Total recall

October 22, 2023

Artist Afshar Malik’s work resists verisimilitude, striving instead for honesty and directness

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fshar Malik’s buoyant suite of drawings, prints and paintings from his indefatigable career as an artist proves Noël Coward’s observation that work is more fun than fun. Malik is willing, in fact, to go beyond that: “From the start, images were more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting.” Malik did not, however, set out to make a body of work stitching together the mundane, the profane and the sacred.

The corpus of images in a recently-held show is fluidly painted in casual brushstrokes, confident lines full of movement and bright swaths of colour, so that they appear fleeting or near-dissolved vignettes: painted impressions that don’t wish to settle – feelings, auras, memories – rather than direct representations. Sometimes, forms are flattened, limbs are angular, facial features are simplified, backgrounds are abstracted into patterns and shapes. Even the work painted directly from observation resists verisimilitude, striving instead for a kind of honesty or directness about presence rather than appearance.

In art, as in dreams, the everyday often finds itself transposed into the realms of the symbolic and the archetypal. ‘Personal’ is a term Malik should use, to signify the simplicity that appears throughout his drawings. Fish, birds, weeds, chairs, houses and people populate the 33 items in the show titled, White of the Black and other Stories at O Art Space in Lahore. In the ’70s and the ’80s, when the young artist made his debut, his lively compositions resembled catalogue and vinyl records’ sleeves, for a fantastical visual language that he assembled from commonplace things: hands, legs and bodies erupting in excited lines, all neatly lined up like hieroglyphs. Malik seemed to delight in the spark of strange companions in his mischievous rearrangement of reality’s usual syntax.

The sense of a major talent is immediate in the early works, showing a formidable gathering of confidence. Thus, Wishful One Desires (1983) is a forceful but dutiful portrait in the approved Euston Road style – a subdued and pasty palette, not without atmosphere, but somehow redolent of a lingering joylessness. By contrast, Vermilion Day (1983) appears alive with vigour. All is sinewy and urgent, touched with traces of pop art, verging on opulent; the colour shouts, as though to announce the dawning of a new chapter in the artist’s career.

A Night Sky (1982) seems to show Malik discovering his brilliance and originality as a draughtsman, following his subject into surprising, enigmatic but richly poetic new forms, imbued with a harmonising balance of muscular blackness and deeply romantic light. Less successful is In Your Palm (2020) with its feel of an incoherent stage set. Here, a comparison with Hockney’s faux-naïf interiors might seem justified; and the inclusion of the painting is interesting in that regard. Its effect, however, is perhaps to heighten just how well Malik could paint when he hit the right combination of subject and mood.

To a contemporary audience, some of Malik’s portraits in watercolours might bring to mind the pop portraiture of Elisabeth Peyton. The sense of informality and visual chic is perhaps on a similar frequency of ease. But this seems secondary to his accomplishments as a printmaker, in which – at his best – he combined rare lucidity with a poet’s depth of feeling. Malik’s irradiating eye is legible not only in his portraits of colleagues and batch mates but also his beloved mother.

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Malik seemed delighted in the spark of strange companions in his mischievous rearrangement of reality’s usual syntax. Afshar Malik is an artist who draws and paints with a great deal of intuition, creating a sensual impression of his subject.

Although Humayun’s face is rendered exquisitely, the unfinished work speaks to how much we don’t know about this young man. His expression registers poignantly, but his body is quite literally missing in action. Malik doesn’t try to fill in the gaps. Instead, he allows them to register as signs of the chasm between what we see and what we understand.

Landscapes are culture before they are nature, art historian Simon Schama reminds us, but the relationship can be tangled, blending sign and referent, making both new meanings and new worlds. Afshar Malik’s three landscapes reside here, between the quotidian and the fantastical, creating a lush commentary on the ways in which we see, imagine and experience an idea of nature. His visual reference is nature observed empirically, where pattern and form coalesce. Malik’s brilliant palette refuses any adherence to reality and brings to mind Fauvism’s reconfiguration of painting’s relationship to colour.

Malik’s focus over the years has shifted from consuming and engaging the outside world to expressing the one within. Thus, he has created affecting works of eloquence, refracting something of himself in recurring motifs while at the same time withholding life’s particulars. Sometimes, Malik offers up mysterious mystical visions for contemplation.

Where Malik’s paintings vibrate and mesmerise, his drawings seethe; they are no less composed but are far looser. Here are ideas, feelings, spirits and experiences that could not speak through language but could instead propel line, create shape and permeate this black and white world with subterranean flotsam.

Curated by Ali Raza, this persuasively selected retrospective of sorts reveals Afshar Malik as a versatile artist of deeply felt emotions. It divides a survey of works done between 1980 and 2020, by medium and genre into drawings, prints and paintings. And while Malik will perhaps be better known for the elegance and glamour of his poised and charming portraits (depicting friends, colleagues, family and himself), it is his etchings which seem to make the strongest claim for his achievements as an artist.

The use of sign language in Etching (1992) alerts us to the artist’s focus on the visual as a sign system. It appears that Malik has an increasing interest in image making, not as a means of representation but as a ground where representatives can play in a more pluralistic visual language that deals in suggestiveness, distortion and ambiguity rather than depiction and statement. Meanings reverberate across his networks of ‘suggestiveness’ through an intricate play of mark and texture as much as sign, image and motif. In many respects, the show is a study in technique, an immersion in the communicative potential of his medium.

The simplicity of the titles belies the complexity of the compositions. The textured surfaces hark back to a history of painters jostling to flaunt skill through their painstaking execution while the monochromatic ‘design’ references Op Art, a movement fixated with the fallibility of vision. As a feature on Op Art in Time magazine asserted in 1964, “eyes are not windows... they can be baffled, boggled and balked. They can see things that are not there and fail to see things that are.” Accordingly, Afshar Malik is an artist who draws and paints with a great deal of intuition, creating a sensual impression of his subject.

As he would explain himself, “it’s about the essence of an object, the physicality of it, or maybe the temperature of it, or the space around it.” The result is most affecting in his portraits, which tend to be painted on a hand-held scale.

Across all of the work on show there is a relishing of materiality – exposed edges set against a parade of processes, from thick, slow-drying blocks of opaque colour to quick splashes of paint – which implicates the artist’s physicality in his work and suggests the importance of privileging somatic intelligence over sight. Looking at his work, I thought about Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, in which he painted her face some 90 times, before painting the whole head out and, as Stein recalled in 1932, declaring irritably that, “I can’t see you anymore.” Stein’s advice was simple: “paint what is really there. Not what you can see, but what is really there.”

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

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