Monday, September 1, 2008

Persistence of Memory*

Aasim Akhtar Critiques


Defined by shadows, the stately, nostalgic hues in Aqeel Solangi’s work show a moving, somewhat cinematic perspective of power and the vagaries of memory. The muted, sun-brightened colours underscore the fluid grace of the works’ pastoral setting. At first glance, his paintings evoke an altogether serene memory: the rootless white flower set against an imaginary background and the blue sky, as if it had always been there—But there is also an overwhelming energy in the pictures.

A master of elision, Solangi lets the part stand for the whole in his graphic paintings which feature overlapping fragments of landscape, ellipses and drapes. The effect is dreamlike yet not quite surreal. Solangi’s work captures a world of ruin and decay where the urban debris mixes with peeling paint to suggest forms of foreboding beauty. His paintings imply landscape, but the elements are abstracted, manipulated, and disconnected: His colour choices and compositional balance are often exquisite. But he overthinks his material, and his reworkings sometimes give the work an air of hesitancy.

Geographical specificity has no special value here. Each painting consists of an abstracted, denaturalised nature scene with an elliptical disc composed of periwinkle flowers floating in space. It is impossible, however, to separate the emptiness from loss and death. These may be springtime pictures, but the mood is hardly festive. The stylised, expressionistic nature is deliberately staged, as if to parody the 18th century picturesque. The ellipsis appears and disappears into a void, and so order, both natural and pictorial, is deliberately distorted. Solangi’s artistic will triumphs here, but we pay the price because his play on the edge of abstraction sinks a sharp knife into our heart: absence and desolation prevail.

Although Solangi avoids representation, he does allow the suggestion of land or seascapes in the paintings, by virtue of the gradation of colours from dark at the bottom to lighter at the top. The artist works in a broad range of colours and tones but tends to focus on one range of hues in each painting, from hot reds to creamy pale yellows and olive greens. Peeking through here and there are bits of unexpected, contrasting colours that avert tedium without interrupting the rhythm of the strokes. In one of his strongest works in this series, the beautifully laid-out landscape in the upper right begins the image. In the final version, it is just a small lyrical square almost obliterated by the heavy white hovering cloud that dominates the composition. Solangi’s visual timelines do appear to be, as the name implies, random selections from passing time, the records of fleeting moments. But he has built each moment atop layer on layer of history, sometimes revealed, sometimes obscured. These underpinnings begin with gestural strokes, which he then paints over in thick, viscous lines of oil paint. Some of them have been scraped away and repainted, leaving traces of earlier work and variations in depth. In the final layer, bars of thinned paint are occasionally allowed to drip.

Solangi is especially sensitive to the emotional resonances of weather, water, sky, and earth. The way he handles landscape, almost as a reverie, is reminiscent of artists from Watteau to Corot. It is as if he knows places so well that the details no longer matter as much as the feelings they evoke. Minimal yet lively, his paintings achieve a sense of timelessness through their very lack of specificity. All he needs are a few fierce streaks of blue to conjure up the physicality of the wind and a series of red dots on a green background to portray the essence of a succulent apple.

Allegorical fiction dramatised with an imposing mis-en-scene is not an uncommon strategy these days. Such work mobilises two of the most effective antimodernist devices: literariness and theatricality. In Solangi’s work, it remains unclear just what is being evoked by these elaborate devices, and whether there is a real urgency, beyond the artist’s indulgence, that justifies such spectacle – if indeed a spectacle needs any justification. Figures have just about disappeared from his work, and Solangi has dedicated his artistic efforts to the rendering of the natural world in a self conscious pictorial shorthand quite unlike anything that his contemporaries are attempting. His graphic language is disarmingly suggestive of painting-by-numbers, on one hand, and – particularly in his version of clouds against an overladen sky – of the facility of a gifted amateur, on the other. It is all the more remarkable, then that his paintings are so rewarding to look at. Areas of foliage contain curious blobs of unnatural colours – pistachio, mint, and emerald among them – alongside more plausible dark, mossy greens. But the overall effect is utterly compelling.

One sees a sea of marks – the totality of a natural context that has apparently lost all traces of individuality. Thrown together in a chaos of anonymous environment, structured only by a few lines that cut like canyons through its mass, the surface appears as a ceaselessly growing organism that, heedless of humanity, is governed by its own logic. Everything indicative of development, narration, or a hierarchical relationship among the different parts of the picture has been rigorously eliminated. The bird’s-eye perspective used by the artist in each of the individual paintings suggests panoramic overview that is revealed as its precise opposite in light of the painting’s reality. The landscape appears as a pure surface structure, a tectonic texture that has no beginning and no end and thus also lacks a horizon against which it might be differentiated. “There used to be civilisation on this planet,” writes Naoya Hatakeyama in one of the texts that regularly accompany his photographic investigations. “One day, however, the people who created this civilisation completely vanished.”

This statement reveals much about the attitude that shapes the specific atmosphere of this series by the artist from Sukkur, Sindh. The first aspect worth noting here is that of remoteness, an unbridgeable distance to things that are in a certain sense painted as if he who made them had never been involved in the ‘events’ he records. A related aspect is the principle of deletion – the encircling of an empty centre. Because Solangi’s paintings focus on the natural order but never show people, all of his paintings have the look of representations of an alien world that is empty (and devoid of meaning), a world at which we gaze as if looking at the remains of an ancient culture at an archaeological excavation site. In a third, and perhaps most important sense, however, Solangi’s paintings are meditations on the suspension of time. Naturally, the nature appears literally in a different, sometimes magical light in the rhythm of day and night, but no pattern of continuous development is evident in these changes. The images form an overview that has no temporal progression and thus no before or after, suggesting instead only a remarkable insistence upon the permanence of the momentary that always appears equal yet somehow different.

Under the gaze of Solangi’s paintbrush, the landscape becomes a surreal wasteland. The images he creates in this series are both magical and cold. Their gaze is focused on the seam between nature and memory. On the other hand, nothing could be further from Solangi’s intent than a gratuitous critique of civilisation that decries the crude exploitation of nature in the documentation of the disasters. The idea of preserving a kind of precivilised natural paradise in the midst of our high-tech reality is exposed for what it really is: for instance, a desperate, helpless attempt to domesticate nature as nature parks. Viewed from this angle, the consistent absence of people in all of his works assumes a dynamic quality that flows over to the author of the paintings. The artist is himself affected by the strange ambivalence of absence and presence, of structure and void, that is evident in all of his painted oeuvre. Above all, it is further evidence of Solangi’s ability to generate images in which the self-reflective nature of the painting process converges with the visualisation of a world full of equally suggestive and untouchable surfaces, a world frozen in an eternal moment.
Aqeel Solangi has exhibited internationally and now lives in Rawalpindi where he also teaches at the National College of Arts, but he is not yet one of the big names of the current Pakistani art boom. With shows like this, that situation should change. The classically trained yet restlessly experimental artist made the banal topic of memory seem bold and more than a little threatening in these beautiful works in oils, water colours and mixed-media. His work is subtle, and his explorations have been mercurial. These lush paintings breathe new life into the ancient traditions of egg tempera and gesso panels and offer a coherent, fully mature body of work.

* The title has been taken from a paining by Salvador Dali, of the same name.
- Aasim Akhtar, is an art critic, photographer and curator based in islamabad, Pakistan.


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