click IMAGE to link to notes from a biennial – on archivism
Dirk Stewen untitled [Bronx Monkey II] at Maureen Paley
I’ve been enjoying quite a few shows recently which are likely to be blown out of the water by the imminent frieze fair and so with mighty respect to the latter I thought I’d flag them up as alternatives…
Future Movements Jerusalem at Liverpool Biennial [18 Sept-28 Nov 2010] is an essential exhibition of work from and about Palestine. I posted on Raouf Haj Yihya’s Meter Square here, the New Statesman bravely ran a rather muted piece here and my own review will run at Babelmed shortly. Surprise yourself if you can get to it, or wait for it to travel south as I know it is scheduled to do. But be sure to see it.
Otherwise, Liverpool is a far better Biennial than scarce notice of it by lazy old journos suggests; everyone rightly notes the almost painfully compelling acid-Warhol-mashup-vids of Ryan Trecartin’s but there’s much else, including NS Harsha’s very nice installation [right] at 52 Renshaw Street and not least at Tate Liverpool -where a dubiously conceived but actually nicely put together show called The Sculpture of Language by Carol Anne Duffy exhibits some great and rarely aired works.
Dirk Stewen at Maureen Paley [08 October — 14 November 2010] is the most winning new work in town for me. If you do make it to the frieze jamboree then add this show to your bottom-line schedule otherwise you’ll have failed yourself and London. If you’re not friezing it then take advantage and spend some time in a show spread over two floors, beautifully arranged/hung works combining utopian gesture with extraordinary concentration, tentativeness and beauty. The work seems hardly there at all and yet surprises/delights with a precision that makes for indelibility. It’s Stewen’s first show in London, I’d never seen the work before and this exhibition made me happy to be alive; don’t miss it! Continue reading “nb, visual art noticeboard [alternatives to friezing…]”
Pattern to Follow 2009 [DETAIL] Aisha Khalid
There are two very good reasons for me to return to the work of these exceptionally good artists. Firstly, it is the last week of their exhibition at Corvi-Mora. Secondly, the publication of extremely beautiful artist’s books by Raking Leaves is imminent. Exhibition and publications are best seen together. To do so you’ll have to hurry to the gallery this week [11-6 Tuesday-Saturday], then hold out until the publication date of 30th March.
AK is showing four large new paintings which mark a stylistic development on previous work, showcased in a retrospective at the surprisingly capacious Pumphouse Gallery in 2008. IQ is showing six small paintings from his Moderate Enlightenment series; complex portraits of his wife, self, gallerist and studio assistant. In truth it’s a frustratingly small selection, given that both artists deserve the attention that a gallery like the Serpentine can give their work individually. I’m counting the days until it catches up, but quietly dreading some kind of ‘Pakistani Byway’ confection instead.
AK’s new works render beautiful abysses into which swirl complexly patterned stars and squares of gold leaf. There is an all-consuming joy and abysmal dread in them, they are cosmological and catastrophic, thresholds and black holes. Her work has previously excelled with ambiguities of perceptual, personal and architectural space, explored realms of looking and being seen -with all the import both contain in our world of phenomenal/ogical ignorance- and return again and again to the [illustrated] book, often literally with exquisitely rendered lined pages from school books.
Along with a kind of undeclared Islamic minimalism in the work is a politics that has grown ever sharper. From problematising notions of the gaze, in which veiled women become what you want to see, her work has reached a stage where the pretty decorative ‘holes’ created in and by patterned, pulled together edges of fabrics, resemble bloody wounds in bodies with all-too real War on Terror referents. See the work made for the Queen’s Palace in the Bagh-e Babur, Kabul last year here and here.
These newest works are called Pattern to Follow and embody a distinct break. It is as if she can’t bear to look any more, has turned her eyes pleadingly towards an infinite universe or the embrace of god, her hands to the making of open questions. What has previously been indirect has turned full circle so that her most abstract even decorative works, I can’t help feeling, are most revealing of their actual context [WoT’s totalised global violence]. Elegant, visually compelling, geometrically abstract, non-declamatory, yet invested with passionate appeals to some form of justice beyond reach.
The Artist’s Wife & The Gallerist 2009 [DETAIL] Imran Qureshi
IQ’s works are from the ongoing series Moderate Enlightenment. Here he locates western representational portraits within familiarly patterned floral landscapes or more abstract spaces. Some of these highly refined images are then framed within a series of lined boxes which reframe and link with abstract shapes floating like blind spots from the sun to left or right.
These six make an unlikely introduction to his work and are not the strongest argument for its profound innovations. However, they are fascinating to linger with and contain many of the visual and other elements that characterise his wider work. There are hip young things standing in classical landscapes; one male figure stands at an uncomfortable angle to the viewer, casting an unusual shadow on the foreshortened wall behind him.
IQ’s self portrait is a head in profile within a tilting oval, surrounded by a wide mount of gold leaf. The head is naturalistic but doesn’t actually resemble the better looking artist. Every hair on his head seems to have been rendered with the miniaturists famously fine brushes and the flies swarming before him evoke the heated atmosphere in which the work was made. IQ’s trademark leaf-bouquets [reappropriated from Kangra paintings and made to symbolise love] loom beside his wife and gallerist -the latter’s woollen jumper displaying furry licks.
These paintings of IQ’s contain love ‘poems’, perhaps ghazals but in any case they represent a relatively benign world compared to his wife AK’s evident [though still always open, ambiguous, ambivalent] concern or anyway, the seriousness of her new work. There is a curious dialogue going on here and I like the workshop feel of them showing together, something explored to its limits with an earlier project called Kharkhana [a very fine catalogue is available here]. However, there’s no sense in which either ‘needs’ the other and as an exhibition it would compliment the work of both to show more work separately.
The Whitechapel Gallery’s Where Three Dreams Cross [more info/artist list here] is another attempt to make up for long neglect. It’s sweepingly broad, with photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ranging across 150 years and grouped thematically; Family, Portrait, Body Politic, etc. These bundle together anonymous studio portraits, family snaps, publicity cards and photojournalism; images historic and incidental, urban and rural, plus work from artists born in 1870 through to the 1970s -including Bani Abidi for example.
I have as many curatorial queries if not criticisms as there are images and they thematise around the question of who this is aimed at? But Where Three Dreams Cross is essential viewing. It’s a pay show, but admission is free for under 18s and all on Sunday mornings from 11-1 a.m. You’ll need hours or more than one visit and can’t rely on the catalogue which has useful texts but is a frustratingly incomplete record.
Quartet & Doppleganger [Two Amritas] fromRe-Take of Amrita 2001 Vivan Sundaram
Amongst the multitudes are famous people and princes, rare images of poets and musicians, familiar ones by the A.S.I., Lala Deen Dayal, Raghubir Singh and Ragu Rai, for example. What makes it work are the glimpsed treasures; a set of hand-tinted [or miniaturised, popular-style, peacocks and all] family portraits staged before temples, another of Sufi Pir Baba by Tapu Zaveri, selections from Jyoti Bhatt, Gauri Gill [see Bidoun’s Noise] and Aasim Akhtar, as well as the brilliant Unknown and Anonymous.
Then there are the peculiarly subcontinental linkages/lineages; Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s mesmerising self-portraits downstairs, as well as Vivan Sundaram‘s photo-montages of Umrao and his daughter Amrita Sher-Gil [aunt of VS, who is married to art critic Geeta Kapur who supplies a catalogue essay] upstairs. Then there are Nony Singh’s photographs of her family, including ‘Nixi’s’ young life up until she leaves for college in Ahmedabad, Gujarat…
Dayanita Singh: Nixi on Foot at the Dream Villa
Dream Villa 16 2007-08 Dayanita Singh
‘Nixi’ is Dayanita Singh, represented here by recent Dream Villa photographs in colour and her project of 7 fold-out booklets, Sent a Letter, which include Nony’s photographs with her own of Allahabad, Calcutta, Varanasi, etc. I’m torn between choosing one of DS’s poems -as she calls them- from Dream Villa and one of her mother’s family snaps.
Nony took photographs of her family obsessively, some of the evidence is on the wall, more of it is on Nixi’s face here. In the exhibition this image comes with vital additional notes; “Nixi on her way to study at the National Institute of Design. I just knew she was talented as an artist and fought with my protective husband to let her go. It was expensive. I had no idea what she would become one day”.
I was admiring too but a bit sceptical of what DS did in her early [intimate, ambivalent] tableaux of variously located privilege and desolate or evacuated grandeur. However, in parallel with her brilliant Myself Mona Ahmed [Scalo 2001] project -published with emails from subject to publisher- they promised much and have arrived at something very special. A few pages of MMA and Privacy [Steidl 2004] occupy a vitrine here.
Dream Villa‘s images of nocturnal street lights exemplify this specialness for me [see current Delhi show]; the familiarly angled, bolted-onto-anything lights of urban back streets and the edges of connected-up villages. I loved them when she showed them first in London , recognising their airs -the times and spaces they illuminate- but wondered momentarily if that recognition was necessary for them to ‘work’. In fact, Dream Villa represents a clarified art that needs no referent -even if they can be found. It is what it is.
Nony’s image of Nixi about to set foot free is quietly exquisite. It reminds me of a letter of Emily Dickinson’s which asks; “How is your little Byron? Hope he gains his foot without losing his genius. Have heard it ably argued that the poet’s genius lay in his foot -as the bee’s prong and song are concomitant.” Nony’s image is of her own Byron gaining her foot, impatiently patient in shades of possessive release.
Where Three Dreams Cross is full of little moments of this kind. Little moments of layered resonance. Here Nixi in the eyes of Nony echoes the work of Vivan with his aunt and grandfather -minus self-consciousness and compelling perversity. Moments that insist upon further exploratory exhibitions of depth, substance, context and celebration beyond this prefatory survey.
During the last year London finally began to notice the breadth and depth of subcontinental visual art. A form of catching up across loosely defined generations has been going on, symbolised in October 09 by Nasreen Mohamedi‘s ongoing retrospective at MKG, Subodh Gupta getting a showcase at Hauser & Wirth, NS Harsha with an installation at inIVA and a solo show at Victoria Miro, as well as another intriguing group show at Green Cardamom. As crude a notion as ‘catching up’ in this way is, it seems that London’s tokenistic effort to do this with the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway in December 08 just might also be the last of its kind.
Veil [detail] 2005 Aisha Khalid
In contrast to the Now That’s What I Call Music approach of group surveys, Tommaso Corvi-Mora has shown Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi, two of the best artists from an established generation in Lahore, Pakistan, since 2001. A similarly smart curator could yet put together a show of Bhupen Khakhar’s pop art from the 1970s for example. Another could put together a retrospective of the influential late Lahori Ustad Zahoor ul Akhlaq. Perhaps ‘West End’ gallerists ought to be showcasing artists from the next wave, like Naeem Mohaiemen, Khadim Ali, or Mohammed Ali Talpur for example. That is; as well as rewinding and catching-up why not just press play?
I don’t mean to exaggerate London’s importance -it probably needs the subcontinent more than the subcontinent needs it- but it reveals an approach predicated on the take-out or the M&S spicey snack; diluted convenience over actual cuisine or anything else. The same is true in the world of books, where the UK prizes writing prepared in English at the same time as translating very nearly nothing.
Gupta and Harsha are Indian artists with global reputations, about whom London had very little to say, at least critically. I came across the former in Delhi in 2002 and had too much to say about the recent work to post my notes here, but in summary:
Subodh Gupta Common Man Hauser & Wirth 1-31 October 09
The proportions of Gupta’s first major exhibition in London were peculiar. Its occasion was part introduction, part retrospective, its character declarative and incantatory. It spilled across two sites in Mayfair, imploding with a self-consciously wide range of forms, tongues and bases with pointless talismans [Wall] and point-scoring appropriations [Et Tu, Duchamp?]. The solid core were subtle variations on now familiar stainless steel sculptures [Everyday, I Believe You, A Penny for Belief II] here on marble plinths; offerings and monuments both quotidian and sincere. The most interesting work [Spooning, Black and White] showed a further refining and abstracting of his own sculptural language which augurs well. Gupta is an artist unafraid of thinking big in the best sense, making art that is powerfully symbolic of everyday life experience. Art from nothing and everything, for the ‘common man’ of lore and life itself.
Here are my abridged notes on Harsha’s show at Victoria Miro 10th October-14th November 09.
NS Harsha Picking Through the Rubble
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
NS Harsha has been here on his way around the world before now but this exhibition at Victoria Miro is his formal introduction in the UK. Harsha is primarily an artist of paint. A painter who uses various vernacular mediums of Indian life and art to adorn almost anything, anywhere. His works have been miniatures ‘quoting’ from Company paintings to comment on colonial legacies with great wit. They’ve been murals painted on to walls, deriving from the village arts and crafts found across India, and bringing the everyday to life in site specific works across the world. Victoria Miro is showing large mural-inspired paintings of his delicate kind which are, incidentally, his most saleable work yet.
The ground floor gallery shows off a set of five large canvases with thinly applied acrylic in soft hues. All are 5 feet high and 12 feet long; the Imperial measurements somehow appropriate and one of few unselfconscious markers present. Harsha has lifted his art off the walls to join in on an art market that requires it to hang independently. As his international reputation has grown, his site specific works have magnified too. The upstairs gallery here contains one such pointlessly scaled installation; a made-for-Museum piece called Either Side of the Path of Enlightenment. Hidden away nearby is Eclips; a modestly sized canvas of Harsha at his best; elliptical, mysterious, warmly human, wittily questioning.
Harsha’s large scale murals share qualities of pattern and looseness from the wall-mural tradition, overlaid with his trademark specificity of person, face, moment. Spot an innocent civilian and Thought pickers especially, but also In musth, could pass as wall paper with their repeated motifs. Harsha wants us to look more closely at things we think we know or recognise. At his best this process is a witty but also sharp political commentary, veering on the philosophical. This is the quality that distinguishes Thought pickers, an Untitled canvas as well as Eclips but it’s precisely this that amplification for the market’s sake threatens.
Harsha’s ‘innocent civilians’ are rendered with a halo like effect around individuated heads. To the right of the canvas and in its midst is an exploding suicide bomber taking out those nearest her in an acrobatic display of painterly gesture. Her halo is less crisply rendered but I think it’s still there; Harsha is no reducer of sense. A decade ago he painted a series of miniature sized pictures which played with the same ambiguities of language to similar effect. One of those, Native Intrigue, also took a phrase from the dominant ideological lexicon and inverted it to reveal and softly ridicule its limits.
In the War On Terror we’re all innocent civilians as well as all-knowing and complicit. Harsha is reminding us that if we perceived ourselves as global citizens, we could no longer stand by while crimes against humanity, war crimes, murderous sieges and mass murder in the guise of democracy are perpetrated in the ‘defence’ of our ‘values’. So we’re the opposite of innocent. Perhaps the least invested in our shared guilt is the suicide bomber in this mural who is at least protesting. Whose guilt is confined to small-scale, handmade outrages.
Untitled 2009 [detail] N.S. Harsha
Untitled is Harsha at his best; a broad philosophical insistence rendered as gently as possible and more characteristic of his body of work. This huge mural on canvas divides in half; on the left are a mass of painterly gestures, scraps of colourful fabric, unordered or unformed, individual, intensely vibrant. On the right they’ve been woven together into something strong, useful, evidence of human presence. Rendered at many angles in the muddied middle are busy human beings turning the scraps into thread. Collecting, gathering, weaving, moulding, working up the disparate into something with collective strength. Something formed. This is enough; there’s no manifesto delimiting what that collectivity, strength, humanity or purpose ought to be but no baulking at the absolute necessity for it.
A couple of canvases –In musth and Absurd blossoms– feel forced to me in exactly the way that Harsha’s best work is not. Thought pickers makes the point; being typical of this set of new works but as natural and easy as the witty precision of layered intent it contains. Again we have repeated motifs; individual bent backed figures regularly placed on the canvas. Each has a collection of brightly coloured rags, paint strokes, petals on their backs. The colours are the thoughts, the figures are pickers, collectors, bringers-in of the thoughts used to sustain life.
Harsha’s figures are modelled on urban rag pickers and rural twig and stick pickers; gracers of subcontinental back streets and rural tracks, gatherers of subsistence. This should give us thought, not least about the way this apparently impoverished existence is also sustainable. Thought pickers renders a kind of inhuman abjection and yet it comments on our thoughtless acquisitive purgatory in ways that are unique in their lightness of touch and softness of voice.
Upstairs, Eclips is more of this; a beautiful puzzle of an image, easily missed in the corner and set apart from the rather cumbersome ‘Path’ installation. Eclips is a divine droplet of Indian thought, containing a press of distinct human beings, falling through time and space, going nowhere, but underpinned with a mystifying carrot. Mysterious but not pointless; the carrot here might as well stand for the rewards of focusing on our shared humanity; those vulnerably massed group of people who share a single fate as they come in to splash down and begin life on earth. It’s a carrot in a world of sticks.
Harsha is an interesting artist who works political wit and philosophical incisiveness into a highly refined practice that is also essentially vernacular. As his reputation has grown, as London has finally realised the health and vigorous breadths of subcontinental art, his work has expanded in scale to meet the curatorial market. Thus size becomes a key demand, alongside concern about portentousness.
Harsha’s best work is the obverse of this; an irritant of the portentous, able to stimulate large and productive thoughts in us with the slightest of means and on the smallest of scales. These modesties are bound up tightly with the source, inspirations and languages of his art practice. The global artworld -certainly as manifest in London- struggles to understand or even recognise the modest scale of these subtleties and so forces even an artist of the wit and precision of NS Harsha into its mould.
Picking through the rubble here, there’s enough left to remind us of the real value in Harsha’s work. It’s also a happy day when someone of his particular set of skills breaks through to International recognition. The moment must be celebrated even if attended with sadness and regret when it reduces the singularity of the work in question. Hasten along to Victoria Miro and catch NS Harsha while he is still making his own work and while that work is still Harsha’s to make.