Consider the Pterodactyl
An interview with C.M. Kosemen by Harrison Cook, nonfiction editor
His first memory is one of a seaside family vacation, where he drew a strange lizard sunbathing on a big stone, C.M. Kosemen tells me during our interview. “I was transfixed by this animal. [And ever since], these reptilian- or insect-like creators kept cropping in my work.” Like many kids, Kosemen gravitated toward drawing dinosaurs, but unlike many adults, he’s proud to say he didn’t grow out of that phase. The proof persists in his works of sublime paleoart and surrealism, which draw inspiration from myth, science, and lizards.
“If a person were to have a spirit animal, mine would be a gecko or another small lizard at that,” Kosemen says.
“I’ve always joked with people that my spirit animal is a velociraptor,” I say.
“I like drawing raptors, but they are not really my favorite. Scientifically, a velociraptor looks like a big turkey with claws on [its] wings,” Kosemen says, unlike Hollywood’s depiction of the five-foot, sleek, and featherless raptor terrorizing the Jurassic Park franchise. But Kosemen confessed that he loves studying inaccurate depictions of his favorite creatures, which is what inspired a book titled, All Yesterdays, with John Conway and Darren Naish, featuring hundreds of what Kosemen calls “false reconstructions.”
Looking at dinosaur books published in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the three artists found that the dinosaur portraits were based on the fossil records of their time and that the artistic renderings had the potential to expire in the wake of new discoveries. In other words, even if you try to draw the most accurate dinosaur there is, something will come along in the next five years and make your depiction inaccurate. For example, the archaeopteryx, a small feathered dinosaur discovered in 1842, was believed to be the only case of a dinosaur with feathers. Then, in 2010, scientists discovered that many species of dinosaurs likely had feathers. So, Koseman thought, why not make predated paleoart of extinct and living animals, already familiar to use and inaccurate from the beginning?
Consider the pterodactyl. When the flying reptile was first discovered, scientists thought they were marsupials or strange, flying, bat-like mammals. Kosemen, Conway, and Naish latched on to this false representation and drew the pterodactyl in all the (wrong) ways it was originally portrayed. A false reconstruction of a pterodactyl resembled a reptilian gargoyle, then a more birdlike creature, and then a strange, furry lizard. Cows and baboons became unsettling, inverse animals with skin gripping to their skeletons in freakish, zombie-like anatomies. And during the process, the artists realized they had more fun they owned up to their mistakes.
“When you accept false reconstruction as something never complete,” Kosemen says, “you show your viewers an interesting detail that is otherwise overlooked within the paleoart tradition.” His favorite reconstruction from All Yesterdays is of a swan; future paleontologists imagine the bird, not knowing how feathers operate, and assume the swan’s wings function like mantis-scythe-prongs. “It all helps us realize how much muscle, fat, fur, and bulky meat tissue we are leaving out in paleontology reconstructions,” Kosemen says, recalling the mineralized skeletons uncovered today.
Kosemen says he was a paleo artist before he was a surrealist, and even though his first artistic encounters with painting involved reptilians and dinosaurs, creatures categorized by both nomenclatures persist as the surrealist subjects of his paintings. The elevated landscapes, featuring wriggling, sublime flora, characterize the avian–insectoid subjects with a duel portrait of inherent animism. His works of surrealism are 100 percent improvised, and for every painting hanging in an exhibition, there are six or seven incarnations that didn’t improvise well. When he can say, “The painting is done,” he looks at it, absorbs the message, and then gives it a title. For instance, in his painting, “A Search Without End,” Kosemen speculates that the subject of his painting—an avian–human hybrid engulfed in a jellyfish-like fire shroud—is a creature in his thirties just looking for a safe place.
“Recently, my wife suggested all the subjects in my paintings look like me,” Kosemen says, “I have fallen arches and one of my legs is slightly longer and thinner than the other. It’s here, I realized, the body one examines the most is one’s own. It’s my closest source of reference for drawing my humanoid figures.
Kosemen recalls one of his first exhibits. He had just gotten married, and a viewer came up to him and asked him, “Are you scared to have children?”
“No, but what made you think of that?” Kosemen asked. It turns out the viewer was a Jungian psychologist, and in all of the paintings and drawings, she saw a terrible fear of having a baby. It was an interesting coincidence, Kosemen tells me, and for the record, he loves children and wouldn’t mind having one of his own one these days.
One of the first things that C.M. Kosemen tells me is that to him, the essence of art and science is a mutual search for humankind’s truth and reality. Kosemen strives to create emotional landscapes, inhabited with uncanny subjects, whose features draw from the mutual traditions of speculative art and science, where these organisms persist in the futurity of the present.
C. M. Koseman is an artist and independent researcher born in Ankara, Turkey. He studied at Cornell University, Istanbul’s Sabancı University, and holds a Masters’ degree from London’s Goldsmiths College in Documentary Film and Media Studies. Kosemen’s areas of interest include surreal art, Mediterranean history, palaeontology, evolution, zoology and visual culture. As an artist, Kosemen is affiliated with the Empire Project Gallery of Istanbul. His art has been displayed in exhibits in Catania, Vienna, Ulcinj, Istanbul, Ankara, London and Tel Aviv. As a researcher, Kosemen’s book credits include Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes, from Libra Books of Istanbul. Copies of this book have been purchased by leading universities and research institutes of the world. It has won the 2016 Eduard-Duckesz History Prize. Kosemen’s other book credits include All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, and the Cryptozoologion, the Biology, Evolution and Mythology of Hidden Animals from Irregular Books of London.
Harrison Cook’s writing has appeared in Slate, Little Village, and on stage, and his chapbook, “Warby,” was published through University of Iowa Press. He is the Nonfiction Editor at Guesthouse.
Banner image: “Improvised Landscape [ANATOLIA],” acrylics on wall, 300 x 500 cm.