Nature’s apprentice

March 26, 2023

Artist Anjum Alix Noon’s paintings whisk the viewer away to a fantasy world blending dream and reality

Nature’s apprentice


he work of Anjum Alix Noon is both confronting and compassionate, presenting a striking blend of personal mythology, craftsmanship and intuition. The cultural and even emotional atmosphere suggested by her work is instantly recognisable as one of nostalgia. Her bigger paintings whisk the viewer away into a fantasy world of dominating and disproportionate landscapes, blending dream and reality. These unexpected tableaux powerfully capture the brutal fallout of geo-politics, echoing a disorder in society that verges on panic.

In the surreal, dreamlike paintings, one finds meaning amidst the flora and fauna, a toy bear rests quietly in the grass and tropical birds perch beside bright flowers, tranquil in their oblivion to the human destruction around them. The colours, a rich mix of bright and warm tones, cast a blithe veil over the anxious tension that man has brought to his environment. The result is part contemporary rumination, part bleak projection of a future delegated to a race of unworthy, infantile creatures.

Noon uses her canvases as experimental zones, suffusing perennial observations with moments of inspiration. The result is a provocative, occasionally unsettling amalgam of myriad artistic influences. Wisps of calligraphy ornament subjects depicted as Persian miniatures or re-interpreted cave art, in a rough and turbulent style that employs vibrant swathes of colour, reminiscent of German neo-expressionism.

Although she traverses a shared set of fantasies, as in her paradisiacal landscapes, Noon’s final emphasis rests on sentiments of loneliness and psychological isolation. Jackson Pollock once said, “Every good painter paints what he is.” Noon is proud of her cultural identity and naturally paints what she sees and feels. Her creations offer a fascinating play on the contradictions and absurdities of our own world, leaving the interpretation to us.

Within this chaos, each element is set carefully into a master plan of spatial composition. In her new exhibition, aptly titled ‘Life Goes On As Usual’ at Gallery 8B2, her audacious canvases along with works on paper, tell tales of isolation and longing. They are evocative of the artist’s personal experiences and cultural background. Her relationship to both Western and Eastern cultures informs a fascinating duality. Born and raised in Lahore, the artist spent many years studying in Montpellier and Clermont before returning home and setting up her studio in Islamabad.

It was in France that she completed a degree from L’Ecole Superieure d’Art Plastique. It is perhaps due in part to this personal history that Noon’s work comprises a sense of ambiguity. Her pieces often juxtapose danger and beauty, pushing and pulling the viewer’s interpretation in different directions. She is exploring the contradictory aspects of reality, demonstrating that something can at once be seductively beautiful and imminently dangerous.

Noon admits that using a visual medium to record something as intangible as faith, as subjective as spirituality, may seem like a paradox. However, it is a challenge that has allowed her to blur the boundaries of genre. There is no manipulation of the images. By focusing primarily on the sites themselves – their delicate structures, ephemeral materials, and organic connection to the landscape - she is able to elicit elements of magical realism.

Working with oil on canvas, Noon paints in a realistic style and uses subjects like animals, humans and hybrids against her favoured vivid background colours of purple, yellow, pink and blue. She paints both flat-tone single colour and dual colours. At first glance, the works seem comical and bewildering, but upon closer observation, the initial impression gives way to the artist’s reality and her take on social issues such as popular culture and genetic engineering, as well as human behaviour in our current times.

“I understand colour for its syntax of transparency; I combine its foundation with the application of pure colour and moody atmospherics. The landscape has become for me the dynamic form of a layered experience of perception and memory, in which the elements that constitute landscape appear to merge into its surroundings, and the human presence is felt mostly by its absence.” Emotional intensity and an abject quality of brooding accompany the studio in which the artist sits in contemplation, where the conversation is a mélange of memoirs that unravel like the associations that have been pressed between the pages of her mind. For example, the Hand and Tree Series celebrates a spiritual communion and while pattern remains a seductive and prominent feature, its role is auxiliary to the potent and undulating rhythm of the piece’s dream journey.

The word ‘character’ originally meant, and fundamentally means, a sign. Noon’s painted characters signify as written characters do. They first exist as calligraphy, showing the impress of her own imagination and personality in the rhythm of their movement on the picture plane, and then as hieroglyphs that we can read. Some of them are ideograms, which carry within their shape a reminder of shapes connected with their primary meaning; others are pictograms as well. All the signs function on more than one level. But even if we know who the characters in the paintings are, there are still mysteries to tease and tantalise, even to unnerve and disquieten us. As in the best fairy tales, Noon’s paintings do not simply delight and entertain, they also carry undercurrents of the nasty, the sinister and the frightening.

The tension between these functions creates Anjum Alix Noon’s irony, just as the tension between what is on the canvas and what is in the picture is the great excitement of painting. A painting is clearly flat, and we must never forget the fact, but at the same time we must be lured into it and consent for the time we stand before it to become part of its world. Often Noon’s figures, themselves chimeras, stand backlit before a luminous void.

Though we feel that within the picture we recognise shapes and motifs, at the same time we are obliged to register their strangeness. Soft is expressed in terms of hard, or solid in terms of transparent. Heavy things float and light things seem glued to the ground. Figures loom over us, topple towards us, the floor upon which they stand seems giddily raked up like a stage or falls away from us. The representational language has been subverted; the picture frame itself is undermined.

It is not possible to paint and reject painting. What the greatest women painters have done when they dared to commandeer a flat-framed space for themselves is to suggest their otherness by acts of creative subversion. If we look at the work of Artemisia Gentileschi or Judith Leyster we become aware of something disturbing; at the most obvious level we can see that their female bodies are not simply shape and surface. They have weight and bones. Sometimes, they may even jostle in the picture frame and do not lie ‘like Danaë to the stars’.

It is inevitable that a painter like Anjum Alix Noon working within the context would illustrate the story of her own love affair with the tradition. We share that love affair and the trepidation when it comes to finding our own creative language. Very few of us will know how Noon constructs her magic spaces, where smooth and rough and dark and bright dance as tensely as a flamenco. The polyptych of archetypal images that is their interior space draws our eyes towards a space beyond, just as luminous as the painter’s paper, where there flickers a tiny icon of life and love. Can the contemplating painter have turned into a marionette mistress? Again we have a feeling of a chrysalis split open, of things becoming rather than being.

These scenes are timeless representations of the volatility of life. The dialogue between the confusion of battle and the order of these shapes offers a paradox between certainty and precariousness. Across this confrontation, interwoven through colour and shape, miniature figures march through the paintings. Fixed, pensive and quiet, these figures race eternally through time and space. They follow one another in an endless procession that outreaches the boundaries of each canvas, observing the struggle between order and uncertainty even as they reflect one another. Their journey is a celebration of continuity, the thread of contemplation that perpetuates and redeems the eternal battle of harmony and chaos.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Nature’s apprentice