Skip to content
Florida Report

GAG: You started on this series back in 2015, it's evolved since then, you're still thinking of many of the same things - but not all of the same things. It all comes back to Florida though, this is where you first came when you moved to the States, where you keep returning to and now living there again after more than two decades around the country. When you started these figures, it was always about Florida. What is it about Florida?

AK: This was the place my family and I came to initially as war refugees from former Yugoslavia, from Bosnia. There's something about Florida, the visual beauty, you know, it’s big, all the green, how lush it is, the water everywhere. Not only the ocean and the gulf, but if you go inland it gets even more interesting – you've got rivers, you've got springs and spring-fed creeks, which are crystal-clear, moving through the flatlands. You've got the subtropical woods, and then you've got swamps. It's beautiful and it's mysterious and calm. It's seductive, yet you can't go into the water because beneath those otherwise calm surfaces, all sorts of predators are lurking, all kinds of bugs and snakes and gators and whatnot.

I don't really have a home, I am from a country that is no more, it ceased to exist: former Yugoslavia. It's a strange notion, something you must reconcile with, you need to make sense of it in your head, not having a country. The country that I was left with after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Bosnia, I deeply love. Back then there was a war and incomprehensible atrocities were committed. To this day you've got secessionists and people denying the existence of the country. When I go back there to visit family, I'm not fully at home. I remain a stranger. People have changed. I've changed. The place has changed. When I come back to the States, another country that I love, specifically Florida, it's not only the accent, something else rather – I'm never fully at home here either. You find yourself always floating, occupying some in-between space, and that is a strange mental territory one must learn to navigate. It can be tricky, I think, unless you're an artist, a painter, a writer, and then it can become a fertile soil you get to explore in your work.

GAG: Do you think it was the Florida landscape, or it the experience of being in the landscape? 

AK: It’s both. Initially it was the visuals, that first encounter you are having. It's also experiential. The phenomenology of it, but starting with the visuals, which are compelling: the crystal-clear waters and the woods all around, deep woods. There is beauty and mystery about Florida, all the history, the turbulence, the present moment. I have always been fascinated with this place and sensed that I would do something about it as a painter at some point. In 2015, while I was still teaching at Gettysburg, and we'd come back to Florida early in the summer, we’d go to different rivers to swim and snorkel. One day my wife Akiko and I were tubing down the Ichetucknee River and I felt happy, observing the nature and impulsively responding: “I should paint it, this is something I need to look at and engage with.” Then there was another voice in my head saying, “Well, maybe I shouldn't, it's kind of pretty and prettiness is a lesser quality of beauty.” I’m thinking out loud, Akiko and I are floating downstream, and I am talking, yelling, and she has no choice but to engage in this - call it a conversation - about beauty, and she cuts me off and says, “What you need to do is just go to these places, these springs that you love so dearly and you should take some sheets of Mylar and you should paint on site and see where it takes you. We’re going to be here for the next two months, why not do that? You know?” I thought she was right. So, it started as landscape painting.  How something begins is not necessarily what it becomes; that was the beginning of that journey. The image itself, the discovery, the selection of what to paint, one cannot rationalize it – and probably shouldn’t. It's more about the intuitive response to whatever the initial trigger. 

GAG: Yet when you started painting the landscape, you quickly started putting people in it and people are even more fraught with meaning – how we understand likenesses. I know when you started painting these portraits, that was a big consideration for you. Where did the people come from?

AK: I painted people when I was an art student, and then they disappeared. Instead I began painting studios and discovered that those paintings weren’t so much about the architectural space itself, but more about that space as a way of looking inward, dealing with the self, without the necessity of painting one's likeness. Those paintings are a form of self-portraiture, allegorical self-portraits, and there is no need for the figure, because everything in those scenes is about the inhabitant of that space, revealing more than painting someone's actual physical appearance could. Adding the figure would have been redundant. But when I started painting the Florida landscape, the figure reemerged, introducing herself at first shyly, and then more aggressively, eventually taking over.

GAG: That’s interesting - where do you think they came from?

AK: At least for me, and I sense this to be the case for most artists, you don't have to overthink, you just do. Making is thinking. I was here, in Florida, responding to the environment. With my history being what it is, you could say nomadic at best and frenetic at worst, having lived in as many places, and as a way of exerting control, however small, I had been painting those studios. It was a chronicle. Then there is Florida: a place where I have spent more time than any place before. I can internalize what's happening here, I meet people and expand on that initial fascination, recognizing this place in all of its contradictions and encountering individuals that are as fascinating as the landscape itself. Some of the figures I paint are friends, or their children, and some are fictionalized characters. All that lingers in my head and doesn’t let go. When I'm in the studio, I try to make sense of it. I look for the information needed to make it more plausible, more credible as an image and as some type of an elusive narrative. I might look into finding a reference that I can appropriate, or actually have someone pose for me, or I’ll come across a person out there at a gas station and ask if I can take photos of them. And then using all that as a point of departure. My references are drawings, photographs, memory, direct observation, as was the case with earlier Florida landscapes and studios. Basically, a combination of it all. At the end of the day, whether it’s a landscape or a person that I start with, it turns into a mindscape, reflective of my states of mind.

GAG: What did you discover when you started painting people, when you started including these figures? Was it something radically different in the process? Or new problems to solve, new questions? 

AK: There was this new-old fascination, a subject I stopped painting years ago, having lost interest in the human figure, yet all of a sudden there they were, emerging in all their expressive power and visual presence. There was the formal question, who are they? What are they doing here? Discovering that narrative, trying to come up with a plausible inkling, of a notion about the character, something other than the particulars and traits of a person. You sense it intuitively when that happens, you see it announcing itself and then you latch onto it and develop it. If I recognize it, I try to refine it, accentuate it, one way or another – it's always that search. 

I think of paintings as portals. They are also windows as they take you on a journey of one type or another. But more importantly, they are mirrors, for your reflection is different than mine, as it should be. It's an invitation and a trigger. A landscape is never just a landscape. It's always politicized one way or another, relating to the history of the place, having to do with the present context, having to do with the one making the painting and the one looking at it. Somewhere in between there is a possibility, however elusive, of interpretation and meaning.

GAG: Do you see your other portraits as portals in a similar way?

AK: They are not about imposing an idea or meaning. It's more about reflecting and internalizing. It's about the painting operating as a reflection of psychic states, my own, and to an extent a reflection of what's happening out there in the world. I like the way Hannah Arendt puts it: “Storytelling is about revealing meaning without committing the error of defining it.” For example, “After Watteau,” the painting of the policeman – it started, well, that was the time of the large-scale demonstrations, everything going on in Baltimore. It was on everyone's mind: black lives matter, blue lives matter. I wanted to paint the landscape and more importantly, a compelling figure occupying that land, so I thought I would paint a police officer. Then I thought, okay, what if I painted a black police officer? And eventually I made the connection, how my evolving figure resembled Watteau's “Pierrot” dressed in white; one of the iconic paintings, a portrait of an individual, but also a stand-in for something that goes beyond individuality. The way the hands are painted. It is those intelligent eyes, the face of that tragic-comic figure, that figure in its predicament and alienation that still resonates. Once the connection was made, I went along with it, thinking about the figure that I was painting, a figure that seemingly has power and at the same time the power is used against him. The gun is pointed in both directions. That's how these narratives evolve, I don't force them. I don't know them. I don't even know the visuals. One of the reasons I work small is so that I can be experimental and playful. That’s why I can afford to make mistakes – I often spend a whole week painting without making one good painting.

GAG: We’ve talked about how in the past a year and a half or so your subjects have changed quite a lot. The first ones that you were doing, those dolls in the studio, that you've been calling still-lives. Why not portraits? Why do you think of them differently? 

AK: I think they're still-lives, inanimate objects placed on a table or a windowsill in my studio. That's what they are: figurines. And then, they are more than that – they are hybrids. Stylistically, the way I compose them is very much like those earlier figurative paintings, a low horizon line and the monumental figure occupying the foreground, while in the distance you can see the Florida flatlands receding into infinity.

There is this idea of the context defining the narrative, everything affecting us as a society and individually: politics as extreme sport along with the pandemic and the ongoing turbulence. Being a painter, father, husband, son, I’m thinking, how am I going to respond? With the onset of the pandemic, I was still painting human figures and about to start discovering scarecrows. And then suddenly, we went into lockdown. We were told, this thing is here, this bug, and we better isolate, we better self-isolate. So, I am in our house with the family and my then-two-year-old is bringing her toys, her Disney figurines into my studio. We were living in Orlando, near Disneyland. I was looking at these little figures and getting intrigued by them more and more… then I was thinking, maybe I could do something with them? And so, I had to negotiate with my daughter Amina – and we came up with a deal, we had a verbal agreement. She loaned me her figurines so that I could use them as models. I placed them on the windowsill with the glass behind, and further back, on the other side of the glass, there was the Florida landscape receding into infinity. They looked like the figures I was painting earlier; except, they were still-lives. These pieces implicitly touch on what's going on in society and in my own head – and as such they are allegorical portraits and self-portraits. They announce themselves without me initially knowing what they are, but in the process of painting, we get to know each other.

GAG: The landscapes, these flatlands going off into infinity. What does that mean to you? How does that describe Florida to you?

AK: If I look here through the studio window here in Jacksonville, I can't see beyond the first tree or the first house, that’s because these are lowlands. You're not in the Swiss Alps, you're not high up looking down, observing the world as it keeps on receding, one plane stacked after another. And yet, you know in your head that the flatlands keep on going. I don't need to limit myself to only what I see in front of me. I'm thinking of Japanese Ukiyo-e printmakers, the way they used the elevated points of view or the Chinese masters of the past and how they compressed time and space and how they went beyond the limitations of what can be processed in an instant, unlike Europeans who relied on one or two-point perspective. It's something I've been dealing with in my own work for a long time: how do you go beyond the observational constraints? How do you go beyond depicting and enter the realm of conveying a sense of what it means and feels to be in a place? How do you go beyond topography and enter the realm of topo-poetry? How do you not limit yourself to rendering, and instead aim to convey? For that to happen, I need to internalize the scene. I rely on devices and strategies utilized in my earlier interior paintings, moving myself around space, looking at it from different angles and then stitching all those shifting points of view together, creating a skewed, yet cohesive scene. When not limiting yourself to gravity or perspective, you're everywhere and nowhere, accessing a realm that goes beyond the laws of Newtonian physics. It's more like a realm of the divine, or I don't know, like quantum physics or whatever. Not that I know anything about it, but you know, the domain of soul, if you will.

GAG: Another thing that I think has changed in a lot of these paintings is how the streams and wetlands, the beauty in the backgrounds of a lot of these, has been replaced by suburban neighborhoods and urban sprawl. These people are standing on sidewalks, not in fields… do you see a conflict between the two realms?

AK: There is an inherent conflict taking place here. Suburbia keeps on taking over, metastasizing throughout the flatlands. Florida is a big state, but a lot of people are moving in. It's a popular destination and wherever you look, more shopping malls are being built and human settlements never cease to keep on expanding. Then you have the landfills everywhere, rising over the flatlands like ancient pyramids except they are more like mountains of shit. How do you balance the two – a symbiotic relationship between nature and humans? I don't know. When painting the Florida springs, I immersed myself into the landscape, and along the way I developed an awareness of everything encroaching and seeping into those oasis-like environments. How suburbia affects these ecosystems and all the life in them. One thing leads you wherever you need to go next. It's about awareness that you develop as you go. 

GAG: Let’s go back to those scarecrows: they’re such a strange subject but very compelling. What got you painting them in the first place?

AK: They are strange indeed. Like with the earlier series, the scarecrows evolved sort of organically. I don't know it's coming, brewing somewhere in there, but I'm on the lookout, I'm observing. The first scarecrow was a portrait of a kid, my friend’s son. That's what the painting was supposed to be: a human figure, except the painted boy in the shade of a tree somehow made no sense. I did not believe in him. I erased the figure, leaving the background still in place and thinking how I would get back to it at another time. A few days later I went to visit that same family, seeing the son and the father in the process of making a scarecrow for the Halloween. In that instant, I knew what was missing in the painting. There was the first scarecrow, which made me think of Goya and Ensor and others. I looked at it and it made sense in all its strangeness. It was compelling and beautiful and disturbing and funny, all at the same time. And it felt plausible. That was my entry into a new territory, followed by many months of further exploration. I started looking more closely. It was the holiday season and I started paying attention.

GAG: Yes, Halloween. What does Halloween mean to you? It's such a presence in these paintings with the pumpkins and scarecrows and costumes and everything. It's a very codified holiday, people dress up and everything – a lot of disguises in these paintings. 

AK: I’m not that much of a holiday person. Halloween or Sunday or Monday, it makes no difference. There are these characters that make me think of all sorts of archetypes and stereotypes. As in “Scarecrow with Ducks,” I worked on that painting and without initially realizing it, but then there it was, a composition straight out of a crucifixion scene. With that in mind, I proceeded searching for what else could happen there? Suddenly, there is a Florida farm in the back revealing itself, and farther out you've got the flatlands and you've got the city and you go all the way to the coast where you see a glimmer of the ocean. All the while in the foreground, on the ground, you're right there, smelling the dirt, the farm, a little pond. The ducks came towards the end. 

GAG: Do you think the scarecrows are political?

AK: They're political in a sense that my landscapes are – everything is political and everything can be politicized one way or another, having to do with the context. That's the thing about these scarecrows, one way or another they mirror what's happening in the world these days.

GAG: So when it comes to these paintings, you don't necessarily want to be creating a commentary per se, but you're finding that in the work. 

AK: It announces itself in time. I arrive at that place intuitively and when I recognize it, I run with it, never trying to impose this or that meaning, avoiding ending up with a one-liner or illustration. It's not what I'm interested in. 

GAG: Do you think it's possible to make a painting that isn't political?

AK: Probably not. Because even if that were the intent, that act in its own right would be, I guess, political.

GAG: That's a fair point.  What intrigued me so much when we started looking at these new paintings, were all the performers, the circus performers, the street musicians, I'm trying to understand, are they a part of your daily life? Do you see these people all the time? Are they something you sought out? What drew you to these subjects? Who are these people? 

AK: Some of them I encountered in various Florida neighborhoods, walking around with my now three-year-old daughter around Lake Eola in downtown Orlando, for example. That location, there are a lot of people there, folks with snakes, jugglers. I would approach them, and I'd get interested in who they are, where are they coming from, why they do what they do. I'm always on the lookout for an event or an experience, a narrative, an image. Walking around my neighborhood, going to the springs and swamps, driving around, staying away from highways and taking the local roads, looking at the cows and horses and donkeys and stray dogs. Some of those images are more powerful than others, some of them keep lingering. Then I go back to my studio where I process it through the act of painting. That’s when things start to shift – I can't think of a situation where in the end, the painting is anything resembling how it started. Speaking of performers and jugglers, the whole world, America, specifically America under Trump, that was one massive circus. Which is why these recent pieces - the way I'm structuring them – they recall the look of circus banners. I'm thinking about Florida, the history of Florida, with the Ringling brothers, Florida currently being home to our former president. Then you've got Disney here. It's one big hell-of-a strange, grotesque, disturbing, beautiful circus.

GAG: First Halloween, now the circus! But canvas is a shift for you, you haven't really worked like that before. What was the impetus there? 

AK: I stayed away from canvas for a long time, using wooden panels instead, working on aluminum, copper, zinc, plexiglass, paper, mylar, all those materials dictated by the needs of the subject I was dealing with at the time. The whole idea of linking the process and content yet staying away from canvas like a vampire from garlic. Not wanting it, nervous about that burden of history, even though I am a painter working in oil – anything but canvas. Once I started developing the Florida scarecrows and still-lives, I started to think how to translate it on a larger scale. I intuitively knew there was a need for a different material this time, not knowing what that was. I found myself in a company of several friends camping in the middle of nowhere, in one of the Florida jungles. There was a tent I was sleeping in, and I found myself looking at that material, the plastic, the tarp with grommets all around. I thought, what an interesting material, if I could use it, if I could take advantage of the grommets, this industrial material. These formats resemble circus banners – I thought this would be appropriate. I built a few panels out of the actual tarp originally, only to realize how easily it gets damaged, all wrinkled, irreparably so. I needed an alternative. Hesitantly at first, I considered good old linen, very thick linen, and I thought I could structure it the way I was structuring the tarps, with grommets all around.

GAG: Your process is working small and then enlarging and enlarging and enlarging. When you find something that works for you, what do you discover when you start to enlarge these images, build them up? What do you discover in the process?

AK: It's a matter of curiosity. That’s how it starts. You pay attention. That leads to awareness. From there to developing a sense of urgency the road is not that long. It's a matter of playfulness and it's also about the fact that I have OCD. When I have a question, when there is something on my mind, I can't just play it out in my head. I have to deal with it in most concrete terms. If I'm working small, I'm wondering what would it be like to go even smaller, or much larger. And I must see it through. Down the road, I work on large format, but only after making many small pieces, making hundreds and allowing a selected few to survive – those compositions are the ones that I end up revisiting on large formats. At that point, the imagery is there, so it’s more about the act of painting. I don't have to do that much thinking, that part of the process is behind me. I'm simply engaged in the act of mixing and moving paint across a smooth surface, defacing a flat plane with colored grease. It's meditative, the world at moments like these almost ceases to exist. You're just doing it. It's those moments I'm looking for and I can't force them. They arrive unannounced. 

GAG: Do you think that these paintings are still about Florida?

AK: It's a point of departure. Florida is the ground that I mentally and physically occupy. Let me go back to that iconic quote from Tolstoy: “if you want to be universal, start by painting your own village.” What that means is, practically, deal with what you know. Something that is not an abstraction. The way you see the world is through the prism of your own emotional experience. I'm here and I'm seeing what I am seeing day in and day out, encountering the locals, looking at this land. If you are a poet or a painter, if you're any type of an artist, there's much to look at, much to engage with. Why should I be thinking about an event taking place halfway across the globe when I'm here? This is concrete. This is real. These are the daily circumstances of life, and it seems appropriate to engage with such intimate yet timeless topic the one way I know how, through the act of painting.

Text and image 1

Miniatures in Amer Kobaslija's studio, Orlando, FL, 2020.

We sat down with Amer Kobaslija on the occasion of his eighth exhibition at the gallery, In Passing, to discuss his adopted home state of Florida and how his current body of work came to fruition.

George Adams Gallery:      The paintings in your current exhibition, In Passing, you started this series back in 2015. It’s evolved since then, you’re still thinking of many of the same things - but it all comes back to Florida. This is where you first came when you moved to the States, where you keep returning to and now you’re living there again after more than two decades around the country. When you started these figures, it was always about Florida. What is it about Florida?

Amer Kobaslija:      This was the place my family and I came to initially as war refugees from former Yugoslavia, from Bosnia. There’s something about Florida, the visual beauty, you know, it’s big, all the green, how lush it is, the water everywhere. Not only the ocean and the gulf, but if you go inland it gets even more interesting – you’ve got rivers, you’ve got springs and spring-fed creeks, which are crystal- clear, moving through the flatlands. You’ve got the subtropical woods, and then you’ve got swamps. It’s beautiful and it’s mysterious and calm. It’s seductive, yet you can’t go into the water because beneath those otherwise calm surfaces, all sorts of predators are lurking, all kinds of bugs and snakes and gators and whatnot. 

I don’t really have a home, I am from a country that is no more, it ceased to exist: former Yugoslavia. It’s a strange notion, something you must reconcile with, you need to make sense of in your head, not having a country. The country that I was left with after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Bosnia, I deeply love. Back then there was a war and incomprehensible atrocities were committed. To this day you’ve got secessionists and people denying the existence of the country. When I go back there to visit family, I’m not fully at home. I remain a stranger. People have changed. I’ve changed. The place has changed. When I come back to the States, another country that I love, specifically Florida, it’s not only the accent, something else rather – I’m never fully at home here either. You find yourself always floating, occupying some in-between space, and that is a strange mental territory one must learn to navigate. It can be tricky, I think, unless you’re an artist, a painter, a writer, and then it can become a fertile soil you get to explore in your work. 

GAG:      Do you think it was the Florida landscape, or it the experience of being in the landscape?

AK:      It’s both. Initially it was the visuals, that first encounter you are having. It’s also experiential. The phenomenology of it, but starting with the visuals, which are compelling: the crystal-clear waters and the woods all around, deep woods. There is beauty and mystery about Florida, all the history, the turbulence, the present moment. I have always been fascinated with this place and sensed that I would do something about it as a painter at some point. In 2015, while I was still teaching at Gettysburg, and we’d come back to Florida early in the summer, we’d go to different rivers to swim and snorkel. One day my wife Akiko and I were tubing down the Ichetucknee River and I felt happy, observing the nature and impulsively responding: “I should paint it, this is something I need to look at and engage with.” Then there was another voice in my head saying, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t, it’s kind of pretty and prettiness is a lesser quality of beauty.” I’m thinking out loud, Akiko and I are floating downstream, and I am talking, yelling, and she has no choice but to engage in this - call it a conversation - about beauty, and she cuts me off and says, “What you need to do is just go to these places, these springs that you love so dearly and you should take some sheets of Mylar and you should paint on site and see where it takes you. We’re going to be here for the next two months, why not do that? You know?” I thought she was right. So, it started as landscape painting.  How something begins is not necessarily what it becomes; that was the beginning of that journey. The image itself, the discovery, the selection of what to paint, one cannot rationalize it – and probably shouldn’t. It's more about the intuitive response to whatever the initial trigger.

text and image 2.5

In-progress shot of Amer Kobaslija's Street Performers, 2020.

GAG:      Yet when you started painting the landscape, you quickly started putting people in it and people are even more fraught with meaning – how we understand likenesses. I know when you started painting these portraits, that was a big consideration for you. Where did the people come from?

AK:      I painted people when I was an art student, and then they disappeared. Instead I began painting studios and discovered that those paintings weren’t so much about the architectural space itself, but more about that space as a way of looking inward, dealing with the self, without the necessity of painting one's likeness. Those paintings are a form of self-portraiture, allegorical self-portraits, and there is no need for the figure, because everything in those scenes is about the inhabitant of that space, revealing more than painting someone's actual physical appearance could. Adding the figure would have been redundant. But when I started painting the Florida landscape, the figure reemerged, introducing herself at first shyly, and then more aggressively, eventually taking over.

GAG:      That’s interesting - where do you think they came from?

AK:      At least for me, and I sense this to be the case for most artists, you don't have to overthink, you just do. Making is thinking. I was here, in Florida, responding to the environment. With my history being what it is, you could say nomadic at best and frenetic at worst, having lived in as many places, and as a way of exerting control, however small, I had been painting those studios. It was a chronicle. Then there is Florida: a place where I have spent more time than any place before. I can internalize what's happening here, I meet people and expand on that initial fascination, recognizing this place in all of its contradictions and encountering individuals that are as fascinating as the landscape itself. Some of the figures I paint are friends, or their children, and some are fictionalized characters. All that lingers in my head and doesn’t let go. When I'm in the studio, I try to make sense of it. I look for the information needed to make it more plausible, more credible as an image and as some type of an elusive narrative. I might look into finding a reference that I can appropriate, or actually have someone pose for me, or I’ll come across a person out there at a gas station and ask if I can take photos of them. And then using all that as a point of departure. My references are drawings, photographs, memory, direct observation, as was the case with earlier Florida landscapes and studios. Basically, a combination of it all. At the end of the day, whether it’s a landscape or a person that I start with, it turns into a mindscape, reflective of my states of mind.

image 2

New paintings in Amer Kobaslija's studio, Jacksonville, FL, 2021.

GAG:      What did you discover when you started painting people, when you started including these figures? Was it something radically different in the process? Or new problems to solve, new questions? 

AK:      There was this new-old fascination, a subject I stopped painting years ago, having lost interest in the human figure, yet all of a sudden there they were, emerging in all their expressive power and visual presence. There was the formal question, who are they? What are they doing here? Discovering that narrative, trying to come up with a plausible inkling, of a notion about the character, something other than the particulars and traits of a person. You sense it intuitively when that happens, you see it announcing itself and then you latch onto it and develop it. If I recognize it, I try to refine it, accentuate it, one way or another – it's always that search. 

I think of paintings as portals. They are also windows as they take you on a journey of one type or another. But more importantly, they are mirrors, for your reflection is different than mine, as it should be. It's an invitation and a trigger. A landscape is never just a landscape. It's always politicized one way or another, relating to the history of the place, having to do with the present context, having to do with the one making the painting and the one looking at it. Somewhere in between there is a possibility, however elusive, of interpretation and meaning.

GAG:      Do you see your other portraits as portals in a similar way?

AK:      They are not about imposing an idea or meaning. It's more about reflecting and internalizing. It's about the painting operating as a reflection of psychic states, my own, and to an extent a reflection of what's happening out there in the world. I like the way Hannah Arendt puts it: “Storytelling is about revealing meaning without committing the error of defining it.” For example, “After Watteau,” the painting of the policeman – it started, well, that was the time of the large-scale demonstrations, everything going on in Baltimore. It was on everyone's mind: black lives matter, blue lives matter. I wanted to paint the landscape and more importantly, a compelling figure occupying that land, so I thought I would paint a police officer. Then I thought, okay, what if I painted a black police officer? And eventually I made the connection, how my evolving figure resembled Watteau's “Pierrot” dressed in white; one of the iconic paintings, a portrait of an individual, but also a stand-in for something that goes beyond individuality. The way the hands are painted. It is those intelligent eyes, the face of that tragic-comic figure, that figure in its predicament and alienation that still resonates. Once the connection was made, I went along with it, thinking about the figure that I was painting, a figure that seemingly has power and at the same time the power is used against him. The gun is pointed in both directions. That's how these narratives evolve, I don't force them. I don't know them. I don't even know the visuals. One of the reasons I work small is so that I can be experimental and playful. That’s why I can afford to make mistakes – I often spend a whole week painting without making one good painting.

GAG:      We’ve talked about how in the past a year and a half or so your subjects have changed quite a lot. The first ones that you were doing, those dolls in the studio, that you've been calling still-lives. Why not portraits? Why do you think of them differently? 

AK:       I think they're still-lives, inanimate objects placed on a table or a windowsill in my studio. That's what they are: figurines. And then, they are more than that – they are hybrids. Stylistically, the way I compose them is very much like those earlier figurative paintings, a low horizon line and the monumental figure occupying the foreground, while in the distance you can see the Florida flatlands receding into infinity.

...There is this idea of the context defining the narrative, everything affecting us as a society and individually: politics as extreme sport along with the pandemic and the ongoing turbulence. Being a painter, father, husband, son, I’m thinking, how am I going to respond? With the onset of the pandemic, I was still painting human figures and about to start discovering scarecrows. And then suddenly, we went into lockdown. We were told, this thing is here, this bug, and we better isolate, we better self-isolate. So, I am in our house with the family and my then-two-year-old is bringing her toys, her Disney figurines into my studio. We were living in Orlando, near Disneyland. I was looking at these little figures and getting intrigued by them more and more… then I was thinking, maybe I could do something with them? And so, I had to negotiate with my daughter Amina – and we came up with a deal, we had a verbal agreement. She loaned me her figurines so that I could use them as models. I placed them on the windowsill with the glass behind, and further back, on the other side of the glass, there was the Florida landscape receding into infinity. They looked like the figures I was painting earlier; except, they were still-lives. These pieces implicitly touch on what's going on in society and in my own head – and as such they are allegorical portraits and self-portraits. They announce themselves without me initially knowing what they are, but in the process of painting, we get to know each other.

GAG:      The landscapes, these flatlands going off into infinity. What does that mean to you? How does that describe Florida to you?

AK:      If I look here through the studio window here in Jacksonville, I can't see beyond the first tree or the first house, that’s because these are lowlands. You're not in the Swiss Alps, you're not high up looking down, observing the world as it keeps on receding, one plane stacked after another. And yet, you know in your head that the flatlands keep on going. I don't need to limit myself to only what I see in front of me. I'm thinking of Japanese Ukiyo-e printmakers, the way they used the elevated points of view or the Chinese masters of the past and how they compressed time and space and how they went beyond the limitations of what can be processed in an instant, unlike Europeans who relied on one or two-point perspective. It's something I've been dealing with in my own work for a long time: how do you go beyond the observational constraints? How do you go beyond depicting and enter the realm of conveying a sense of what it means and feels to be in a place? How do you go beyond topography and enter the realm of topo-poetry? How do you not limit yourself to rendering, and instead aim to convey? For that to happen, I need to internalize the scene. I rely on devices and strategies utilized in my earlier interior paintings, moving myself around space, looking at it from different angles and then stitching all those shifting points of view together, creating a skewed, yet cohesive scene. When not limiting yourself to gravity or perspective, you're everywhere and nowhere, accessing a realm that goes beyond the laws of Newtonian physics. It's more like a realm of the divine, or I don't know, like quantum physics or whatever. Not that I know anything about it, but you know, the domain of soul, if you will.

GAG:      Another thing that I think has changed in a lot of these paintings is how the streams and wetlands, the beauty in the backgrounds of a lot of these, has been replaced by suburban neighborhoods and urban sprawl. These people are standing on sidewalks, not in fields… do you see a conflict between the two realms?

AK:      There is an inherent conflict taking place here. Suburbia keeps on taking over, metastasizing throughout the flatlands. Florida is a big state, but a lot of people are moving in. It's a popular destination and wherever you look, more shopping malls are being built and human settlements never cease to keep on expanding. Then you have the landfills everywhere, rising over the flatlands like ancient pyramids except they are more like mountains of shit. How do you balance the two – a symbiotic relationship between nature and humans? I don't know. When painting the Florida springs, I immersed myself into the landscape, and along the way I developed an awareness of everything encroaching and seeping into those oasis-like environments. How suburbia affects these ecosystems and all the life in them. One thing leads you wherever you need to go next. It's about awareness that you develop as you go.

"At the end of the day, whether it’s a landscape or a person that I start with, it turns into a mindscape, reflective of my states of mind."

Text and image 5

Amer Kobaslija, Halloween Swing, Orange Park, 2020.

GAG:      Let’s go back to those scarecrows: they’re such a strange subject but very compelling. What got you painting them in the first place?

AK:      They are strange indeed. Like with the earlier series, the scarecrows evolved sort of organically. I don't know it's coming, brewing somewhere in there, but I'm on the lookout, I'm observing. The first scarecrow was a portrait of a kid, my friend’s son. That's what the painting was supposed to be: a human figure, except the painted boy in the shade of a tree somehow made no sense. I did not believe in him. I erased the figure, leaving the background still in place and thinking how I would get back to it at another time. A few days later I went to visit that same family, seeing the son and the father in the process of making a scarecrow for the Halloween. In that instant, I knew what was missing in the painting. There was the first scarecrow, which made me think of Goya and Ensor and others. I looked at it and it made sense in all its strangeness. It was compelling and beautiful and disturbing and funny, all at the same time. And it felt plausible. That was my entry into a new territory, followed by many months of further exploration. I started looking more closely. It was the holiday season and I started paying attention.

GAG:      Yes, Halloween. What does Halloween mean to you? It's such a presence in these paintings with the pumpkins and scarecrows and costumes and everything. It's a very codified holiday, people dress up and everything – a lot of disguises in these paintings. 

AK:      I’m not that much of a holiday person. Halloween or Sunday or Monday, it makes no difference. There are these characters that make me think of all sorts of archetypes and stereotypes. As in “Scarecrow with Ducks,” I worked on that painting and without initially realizing it, but then there it was, a composition straight out of a crucifixion scene. With that in mind, I proceeded searching for what else could happen there? Suddenly, there is a Florida farm in the back revealing itself, and farther out you've got the flatlands and you've got the city and you go all the way to the coast where you see a glimmer of the ocean. All the while in the foreground, on the ground, you're right there, smelling the dirt, the farm, a little pond. The ducks came towards the end. 

GAG:      Do you think the scarecrows are political?

AK:      They're political in a sense that my landscapes are – everything is political and everything can be politicized one way or another, having to do with the context. That's the thing about these scarecrows, one way or another they mirror what's happening in the world these days.

GAG:      So when it comes to these paintings, you don't necessarily want to be creating a commentary per se, but you're finding that in the work. 

AK:      It announces itself in time. I arrive at that place intuitively and when I recognize it, I run with it, never trying to impose this or that meaning, avoiding ending up with a one-liner or illustration. It's not what I'm interested in. 

GAG:      Do you think it's possible to make a painting that isn't political?

AK:      Probably not. Because even if that were the intent, that act in its own right would be, I guess, political.

Text and image 6

New paintings in Amer Kobalsija's studio, Jacksonville, FL, 2021.

GAG:      That's a fair point.  What intrigued me so much when we started looking at these new paintings, were all the performers, the circus performers, the street musicians, I'm trying to understand, are they a part of your daily life? Do you see these people all the time? Are they something you sought out? What drew you to these subjects? Who are these people? 

AK:      Some of them I encountered in various Florida neighborhoods, walking around with my now three-year-old daughter around Lake Eola in downtown Orlando, for example. That location, there are a lot of people there, folks with snakes, jugglers. I would approach them, and I'd get interested in who they are, where are they coming from, why they do what they do. I'm always on the lookout for an event or an experience, a narrative, an image. Walking around my neighborhood, going to the springs and swamps, driving around, staying away from highways and taking the local roads, looking at the cows and horses and donkeys and stray dogs. Some of those images are more powerful than others, some of them keep lingering. Then I go back to my studio where I process it through the act of painting. That’s when things start to shift – I can't think of a situation where in the end, the painting is anything resembling how it started. Speaking of performers and jugglers, the whole world, America, specifically America under Trump, that was one massive circus. Which is why these recent pieces - the way I'm structuring them – they recall the look of circus banners. I'm thinking about Florida, the history of Florida, with the Ringling brothers, Florida currently being home to our former president. Then you've got Disney here. It's one big hell-of-a strange, grotesque, disturbing, beautiful circus.

GAG:      First Halloween, now the circus! But canvas is a shift for you, you haven't really worked like that before. What was the impetus there? 

AK:      I stayed away from canvas for a long time, using wooden panels instead, working on aluminum, copper, zinc, plexiglass, paper, mylar, all those materials dictated by the needs of the subject I was dealing with at the time. The whole idea of linking the process and content yet staying away from canvas like a vampire from garlic. Not wanting it, nervous about that burden of history, even though I am a painter working in oil – anything but canvas. Once I started developing the Florida scarecrows and still-lives, I started to think how to translate it on a larger scale. I intuitively knew there was a need for a different material this time, not knowing what that was. I found myself in a company of several friends camping in the middle of nowhere, in one of the Florida jungles. There was a tent I was sleeping in, and I found myself looking at that material, the plastic, the tarp with grommets all around. I thought, what an interesting material, if I could use it, if I could take advantage of the grommets, this industrial material. These formats resemble circus banners – I thought this would be appropriate. I built a few panels out of the actual tarp originally, only to realize how easily it gets damaged, all wrinkled, irreparably so. I needed an alternative. Hesitantly at first, I considered good old linen, very thick linen, and I thought I could structure it the way I was structuring the tarps, with grommets all around.

Text and image 7

Amer Kobaslija, Scarecrow with Ducks, 2020. Oil on plexiglass, 4 x 3 inches.

GAG:      Your process is working small and then enlarging and enlarging and enlarging. When you find something that works for you, what do you discover when you start to enlarge these images, build them up? What do you discover in the process?

AK:      It's a matter of curiosity. That’s how it starts. You pay attention. That leads to awareness. From there to developing a sense of urgency the road is not that long. It's a matter of playfulness and it's also about the fact that I have OCD. When I have a question, when there is something on my mind, I can't just play it out in my head. I have to deal with it in most concrete terms. If I'm working small, I'm wondering what would it be like to go even smaller, or much larger. And I must see it through. Down the road, I work on large format, but only after making many small pieces, making hundreds and allowing a selected few to survive – those compositions are the ones that I end up revisiting on large formats. At that point, the imagery is there, so it’s more about the act of painting. I don't have to do that much thinking, that part of the process is behind me. I'm simply engaged in the act of mixing and moving paint across a smooth surface, defacing a flat plane with colored grease. It's meditative, the world at moments like these almost ceases to exist. You're just doing it. It's those moments I'm looking for and I can't force them. They arrive unannounced. 

GAG:      Do you think that these paintings are still about Florida?

AK:      It's a point of departure. Florida is the ground that I mentally and physically occupy. Let me go back to that iconic quote from Tolstoy: “if you want to be universal, start by painting your own village.” What that means is, practically, deal with what you know. Something that is not an abstraction. The way you see the world is through the prism of your own emotional experience. I'm here and I'm seeing what I am seeing day in and day out, encountering the locals, looking at this land. If you are a poet or a painter, if you're any type of an artist, there's much to look at, much to engage with. Why should I be thinking about an event taking place halfway across the globe when I'm here? This is concrete. This is real. These are the daily circumstances of life, and it seems appropriate to engage with such intimate yet timeless topic the one way I know how, through the act of painting.