Raqib Shaw: Reinventing The Old Masters exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) from 19th May to 28th October 2018 features 8 works from one of the most sought after artists working in the world today, Kashmir born (b. 1974) Raqib Shaw.
For some people reading this review, 8 large paintings may not seem a lot to base an exhibition around, but what this exhibition may lack in numbers, it more than makes up for in sheer artistic power and almost blinding brilliance of subject matter (metaphorically and literally). As soon as you enter this exhibition space, colour and vibrancy are everywhere around you and in stark contrast to the far darker colour paint pallets of some of the original paintings which were the inspiration for the works in this exhibition. A large part of this contrast is undoubtedly due to the vastly different methods used to create these works.
Raqib does not work in conventional oil paints or paint with brushes, but instead creates his works using industrial paints with an industrial colour pallet; Hammerite, a tough enamel paint developed for outdoor surfaces, is his paint of choice (initially in part by the economics of not being able to afford oil paints). Over the years, the restrictive colour range of this product has been enhanced to endless permutations with his purchase of an industrial paint mixer. Industrial paints like Hammerite have their own unique characteristics when applied to a surface (Raqib paints onto the hard surface of a flat board as they are not suited to working on an upright canvas) and this varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. These different paint variables are exploited to the full as he used non-conventional materials to paint with that include sharpened matches, needles and porcupine quills. The discovery of an acrylic liner which left a fine golden line that could contain the spread of paint within its borders is a technique that Raqib uses now on his work to give an almost cloisonné enamel effect to his works. A selection of the artist’s paints and working materials are in a wall display at this exhibition; try not to miss them as they give a clear insight into the enormous number of labour hours involved in every painting.
Raqib Shaw is a man born of the merging of two cultures - the rich culture of his native Kashmir, but also an education rooted in the last vestiges of the British Raj and an immersion into the major figures of Victorian art and literature – Frederic Lord Leighton, Albert Joseph Moore, the Pre Raphaelites, Kipling and others had a strong early influence upon him. Shaw’s own background is one of a family business dealing in interior design, carpets, jewellery, antiques and fabrics. Colour with all its richness and finery have obviously, from his paintings, been infused into the very core of Raqib Shaw from a very early age. From these paintings, there is also the very obvious mergence of two completely different religious, cultural and mythological backgrounds that are beautiful and terrifying in their imagery at the same time. There is something very old and very modern about these eight works on display that seem to have them existing in some timeless place. At first look, the works remind me of posters from the 1970s or artwork from album covers (who remembers when 12 inch vinyl records provided a space for the cover to be filled with wonderful artwork?). The use of skeletons and beasts evoke memories of Derek Riggs’ artwork on Iron Maiden covers while the fantasy elements take me back to the days of Elton John and the “Captain Fantastic” album art from Alan Aldridge (and of course his “The Butterfly Ball” work). There are also obvious influences from Hieronymus Bosch and his famous “The Garden of Earthly Delights” weaving golden threads of imagery throughout these works.
First impressions are of course not everything and although Raqib Shaw has at times been labelled as a “decorative artist”, this is to be honest an injustice to him and his work. Standing in front of any of these works you could lose yourself easily in the never ending symbolism and the stories that they tell. These painting are like windows (or often mirrors) that lead the onlooker into ever opening layers of mystery and possible meaning. As the complexity of these paintings has increased enormously over the years and the demand for his work has also increased, Raqib now has a small team of people helping him with the works at his studio/home is a converted sausage factory in London. Even then though each work is still taking many months to produce (as opposed to years before).
Look closely enough at any of those paintings though and you will see the man behind the paint leaving many clues to himself. Yes, there is the obvious figure of Raqib Shaw himself painted into the works – sometimes central, sometimes hiding, but there are other clues here too – his beloved dogs from whom he does not like to be parted, his love of fabric, colour, finery and much more. At times, it is almost as if the artist is using his work to enter into another world of his own imagination, using it almost as a doorway from one reality to another, and through clues large and small, we the viewers are given glimpses of some of the many different multi-jewelled facets that make up Raquib Shaw as a man. Raqib was at this press view (if running a little late), and there was not the opportunity to talk with him directly, but some of what I perceived about him from his works appeared to be present in the man that I briefly saw here –his never ending questions about mortality and an afterlife, interests in music, harmonics, opera, alchemy, anatomy and the metaphysical being some of the larger clues, but there are many more subtle ones hiding in these paintings. As an artist, Raquib Shaw seems to be exposing a lot of his inner soul in his work, and that is a rare and brave thing for any artist to do.
Raqib’s birthplace, Kashmir, is one of the great tragedies of the late 20th century. From every account that I have read (I have never been lucky enough to visit this place in its prime), it was one of the world’s great places of culture and natural beauty that, because of its disputed territory by opposing factions, has lost all of that wonder to become one of the most built up military areas in the world. If anything sums up Kashmir to Raqib, I think it is probably Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and I get the feeling that in his home/studio and works Raquib Shaw is trying to preserve in some way a little bubble world of that personal “Paradise Lost”.
I could return to these paintings over and over and always find something new to look at, something that I have overlooked before, or not understood the meaning of. A little part of me does wonder just how personal the imagery is to the artist though. Is Raqib Shaw perhaps catching glimpses of other dream state realities that most of us normally cannot perceive on this plane of existence that we inhabit? Are these fleeting glimpses of other realities beauty and terror captured in his works?
If you can, try to make a visit to this exhibition in your diary plan as nothing that I have seen online or in print of these works do any justice to them in reality. These are works that need to be seen in person, and their brilliance of colour (at times like light streaming in through church stained glass windows) experienced to their full effect.
Review by Tom King