Installation view of AHMED ALSOUDANI’s solo exhibition at Marlborough Contemporary, London, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Contemporary.

Ahmed Alsoudani

Ahmed Alsoudani

Marlborough Contemporary
Iraq United Kingdom USA

AHMED ALSOUDANI, Wood, 2016, acrylic, charcoal, color pencil on canvas, 218.4 × 162.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Contemporary, London.

In recent works by Baghdad-born, New York-based painter Ahmed Alsoudani, colourful and voluminous arrays of objects overlap and interact with grotesque organic forms, placed with no apparent order over sprawling backgrounds consisting of those same figures but more abstracted, muted and subtle. In retaining visible, sketch-like marks, these backgrounds preserved something of works he made even earlier: compositions recalling Goya’s works in their use of charcoal, pastel and acrylic such as We Die Out of Hand (2007), where the artist’s hand is recognized in the many constituent lines, and a single sheet of paper is imbued with all the complexities of space by the tortuously crossing limbs of multiple human bodies.


In his recent show at London’s Marlborough Contemporary gallery, the artist has stripped away the figurative objects that occupied the foreground of his older paintings, and promoted the imagery that previously provided his backgrounds to a position nearer to the picture plane. In terms of their content, these works are subtler than those from the past, seeking to evoke the same sense of chaos that is one of Alsoudani’s primary visual concerns by more abstract means. There are certain aesthetic contradictions inherent in this approach. These works maintain the muted palettes that might be appropriate as backgrounds behind the more vivid, figurative objects of earlier canvases, with the result that the energetic disorder of the forms is not matched in the pigments that fill them. In fact, one of the more aesthetically coherent and visually compelling pieces, Wood (2016), sidesteps this issue by using a significantly more muted palette, effectively toning down the hues that surround four blocks of black so as to virtually remove color as a concern altogether.

That Alsoudani retains the marks of his original drawings in many of these pieces also undermines the interest in chaos that ostensibly drives much of his work. In Couple (2017), for example, the tumultuous masses of intertwining forms he creates are less convincingly organic when the artist’s hand is apparent in the work. This painting does, however, embody one legitimately chaotic aspect of the artist’s practice: the choice of techniques. The lower part of the image, where the sketchy outlines of individual forms overlap to the extent that it isn’t clear where one ends and another begins, is reminiscent of high cubist works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Albert Gleizes. However, on top of these figures, the artist has thinly splattered black pigment in a manner more evocative of the later abstract expressionists, drawing attention to the surface. This conflation of techniques typifies Alsoudani’s exploration and subversion of depth, which is where these works excel.

AHMED ALSOUDANI, Couple, 2017, acrylic, charcoal, color pencil on canvas, 251.5 × 195.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Contemporary, London.

AHMED ALSOUDANI, X-Ray, 2016, acrylic, charcoal, color pencil on canvas, 208.3 × 162.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Contemporary, London.

In addition to the direct approach of adding undisguised paint to the surface of an already prepared canvas, the artist pursues this painterly concern in various other ways. The abovementioned use of predominantly faded color—while less successful in terms of creating aesthetic appeal—is effective in this respect. When more vivid hues are employed, as with the solid sky blue representing part of the background in X-Ray (2016), the less vibrant forms of the foreground lose precedence, subverting the conventions of depth in such a way that might be considered a technical flaw in traditional painting, but is deliberately and subversively playful here.

AHMED ALSOUDANI, Untitled, 2016, acrylic, charcoal, color pencil on canvas, 195.6 × 393.7 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Contemporary, London.

Just as when the artist uses more solid colors, when concrete shapes appear in these canvases, it is also to play with the concepts of surface and depth. Substantially painted figures, often resembling industrial forms and shaded so as to imply a dimensionality of their own, stand out prominently in several of these canvases, reconfiguring conceptions of pictorial space. The girder-like cubes floating independently at sharp angles in Couple, X-Ray and Untitled (2016), and the geode-like body that hovers at a seeming distance from the less conspicuous elements of In Between (2017), provide necessary and thoughtfully placed exceptions to the sprawling masses behind them. These standout objects, however, are more minimalist than figurative, and the closest these paintings come to representing the real world is in vaguely recognizable abstractions of limbs hidden among the bulk of other forms. With his having largely abandoned appreciable subjects for this exhibition, you could say that Alsoudani’s new works are all surface, but they are compelling because you may not be certain just where that surface is.

AHMED ALSOUDANI, In Between, 2017, acrylic, charcoal, color pencil on canvas, 162.5 × 188 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marlborough Contemporary, London.