Man and metropolis

January 21, 2024

Kaleem Khan’s colours are crisp, clean and bright

Man and metropolis


he great facility with paint – rather the gift to manipulate this substance on a flat surface - is an immense advantage for Kaleem Khan. It is also a grave concern; not only for Khan, an artist of 40 years’ professional experience since his graduation from the National College of Arts, but also a large number of painters who possess a decent amount of skill. The prime question is: what to do with their ability to record the physical world –whether inscribed in linear drawing, or by employing painterly forms.

In other words, how does one elevate their pictures to the level of art? This issue haunts the makers of landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, human figures, interiors etc. Perhaps this dilemma was first faced with the invention of the camera, a mechanical device which “was more accurate, quicker and far cheaper,” than most painters. John Berger explains in his essay, ‘The changing view of man in the portrait’, “painters and their patrons invented a number of mysterious, metaphysical qualities with which to prove that what the painted portrait offered was incomparable. Only a man, not a machine (the camera), could interpret the soul of a sitter.”

There are several ways to find an intelligent, suitable and soulful subject. Many artists in our surroundings have relied on depicting people by emphasising their emotions, odd professions, miserable conditions, their exotic attires, their towns with crumbling structures, villages in receding daylight, barren land, withered flowers, broken or discoloured domestic objects, traditional drapery and old furniture.

Only a few painters have managed to transcend their earthy reality into an idea, so that what is communicated is more than what we see. The landscapes by Khalid Iqbal comprise trees, water channels, mud houses, dusty horizon, division of fields and occasional cattle but when you are in front of these paintings you also get the sensation of time, temperature and the atmosphere – besides the man’s loneliness in the vast and eternal nature. Likewise, Ijaz-ul Hassan in his canvases of trees, plants, hedges, fences suggests a political narrative of resistance. Some artists, on the other hand, deliberately focus on formal matters (following the precedent of Paul Cezanne).

It appears that Kaleem Khan regards Cezanne as his mentor. Like the French post-impressionist, Khan’s paintings are a web of interwoven patches of colours. Varying pigments with their subtle differences add a richness to his canvases, whether a landscape, cityscape or a figurative composition for which he has had a remarkable flair from his student days. I recall being a first year novice, and each morning peeping through the windows of his NCA studio to find how he was painting an aged man. It was pure delight to witness his masterly brush strokes, which did depict the model but also had a life of their own. Today, I don’t remember who the person was, but in my eyes those segments of paint are as vivid, and fresh as they were forty years ago.

A similar sensation is invoked in his latest solo exhibition at Art Next Gallery, Lahore, (January 5-18), where the painter from Quetta has displayed 34 oils-on-canvas comprising portraits, landscapes and cityscapes around his home town.

The five portraits included in the show are executed with deft handling of the medium, thus faces of a Baloch, a Hazara, a bearded man wearing several rings, look alive; only because when a viewer recognises shifting, urgent and speedy residue of brush on the surface he/ she identifies with a subject that is constantly breathing, moving, talking (in comparison to a static fruit, a stable plate, a solid rock a rooted tree).

Man and metropolis

It appears that Kaleem Khan regards Cezanne as his mentor. Like the French post-impressionist, Khan’s paintings are a web of interwoven patches of colours.

In these portraits, the making takes over, yet we cannot not-see their features, hence their relevance. We come across several of his landscapes with the predominant image of mountains behind nomadic tents, goats, humble settlements, bushes, basic hamlets and the minarets of a lone mosque; all rendered with exceptional skill, command, ease and passion. In his work, the passion for making a mark mingles with the element of precision. Thus, we comfortably decipher these views. But once that level is crossed, and the stage of being fascinated with the distribution and application of paint is passed, we are confronted with the presence of tents with their inhabitants, goats trampling on the crevices of a mountainous areaor in the expanse of snow, donkeys with their emptied load. Thus, we ponder over the reason for the painter’s preference in choosing these visuals – to immortalise them (art is the best and the most convenient means to make anything live beyond centuries, i.e. Cezanne’s apples which decayed in his studio, but are still fresh, juicy and sumptuous after more than a hundred years. EH Gombrich notes that in Pharaonic eras: “one Egyptian word for sculptor was actually ‘He-who-keeps-alive.’”

On a cursory glance, the choice appears arbitrary, as the random sitters, occasional glimpses and chance encounters provide a multiplicity of the scenes, characters and activities. But pushed further, one speculates whether the basis for this ordinary subject matter is purely a formal pursuit. Is Kaleem Khan trying to preserve the cultural identity of a period and region? An apt example of the former approach is Paul Cezanne’s still-lifes. The latter attitude is observed in the art of Claude Monet. What is drawn on Cezanne’s canvases is timeless; whereas what is handled by Monet, even though it captures the light, represents a tint of socio-political and economic changes.

In that respect, the visuals for Khan are merely devices to delve on painterly delights. Still the presence of tents in the centre of compositions, the goats and donkeys, a roadside tea stand and food stalls, turbaned faces, suggest peculiar cultural/ regional signifiers. When it comes to painting landscapes with no obvious, or minimum object/ objective, for Kaleem Khan – borrowing a phrase coined by Geoff Dyer, “landscape is a verb.” He masterly plays with his medium, to the extent that the significance of location ceases to be and the painterly process takes over. The absolute delight the painter gets while creating these sensitive surfaces is relayed to the viewer.

In that context, describing Kaleem Khan as an abstract painter won’t be unrealistic, even though in his recent exhibition, sections of the city (a crowded road with cars and urban structures, part of an old building next to shops and pedestrians) are magnificent testimonies to his power to transform a daub of paint into an identifiable object, and simultaneously bringing it back to the realm of senses. One looks at some small landscapes and admires the way the artist, in his process of delineating a bleached mountain, actually takes refuge into the immense world of his little palette. One imagines him looking at his surroundings, selecting and squeezing paint tubes, mixing tones and putting layers on top of other layers, till he gets the right hue.

For him, the outside world is a stimulus to inspire his inner vision, rather than a mechanism of mimeses, suggested in Self, with painter’s silhouette – behind or against an open window that serves as a mirror, to reflect both the external and internal realities. Likewise, in another landscape of fading details, map like lines, a few scrawls, a bit of stains and sparse marks suffice a satiating view of reality. Yet you can never step into it, since entering it would amount to immersing into your veins and arteries.

Like his teacher and mentor Khalid Iqbal, Kaleem Khan’s colours are crisp, clean and bright; not muddy as spotted in painting after painting by various artists around us. This important feature of his aesthetics depends upon a minor detail (which he graciously shared with me as my senior at the NCA), about cleaning his brushes after each day’s work with detergent. Viewing his sparkling work, one realises that art is also in the detail.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Man and metropolis