“Fortitude Solitude,” a drawing completed for Aladogan’s 2009 show at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, also depicts a bird-like figure.

Eylem Aladogan, Artist

When Dutch artist Eylem Aladogan took her first trip out West in 2006 — three months of driving alone through the Nevada, Utah, and Arizona desert — there was plenty to be afraid of: the wide-openness of the landscape, the sensation of smallness and isolation, the possibility that the only hotel for miles around would be fully booked for the night. “These feelings of restriction at the same time you’re constantly going, driving forward, really inspired me,” says the 34-year-old, who’s based in Amsterdam. “There’s so much energy when you feel that every day.” Enough, it would turn out, to fuel her art for the next four years, as she worked out a way to visually harness those opposing forces of anxiety and empowerment. Incorporating layer upon layer of desert-inspired mediums like ceramics, leather, feathers, and raw wool felt spun by the designer Claudy Jongstra, Aladogan’s sculptures and installations evoke the tension of reaching for something or bracing for flight, turning moments of spiritual and psychological conflict into grand gestures of dark, offbeat beauty. Birds, rifles, daggers, Native American culture, and Moorish architectural patterns are all recurring motifs.

The road trip may have inspired Aladogan’s recent visual vocabulary, but overcoming fear and following instinct were themes she dealt with long before it — starting, perhaps, with her decision to leave behind the relative security promised by her undergraduate graphic design studies to pursue a master’s in fine art, obsessed as she was with the tangible exploration of materials. For her thesis project in 1999, she hand-sculpted in wet, unfired clay a series of seven large birds which lay like beached whales on a table, desperately soaking up moisture from a cloud of mist overhead. “If you gave them too much water, they’d melt, but not enough and they’d crack,” she explains. “For me it was about holding onto something you can’t let go of. You don’t believe in the reality, you believe in what you think is the truth.” When the exhibition ended, there was no choice but to throw the dessicated creatures away, but not before they’d earned Aladogan her wings — Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans van Beuningen put her in a survey of fear-focused art that also featured work by Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois, and Amsterdam’s influential emerging-art gallery Fons Welters also came calling. The unexpectedly quick success derailed her plans to do further aesthetic studies in biology, handing her the motivation to set up her own studio and launch herself into her work.

That’s where we found her last October, surrounded by the earliest inklings of new pieces for the biggest solo show of her career, which opens at Fons Welters in the spring of 2011. To prepare, Aladogan will spend the next nine months pushing her desert inspirations even further, embarking on a succession of residencies in Antwerp, China, and ultimately Los Angeles. “It all starts with travel for me,” she says. “I like to be disconnected; I need the tension of being really far away from home and not feeling safe at all in order to create. You’re closer to your instincts that way.” In Antwerp, she’ll work with her litho and offset printers to prepare the exhibition’s centerpiece: a 3-foot-long box containing an oversize book of drawings and wrapped in a woven textile depicting one of her previous works. In Xiamen, China, she’ll focus on ceramic objects and sculptures. And in L.A. she’ll have the chance to revisit the open roads that started it all. In anticipation of that show, which promises to be a breakthrough for this up-and-coming artist, Sight Unseen wanted to offer a glimpse into her process. Further reading can be done in 1:1:1: Eylem Aladogan, the first in a series of mini art monographs produced and designed by Niessen & de Vries.