Exclusive: Artist Soner Ön Summons He-Man to Istanbul

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Photo credit: 5 of 10,000, Offset lithograph on paper, 6 x 7 inches

Soner Ön is a born-and-bred Brooklynite who’s equally at home drawing inspiration from back issues of Richie Rich comics or Ottoman treasures in his family’s native Turkey. Ön works in collage, photography, printmaking, and paint to channel everything from the grit of his Flatbush youth to the furthest reaches of outer space. We caught up with Ön in Istanbul, where his series on MC Hammer’s gratuitous wardrobe, 5 of 10,000, is currently on display. Click here to view a slideshow of work from the series.

Ön is one of a group of artists selected to represent New York’s School of Visual Arts as part of the Octet exhibition, which brings 111 artworks by SVA students, faculty, and alumni to Istanbul’s Pera Museum. We sat down with the artist over a glass of Turkish tea to talk about stargazing, Turkish psych rock, He-Man cartoons, and why he does it for the kids.

Flavorpill: You’ve mentioned the influence of cartoons, comics, and ’80s television on your work. What were your favorites growing up?

Soner Ön: Hands down, the cartoon that stands out the most is He-Man: Masters of the Universe. I came back to all of these old cartoons for the O’ Salvation, Deliver Me From Evil series and found that He-Man really stood out for its incorporation of positive messages. At the end of every show one of the characters would look out directly at the audience and explain the moral of the episode, which really struck me as an adult. I’ve spent a lot of time working with little kids, so I was surprised to rediscover that this old childhood escape was educational after all.

Of course, it was the special effects that so amazed me as a kid — photographs of some actually appear in my work. And I was absolutely seduced by the backgrounds, too. I think I pay more attention to them than I do to the main characters and all the action. There are certain scenes where a character moves off-screen, leaving just the background, and it’s some of the most beautiful landscape painting I’ve ever seen.

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O’ Salvation, Deliver Me From Evil! (ESPH39), 2009.

FP: Themes of youth run through your work. What is it that attracts you to childhood?

: What happens in childhood sticks with a person forever and shapes his or her character. I’m inspired by the way children learn about the world with such innocence and openness, not knowing that these experiences will affect the rest of their lives. I’m interested in revisiting these experiences in order to communicate them through my art.

FP: How has working with children changed your practice?

: I can’t be in a bad mood and see a child playing in the street without cracking a smile. Children have set the foundation in my work and my life for the beauty of innocence and the meaning of humility, of not-knowing. Avoiding the adult trap of preset judgments and instead just living in the world. That not-knowing is inspirational to me — it’s the limit of our knowledge that connects us all.

I particularly enjoy when a kid happens across my work, which is fundamentally conceptual, but instead approaches it in a very formalist way. It’s an instant attraction to the shapes, the patterns, the colors. Working out of a Downtown Brooklyn storefront studio, it was a pleasure to have kids from the neighborhood stop by and enjoy what I make. I was lucky enough to have some great teachers, so if I have a positive impact as an educator then that would be the greatest honor, to give back in some way.

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S, 2009, pp. 10-11.

FP: You often work with multiples like comic books and trading cards, while producing work that is itself in multiples. Are you a collector?

: I collect certain things. Turkish psych rock on vinyl and things from Turkish culture. I’m particularly interested in certain village arts, like hope chests, dowries, and other hand-worked women’s crafts. You can clearly see the intense amounts of effort that went into creating these pieces. But as far as working in multiples, I particularly enjoy thinking in one project at a time. I’ll start with a concept, develop it into a series of ideas, and explore each one. I rely on order and repetition in the same way that certain people believe in daily prayer.

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Ön’s work is on display now through October 4th at the Pera Museum. If you can’t make it to Turkey, check out his website for much more of his art, visit the Octet show at SVA beginning November 24th, and stay tuned for an upcoming group project at Printed Matter in New York.

Written and edited by Eli Dvorkin and Maia Murphy