments and even lessen the brush strokes in order to make sure the atmosphere allows the focus to be the figure. This pushes the viewers to question its state of mind and inner world.
There is a figurative style throughout your work that brings to mind both Pre-Renaissance portraiture and Surrealist painters such as Magritte. What has directed your decision to work this way?
There isn’t really any surrealism in my work. If they still resemble Magritte, it might be because of the psychological elements I use and the mysterious impression they leave. The symbolic objects I use, especially the rose are probably influential for that. However as you may know, Magritte rejected assigning meanings to his symbolic objects. He presented them in forms and spaces out of logic to create shock. I’m not questioning the universal reality of objects. I use them in a complementary manner for my figures and they contain symbolic meanings and references. The Pre-Renaissance influence you can see in my work wasn’t a decision but a result of the natural flow. It was the answer to the questions of “what am I doing and how can I improve it”. Since the beginning of my career, ambiguous expressions of lone figures have been the outstanding feature in my works. I got this result when I combined them with a structural approach which preserves the sincerity and symbolism while going against the Pre-Renaissance perspective rules without ignoring surface.
You’ve stated that you reference “characters that have influenced us across the generations through our classical bedtime stories.” Can you talk about some of the characters you’re depicting?
My characters express a rebellion against stereotypes and clichés such as fragile, passive women and the idea that they need strong men to save them. For example Rapunzel, who uses her long hair to help a man come save her. In my painting, she cuts her own hair, indicating that she isn’t dependent on a masculine power. This is also applicable to the male figures in my work as I assign them not so “stereotypically masculine and strong” personalities which is contrasting to the princes in fairy tales.
Are there any autobiographical elements present?
I do definitely use autobiographical references in my work. Mostly these elements derive from my current mood and feelings. This also enables the viewers to reflect on their own emotions and it means that my work is open to interpretation.
Specific objects are usually incorporated into your images, such as lipstick, knives, or a recurring single pink rose. In what ways does symbolism inform meaning in your work?
All of them are expressions of my figures’ characters and psychological situations. I tend to use anything that might link to the story of the figure; a pattern on their shirt, a fruit, ring, tattoo, food, scissors or a knife. The painting where I used a lipstick is called “Everybody Loves You”. It doesn’t mean anything on its own, it’s only a part of a whole. The figure’s hair is wrapped in curlers, her nails are painted, there are more makeup products on the table as well as a classy knife, she’s getting ready. Almost as if she’s stuck between the table and the window behind her, cold grey tones form the harmony. The figure’s expression is ambiguous, she seems quite catatonic. A bit of her hair is cut randomly, probably by her. I present a profile, a story through all of this. It’s very open to subjective evaluation. You can interpret this as a beauty ritual or as a representation of the pressure to be accepted and loved by everyone. So what the objects symbolize depends on the figure in the centre, the other items around and to what the viewer associates it to. Sometimes I get wonderful comments on details that I haven’t even noticed because of that. Because there is a frequent use of roses in my works, I get asked a lot about the meaning of it. Of course that can be interpreted in different ways too but mostly it symbolizes tenderness and hope in contrast to the stability and mellowness of the painting. A pink rose, against the grey harmony I often use, is a happy colour which represents joy, sweetness, freshness and good possibilities. I always have a single rose because that way it leaves a more fragile, unique impression.
Can you tell us about your current studio? Is it important for you to maintain a separation between your work space and domestic space?
My studio is in ASC Studios in Kingston. It’s exactly the way I want; a large enough loft with high ceilings and lots of natural light. Me and my houseplants are indeed very pleased with that :)
My work space and domestic space have always been separate. I like to embrace these places as my own and adapt them to my needs. However during times when I have to work really hard, I do end up thinking about whether or not it would be more practical to have both of these places in one. Sometimes when I need to, I create a work space at the corner of my house. Despite that, working in my studio is always more productive for me.
Would you say your way of working is structured or more spontaneous? Do you follow any daily rules or rituals?
After busy periods I give myself a break and a chance to be spontaneous but I usually have to stick to a schedule.
I’m not a morning person, even if I wake up early, I spend a long time drinking coffee. After walking my dog Robin, I get to my studio at around 11. I usually tend to bring my lunch so I don’t have to take a long break. I then get home in time for dinner around 6-7pm. On Sunday I try and not work if possible so that I can spend time with my family.
Can you lend some insight into your process from conception to completion?
There’s always a rough idea of a new painting at the back of my head, I wait for a spark before I start to transfer it onto canvas. This can be anything; a song, object, a temporary feeling, a face I’ve seen that has impressed me and sometimes just a deadline that has been set for me. Instead of sketches, I take notes to lead me during the process of painting. Sometimes I already know the name of a painting that I haven’t even planned out yet. I keep thinking until I can imagine the painting that matches that name, even if i’m working on another painting in the meantime. I usually only move on to the next one after I’ve completed one. I don’t do detailed sketches. Instead, I like to progress on the canvas, inspired by the randomness and coincidences. It is true that a fully complete sketch would make my work on the canvas easier but it causes me to lose my excitement. In addition, until the painting is complete I listen to the same playlist, avoid tidying up or cleaning my palette and brushes because that means i’m ready for a fresh start.
Do you see your creative practice as one, ongoing body of work or is it broken down into series? If the latter, how do you know when series is finished?
I don’t know how far back this question requires me to go but I think it would be more accurate to say it is an ongoing body of work. I’ve tried out series however that didn’t have a permanent effect on the style of my work.
How has your work developed over time and how do you anticipate it progressing in the future?
On my walls, I have works from my student years and my exhibitions in order to physically see my development. What did I do, what am I doing, what do I want to do? These are the best questions to evaluate myself. When I look back now, I realize that in the beginning of my career I was still trying to be a good student. Even if i didn’t feel like that then, I was trying to do what was expected of me and I was seeking validation. I wasn’t surrounded by a large art community that I can follow like now. I could sense that I needed a change but I didn’t know what that would be so I went on a few trips to museums in Europe. I was really impressed by 14th-15th century German and Italian masters such as Cranach, Piero Della Francesca, Ghirlandaio. In all aspects, I was the most fascinated by their use of black. When I returned, I started creating works that weren’t that different from my recent ones in terms of my understanding of theme and figure but were mostly dominated by black.
We moved to London in the summer of 2016. Of course the first thing I did was to visit all the museums. Being in London meant that I could access art more easily as well as being able to participate in more international organizations. To see what I could do, I attended fairs where my work would be seen my more people. Soon after, I moved into my first studio at ASC Studios. It was smaller and didn’t get as much sunlight compared to my current studio. I hung up a few of my painting on the walls then I realized, I don’t feel like that anymore. I had to become more plain and simple. I felt a need for sharper lines, flatter surfaces, colder tones. I fully opened the door to the effects of starting a new life. The diversity here encouraged me to focus on what I want without feeling the need for validation. I don’t think there is gonna be any major changes in my work in the future because I think i’ve found my own language. My aim for the future is just to strengthen that.
Who are some other painters you’re excited about right now?
I’ve always observed and been interested in older art, which is where I get most of my inspiration from. Bosch, Cranach, Botticelli are my unchanging favourites who excite me the most. At one stage Modigliani, Balthus in another have fascinated me. I read a lot about them and went on trips to see their works. However the name that has excited me the most ever since I saw their early works is Lucien Freud. “Girl with a kitten” and his other works from the same period, I really love them! I wish he had more work in that style. Another masterpiece that amazes me as much as “Girl with a kitten” is ”Giovanna Tornabuoni” by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Five years ago I saw it in Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and it’s been my favourite ever since. I’ve only seen Rene Magritte’s work in books and online so I’d love to go see it close up in the Magritte museum in Belgium sometime soon. Pyke Koch, Domenico Gnoli, Kiki Smith and of course there are more contemporary artists who I find exciting as well and I follow them mostly on Instagram.
What is the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received from a fellow artist?
This is a very interesting question. I’ve probably received lots of advice that has helped me but the one that I remember often is the advice my professor in art school gave me: “ don’t let your palette dry unless you have a really serious problem”. Of course what he was trying to say here was that we shouldn’t lose our work rhythm. I have first hand experience on how taking a really long break from production makes coming back to it and finding the old rhythm harder. In those periods, I felt unhappy and uneasy as well. I haven’t had a period like that in a while and i’m hoping I won’t have one any time soon.
Do you think social media has altered the experience of looking at art?
Definitely. Especially if there wasn’t Instagram, I wouldn’t have been able to discover so many contemporary artists and interact with them. For example even though i’ve never been to NY or LA, I have lots of knowledge and insight on the artists, curators and art publications there. This information stream gets refreshed all the time as well. It’s also great to be able to archive things that I don’t want to forget.
How do you spend your time when not making art?
I love spending time at home with my family, two cats and dog. Long breakfasts and dinners, walks with our dog in Richmond Park right next to our house and watching movies with my family might be the most relaxing things ever. Except the times when i’m really busy, I really enjoy cooking and maybe not regularly but I do yoga too. I love the museums in London and I could spend my entire day in them if i have time. I never get bored of seeing the works I love over and over again. I guess I do have to admit I also spend lots of time on social media.
What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?
I’ve seen the movie Enter the Void by Gasper Noé. I’m reading A History of The World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes and The Elegance of The Hedgehog by French writer Muriel Barbery, which i’ve read in Turkish before. I usually listen to the personal playlists i’ve created on Spotify. The names i’ve been listening to the most often recently are Alice Merton, Aurora and Evgeny Grinko.
What are you currently working on in the studio? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events, or other news you’d like to share?
I just started papier-mâché sculpting which i’ve been wanting to do for a while now. For now I’m only trying it out but if i’m happy with the result I might continue and display it together with my paintings. I have a solo exhibition coming up next year in CAM gallery in Istanbul. I will also be attending a few group exhibitions and an international fair during fall.
Thanks so much for talking with us!
For more information about Serpil and her work, check out her website.