Shimmering chaos

Shahid Mirza

Courtesy: The Friday Times, Lahore

An exhibition of mix media works by A.Q. Arif at Croweaters gallery, Lahore from November 27, 2006 to December 06, 2006.

Snow capped mountain, lush green surroundings and a picture perfect blue lake with a boat and swans, most of us remember this ‘scenery’ from school days, ironically our art training gets hardly any further since we live in a physical environment which is absolutely devoid of art. No paintings or murals adorn our public spaces and no sculptures serve as milestones in our memory map of the city. Our art buyers seek the pretty pictures which relax, distract and entertain; naturalistic works and decorative surfaces are preferred over raw and experimental works. A show of this preference can be viewed in multiple art galleries selling originals and bad reproductions of landscapes, cityscapes and calligraphy. What these works have in common is the stress on surface decoration and expensive frames. These flawless works ignore the lessons of contemporary masters who contemplated the ordinary and ugly ‘the painter today does not say look at faultless works’ wrote the great 20th century French painter Manet ‘he says look at sincere works. It is sincerity that bestows on painting the character of protest, although the painter may only have been concerned to record his impression’.

Few did try the mundane and socially relevant as subject of art but made a quick retreat to solace without passion. Ijaz ul-hasan painted few half hearted socialist-realist paintings but later resigned to pretty views from his drawing room window, Colin David dared to paint female nudes but was taught a lesson by the fundamentalist goons who ransacked his exhibition and he too started to paint imaginary landscapes through which a lone female nude can be glimpsed but hardly seen. Iqbal Hasan who gained fame through his paintings of prostitutes and red light area now runs a successful restaurant in the same neighborhood and has recently exhibited dreamy scenes of river Ravi and seascapes.

Since figurative paintings are wrongly considered un-Islamic, landscapes described as ‘windows to nature’ are an item of choice on the local art market, we have our fill of landscape artists who painted the light but never the life of rural Punjab, similarly the cityscape artists are happily painting buildings and streets scenes but never the dwellers. These dispassionate sceneries of rural and urban life are the hottest selling items on the local art market after of course calligraphy, a genre which brings you both religious and aesthetic gratification and flourished during Zia’s military regime. Miniature has been accepted as our great Muslim/Mogul heritage and made a comeback thanks mostly to expatriate Pakistanis who want to decorate there walls with indigenous and traditional art forms. Arnold Hauser is right when he states ‘Social history of art merely asserts – and this is the only sort of assertion which it can seek to substantiate – that art-forms are not only forms of individual consciousness, optically or orally conditioned, but also expressions of a socially conditioned world-view.’

The furniture and cabinets of most big plush houses in posh localities are done from the interior design magazines, in these publications furniture is always photographed against walls studded with decorative happy pictures so a demand for works to match furniture and curtains has risen with the rise in house building. The expansion of cable TV service in recent times is another factor as the art buyers educated on interior design magazines and TV productions are generating huge revenues for galleries and painters engaged in promoting rampant views on art.
A.Q. Arif has sold many works in his 7th solo show since his first exhibition at a five star Karachi hotel in 1998. His peaceful and tranquil pictures are priced reasonably. He uses mix media, consisting photocopied images treated with oil & acrylic paint.

Keeping faithful to the prevalent tradition of mindless painting he has used stereotypical images of historical buildings and decorative motifs shimmering through layers of thin paint. The introduction on his brochure claims that his ‘varied images touched by fantasy and a dreamy quality evoke a sense of solace and calm in the eyes of the beholder.’

His paintings are made of a well rehearsed set of forms which appears repeatedly in his works; without perspective or a trace of human presence the same design is composed vertically or horizontally in bright harmonious colors, gold leaf is used strategically in few paintings to enhance the luminosity of surface.

Instead of relying on sensory perception and drawing his motifs and architectural forms he employs photocopied images of heritage sites and filled those with hues of blue, brown and yellow. Texts from tourist brochures appear in some works to describe the buildings or motifs being used. Forms are composed symmetrically on the surface and a monotonous line outlines his favorite shapes. Color serves only as a decorative element and never achieves texture or symbolic presence. Photocopied pages are pasted on canvas in a rush as outlines of pages and wrinkles are visible in most works and is quiet raucous to the viewer.

His signature style is not a result of his experimentation in form, texture or subject matter but through repetition of same forms in various color schemes. The only exception to the rule and the weakest work of the exhibit is a surface in which water body and tree trunks are introduced and an attempt is made to create a sense of perspective, only to exposes his limitations in paint application, composition and basic drawing skills.

‘How am I to know one of you from other?’ Wonders K. in Franz Kafka’s The castle, ‘the only difference between you is your names, otherwise you’re as like as…he stopped, and then went on involuntarily, you’re as like as two snakes.’

Shahid Mirza is a painter and heads Lahore Chitrkar, a painting, music and dance institute in Lahore.

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