Semih Kaplan: Tradition and Modernity

Fish Series, 22 in. (56 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown tile body, underglaze painting, fired to cone 08 in oxidation.

Semih Kaplan is one of the many versatile ceramic artists who works in Anatolia. After having completed his education at Anadolu University in Eskisehir, Turkey, studying with the fine arts faculty, he was hired by the same university as a research assistant. Continuing his academic studies with no interruption, Kaplan is currently working as an academician in the art department while also serving as the chair of the Basic Education Department. Kaplan is a creative artist who produces pieces that connect tradition with modernity in a variety of media. He creates original and contemporary ceramic works by using traditional Turkish underglaze painting techniques on large tile boards, sculptures, and plates.

Connecting Tradition with Modernity

Traditional underglaze painting techniques are commonly used in Islamic-Turkish tile art. The underglaze is applied with a brush on white clay or a white slip-coated, unglazed surface after pieces are bisque fired. This technique includes using patterns to transfer systematic and controlled compositions that are based on repetition of specific motifs onto the desired surface. Pierced parchment patterns are laid onto the surface, and a dusting of charcoal is applied over the pattern. Following the transfer, the charcoal pattern is used as a guide for brushing the outline using a fine brush and black underglaze. These lines form a border between colored areas, preventing them from mixing with each other and making the outer borders explicit. The composition is completed by brushing specific colors between the black outlines. After painting, the tile is clear glazed and fired again. This method, which is based on multiple and profound repetition of patterns typically has restrictive technical and stylistic characteristics.

1 Semih Kaplan painting spontaneous underglaze decoration on a tile-clay wall plate.

2 Tile wall board, 39 in. (99 cm) in height, underglaze painting, fired to cone 08 in oxidation.

Kaplan uses the tile surface like canvas, free from all these restrictive techniques. He spontaneously paints patterns and motifs on his work, rather than using a tracing as a guide. Kaplan skillfully uses lively line structure to create motifs that reference traditional Îznik and Kütahya tiles. While he works on filling patterns into the gaps between forms with linear motifs on his ceramic works, he also makes use of some of the white space to highlight and draw a viewer’s focus onto the central figure in his multilayered compositions. Some of these studies are single-colored, with tonal balance provided by contrasting light to dark tones of a single color along with black and white. In multi-colored studies, he uses a completely spontaneous painting technique. In these compositions, different tones enrich the color scale and contrast from light to dark tones.

Opening of New Meanings

In his designs and three-dimensional works, most of which are based on sea objects, Kaplan fictionalizes hybrids of marine species and humans with temperate irony. Depictions of numerous fantasies such as half-human, half-fish creatures, crab women, and fan mussels turn into marine fairy tales in his works. Details formed by his decisive, strong brush strokes open new meanings on his ceramic tile compositions. The fish, which is the dominant symbol of the underwater world, has become an image of desire on his tiles and plates.

3 Simurg, 28 in. (71 cm) in height, handbuilt tile body, underglaze painting, fired to cone 08 in oxidation.

To enhance the views of the fish imagery in a marine environment, Kaplan includes observational interpretations in his works as well. He pays attention to the transparent shimmering effect of sea water, and the way it amplifies the shifting sparkles of fish scales. The reflected light creates a scintillating effect with a kind of flip flopping sense of aesthetics. In his studies, the images of fish create and guide a visual-poetic atmosphere; so much so that the spatial realm of marine life is translated into works in which abstraction is elevated to peak points. In this way, the works are regarded not only as representations of real-life phenomena, but they also create a half decorative effect based on the synthesis of color and form applications.

While fantastical fiction is observed on his ceramic tile, his underglazed ceramic sculptures reflect more free and liberal formation techniques and approaches to the surface. In his three-dimensional ceramic studies, Kaplan enriches his works both in the sense of size and surface with surprising interventions and approaches to synthesizing form and surface via underglaze painting. Large and small marks left by various brush strokes create patterns and representational forms, forming unique motifs. Kaplan’s style and his recognized success in different fields make him one of the most important artists in Anatolia today.

4 Untitled, 32 in. (81 cm) in height, handbuilt tile-clay body, underglaze painting, fired to cone 08 in oxidation.

the author Ensar Taçyildiz graduated from Anadolu University Fine Arts Faculty, Department of Ceramic in 1991. At the same university, he completed a master’s degree in 2000 and a PhD degree in 2010. He is currently working as an Associate Professor at Anadolu University, Porsuk Vocational School in Eskisehir, Turkey.

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