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Review | I was sure I would hate Raqib Shaw’s work. Then I saw it in person.


Art is most exciting when it breaks down our defenses. These defenses often relate to “taste”.

Of course, this is partly a social concept, linked to status anxiety and perhaps fear of what disgusts us. But in art, I view it as a sorting mechanism, a cognitive shortcut rooted in past experience of pleasure. This is a mechanism designed to be effective: Yes I like that. Absolutely not. Yes again. In other words, the taste can be brutal. But we use it to recognize the things we react to reliably (without having to examine the reasons too closely) and to protect the part of our identity that is wrapped up in our likes. (Who isn’t proud of their music playlists?)

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If you like art, you may have decided, for example, that you don’t like conceptual art. Or surrealism. Or minimalism. Good for you. Perfectly justifiable. But one day, perhaps after a glass of wine at lunch or in the company of a friend with a different perspective, you are stopped in your tracks by something that seems to fit one of these categories. Your taste – carefully acquired, proudly maintained – should reject it. But that is not possible. You see it from a slightly off angle, you can’t deny that it’s incredible, and suddenly the glass wall you didn’t even know existed shatters at your feet.

Raqib Shaw, the subject of a film of explosive beauty exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, has precisely this effect on my sensitivity. Born in Calcutta, India, he grew up in Kashmir and is based in London. His workshop is a former sausage factory transformed into a horticultural idyll, filled with bonsai, butterflies and beehives, hidden behind high walls.

For much of Shaw’s life (he is 50), Kashmir’s mountainous, fairy-tale beauty was marred by the bitter conflict between India and Pakistan over the territory, one of the biggest triggers probable nuclear war.

Shaw left Kashmir as a teenager in the early 1990s, after an outbreak of sectarian violence. He moved with his family to New Delhi, where he found work with his maternal uncle, who sold jewelry, antiques, carpets and fabrics. Shaw traveled to London on business in 1993 and, after seeing “The ambassadors» at the National Gallery, determined to become an artist.

In terms of technique, Shaw’s work is simply dazzling. Everyone can see it, even in reproduction. But until I saw an exhibition of his work at Venice Two years ago, I thought his creations weren’t to my taste. Not having to explain is part of the taste, but I’ll try:

I don’t like it when I feel like an artist is trying to overwhelm me with technical virtuosity. I’m impatient with the fussy, frantically teeming details. I don’t like going to a gallery and feeling stuck in a “where’s Waldo?” universe. And I don’t really like contemporary art which is full of symbols, grotesques and hybrid creatures like centaurs and devils.

Looking at Shaw’s work in reproduction, I felt buffeted by winds carrying all these dismal traits, like toxic pollens. His images can look like high-end children’s book illustrations or overstuffed Christmas trees. Eek!

But see these paintings in person, linger over them, and things quickly seem different. It’s only in their presence, where you register their three-dimensionality, that you see how Shaw’s technique is simply astonishing. He creates these carefully planned and extremely ambitious works by drawing fine outlines in gold acrylic. The contours are like lead lines in a stained glass window. Slightly raised, they create small wells into which Shaw deposits liquid enamel, moving it with porcupine quills or fine needles to create textures, tonal changes and other effects.

The elaborate technique is not a gimmick. Rather, it is the expression of a sensibility that, in its combination of sadness and wit, camp and sincerity, self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation, is so obsessive and unusual as to be entirely original.

The paintings in “Ballads of East and West,” as the Gardner exhibition is titled, were all produced in the last decade, a period Shaw describes as “the beginning of my maturity.” Most feature self-portraits, often accompanied by Shaw’s late Jack Russell Terrier, Mr. C, or an alter ego (a wolfman wearing a blue kimono).

Aside from being Shaw’s attempt to invert the colonial perspective of Rudyard Kipling (whose “Ballad of East and West” inspired the title), the exhibition is actually a series of songs about exile. What is disconcerting is that the works express anguish and the desire for exile not through poetic distillation but through an almost comically unstoppable geyser of symbols, fashions, allusions and cascading whims . It’s the difference between expecting, say, a Bach cello suite, laden with the unspeakable, and instead encountering the emotionally incontinent concept album of a progressive rock band, performed by an evil genius with cold eyes.

Shaw’s paintings constitute a very modern form of horror emptiness. This Latin term, meaning “fear of heights”, is often used to describe the hypnotically proliferating patterns of certain types of Islamic or Catholic architecture, where no surface is left undecorated. It is therefore interesting to note that Shaw grew up in a Muslim family, went to Catholic school and had Hindu and Buddhist tutors.

His paintings often depict Kashmir or London. Their decorations are sometimes Islamic, sometimes Hindu or Buddhist. Fighter jets and riots allude to the conflict in the Himalayas. Infernal fires evoke not only political violence, but also, in one case, a disastrous fire in the artist’s studio. The glass orbs in the corners of his works contain hermetically sealed alternate worlds. The architectural settings and landscapes are quotes from old master paintings by Antonello da Messina, Caspar David Friedrich and Ludovico Mazzolino.

An extraordinary large-scale painting, “The Retrospective,” is inspired by an 18th-century gallery of paintings painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini. It contains miniature reproductions of at least 60 of Shaw’s works, many of which hang on nearby walls. A tour de force, it’s as spectacular and self-referential as anything Matthew Barney has ever created.

In homage to the “The Adoration of Kings“, Shaw replaces Mary’s tender embrace of the baby Jesus with an image of himself cradling MC. In this sacred Christian scene, he also paints green parakeets and a shrine to the Sufi saint Makhdoom Sahib, both recalled from his Kashmiri childhood. One might interpret these images, which follow the wall label, as a sign of Shaw’s determination to cling “tightly to his own identity, even as he is courted by the Euro-American art establishment system.” . But I’m not convinced. Shaw’s images are too clever, too campy, too numerous and spooky for a limiting concept like “identity” to have much traction.

To me, his paintings suggest a deep compulsion to find enriched pictorial forms for that which cannot be salvaged – his Himalayan childhood, pre-conflict Kashmir, perhaps even paradise itself. So there’s a pathos in that. Shaw recognizes the pathos and seems constantly ready to laugh at himself. Full of self-deprecation, his work dares to express the brilliant and kaleidoscopic puzzle of individuality.

At times, I felt a terrible loneliness in front of these crowded works. But I also felt like Shaw could at the same time be making fun of his good fortune – of the exile’s opportunity to be more than one thing, to wear masks, to water his garden fertilizer and chaff, and being impervious to anyone’s expectations of what he should do. TO DO.

Raqib Shaw: Ballads of the East and the West Until May 12 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. gardennermuseum.org. It will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, then to the Huntington in San Marino, California.


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