PORTLAND, Maine — Born in Baghdad and trained in Maine, Ahmed Alsoudani is a painter, but not of seascapes. His are mindscapes of a psyche inflected by the violence of war.
At a time when chemical weapons and government surveillance are global realities, his show, “Redacted,” at the Portland Museum of Art does what art is supposed to do.
“I go beyond what we see in the media and visualize it,” said the Maine College of Art graduate, whose work is up through Dec. 8. “When you look at the painting you won’t see a war scene.”
What you will see are skulls, dismemberment, a mixture of images cohering into an uneasy world. His graphic, colorful works evoked in charcoal and painted in with acrylics bear psychic witness of the horrors of violence. The Iraqi who escaped Saddam Hussein’s reign and fled for Syria, before immigrating to the United States in 1999, does not do pretty.
Though his work is personal, it’s also relatable.
“The world gets smaller and smaller. Even though we are not in the conflict zone, the chaos of the world affects our daily life because it’s a part of our daily life,” said Alsoudani during a recent phone interview from his New York City loft.
Tortured images of what could be people are painted in surprisingly cheerful hues. A light bulb for an eye, mechanical gears, bars suggesting imprisonment and eyeballs pop out from all corners. Swaths of bright fabric woven from centuries of tradition heighten the contradiction.
Though the artist may have escaped real tragedy by moving to America while he was in his 20s, his work suggests that he was a psychic sponge for the ongoing chaos and violence in the Middle East.
“We are thousands of miles away from Syria, but we worry that if we do something here [it will have an impact],” he said. “We are away from the conflict zone, but what is happening over there could affect our life here.”
He doesn’t like to discuss politics, preferring to let feelings come out in the raw language of paint.
“I see how the society acts and reacts around us … it’s my way of talking or making a statement through my artwork,” he said.
The show is called “Redacted,” which literally means to edit. And though Alsoudani says he wasn’t on the frontlines of war, being censored “has a lot to do with the way that I paint and think.”
The black marker that blots out the type on the museum wall and in his show materials calls to mind WikiLeaks and government information control.
This is an edgy and innovative show for the PMA, said director Mark Bessire, who’s juxtaposed Winslow Homer’s Civil War exhibit at the same time.
“The fact that Homer was so impacted by Maine and so was Ahmed” puts these artists in the same realm.
“Painting a lighthouse here doesn’t make you a Maine artist,” said Bessire. “I really wanted to get this show back to this community.”
Alsoudani graduated from MECA in 2005 and went on to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. From there he jumped to the Yale School of Art.
While in Portland he studied the greats such as Picasso and Goya at the city’s museum. He credits the nearby college with giving him the confidence and training to become who he is today: a blue-chip artist whose work fetches six figures.
“He is their hero,” said Bessire, who co-curated the show. “There is no doubt he’s become an ambassador of MECA.”
Coming back to give a presentation this fall is special for Alsoudani, one of few MECA graduates to have a solo show here.
“I used to look at the art in the museum as a student; it’s a different meaning for me. It’s like going back to your hometown with some accomplishment.”
Ahmed Alsoudani will present his work 6-7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland.