NEW YORK - As someone who was born and brought up in Bosnia, educated in Germany and is now based in New York, why should artist Amer Kobaslija have reacted as passionately as he did on hearing about the earthquake and the tsunami that struck Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011?
“It’s simple,” says the 38-year-old artist, who speaks earnestly of his abiding concern about the effects of the disasters, as well as those of the ensuing horrific accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, on the farms, cities and psyche of the affected area. “My wife is Japanese. And through her I’ve developed a deep, personal interest in Japan and its people and culture. Having grown up in Bosnia in the 1990s, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the human-caused destruction that took place back then in my native country and the calamity that Japan experienced, with its confluence of natural disasters and human failings. I was shaken by the television images and, later, by what I saw in person in the disaster zone.”
In the United States, TV reports offered endless video loops showing the big wave sweeping up houses, ships, shopping centers, schools, farms, baseball fields and whole towns in a super-tide of all-obliterating sludge.
Instinctively, Kobaslija knew how he would respond to those cataclysmic events. During a recent interview at his studio, he recalled, “Expressing myself through the medium of paint is the essence of who I am; it’s how I articulate my thoughts. So I decided that I would create a series of paintings. But how, exactly, and of what? I wanted to recognize the magnitude of what had occurred, honor the memory of those who had been killed, injured or displaced, and bear witness to the human dimension of the tragedy.”
Kobaslija’s parents settled in Florida in the 1990s after fleeing their homeland during the era of the Balkan region’s sectarian wars. In the meantime, Amer made his way to Dusseldorf, where he studied at the Kunstakademie, one of Europe’s most respected art schools. Later, he joined his parents in the U.S., where he went on to earn a master’s degree in art. Today he and his wife live in New York, where the artist keeps his main studio. From there, he commutes to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he teaches studio art and art history at Gettysburg College.
Given his childhood in war-ravaged Bosnia, Kobaslija suggested, a sense of obligation about bearing witness to the suffering caused by calamitous events was a reaction that felt natural to him. But in an age of you-are-there news delivered globally, in real time, how can paintings compete with the power of mass-media images?
Kobaslija explained: “Through their works, artists can offer allusions to or representations of historic events that both document and interpret them. We can express various aspects of the human spirit in ways that are different from those of photojournalism.”
In effect, Kobaslija set out to create his own kind of contemporary history painting, grand in its thematic ambition, as this genre of art traditionally has tended to be, but also, as far as its documentary and aesthetic aspects were concerned, very carefully balanced.
He decided to focus on the impact of the disasters on and around the coastal town of Kesennuma in the northeastern corner of Miyagi Prefecture. With a nod to the Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who created “One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji,” Kobaslija titled his series of oil paintings, made on sheets of copper or aluminum, “One Hundred Views of Kesennuma.”
In New York last year, the George Adams Gallery showed the first batch of these works. Recently, the same gallery presented some of his smaller-format paintings, several of which reprised emblematic images from his Kesennuma series. This year, largely in recognition of the originality and high quality of his Japan-related series, Kobaslija was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.
The artist recalled that he traveled to Tohoku as soon as he could after the disasters, on the first of what, to date, would become nine research visits. (His Japanese-born wife has sometimes accompanied him, serving as an interpreter and assistant.) There, on location, since 2011 Kobaslija has snapped thousands of photographs and made countless sketches of the destroyed houses, upturned cars and mountains of debris left behind after the tsunami’s waters had receded.
Those references, along with his signature mode of handling his paint — it is expressionistic, not photorealistic, with each stroke as spontaneous-feeling as it is precise in the way it builds up recognizable forms — became the raw material and essential elements of the Kesennuma series. Somewhat ironically, so did Kobaslija’s appreciation of the unusual sense of perspective evident in classical East Asian painting, an artistic convention he had studied and assimilated long before his personal involvement with Japan began.
As a result, his portrayals of disaster-ravaged Kesennuma, with billowing plumes of smoke rising above the town and panoramas of toppled buildings and debris-filled roads, have a dynamic, cinematic quality. Although they are abstract, the paintings manage to vividly convey a sense of the textures, shapes and even temperatures that characterized such a vast scene of destruction. Kobaslija’s newer paintings in his series are based on his on-location findings during more recent trips to Tohoku. They capture now-barren landscapes, in which the post-disaster debris has been tidied up or from which it has been removed. “(The paintings) feel surreal, like the scenery they depict,” said the artist.
“Both from a distance and up close, as I’ve seen during my visits to Kesennuma, there is so much about the Japan disasters to respond to, so much to try to comprehend,” Kobaslija said. He added: “I hope my work evokes a sense of the empathy with the region and its people that I and many other observers far away have felt. I believe painting still has the power to convey such compassion and concern.”
In this capable artist’s hands, it certainly does. Perhaps more remarkable, though, is the way in which Kobaslija’s paintings have made the expression of such heartfelt emotion a resonant and eloquent art in itself.
Edward M. Gomez is a New York-based critic and author who writes regularly about contemporary art.