At her latest show in Lahore, Maryam Arslan skilfully translates the colour and texture of her favourite items into pictures
There were four kinds of food at the opening of Maryam Arslan’s solo exhibition on March 5, 2020 at Taseer Art Gallery in Lahore. Gulab jamons, chicken patties and crisps were laid on low tables before you entered the gallery space, and French fries, burgers, pans with veggies, pastries, cookies, brownies, a sundae bowl, a cup filled with tea were all placed on pedestals in the exhibition, images of other edibles such as samosas, fruit cakes, a dish with cookie dough, fried eggs, pizza, waffle with slices of tomato, ice cream bar, bananas, pomegranates, and an apple, painted on two-dimensional surfaces were displayed on walls. Lastly, there was residue of dripping cream on a small canvas that imitated an expressive abstract painting.
That last small canvas (called Ice Cream Cone) could be the key to the entire exhibition full of visuals of things we eat or drink but were forced to merely observe. From cooked meals, raw fruits, breakfast items, delicious desserts, hot beverages, to tasty delights, the exhibition included all that one might desire.
The only problem was you could buy them, but you couldn’t consume, because even though some of them looked deceptively real, these were artworks made with acrylic, oil and enamel paints on canvas, ceramic, glass, plywood, plate and steel.
With the flavour of a fresh sweetmeat still in mouth, a viewer wandered in wondering about the difference between actual food and replica, or why it was manufactured as art. Unless the artist was trying to prove her skill in reproducing reality, besides revealing her fondness for food. In Arslan’s words, her exhibition, Smorgasbord (which means ‘a range of open sandwiches and delicacies served as hors d’oeuvres or a buffet’) “is vegan, vegetarian, non-vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, yes, whatever you want it to be. An all-inclusive buffet”.
The food items are a means to explore and extend the possibilities of painting, which she has done convincingly.
While the artist insists on describing her art as food and the collection as a buffet, a viewer is confused about Arslan’s intentions. Her interpretation could lead the visitors to a kitchen, dining table or an eatery, but that in fact did not happen. Instead of savouring the remarkably fabricated French fries, the viewers kept the distance that a work of art demands. Even though Arslan tried to bluff the spectators by making them believe in the ‘truth’ of her edible objects, she did not achieve what Andy Warhol had managed by his Brillo Box (1964), a work that diminished, rather destroyed, the difference between art and life. Because both the commercial product and the art piece were produced the same way. The process of producing a consumer good and creating a work of art were mechanical, hence identical.
Maryam Arslan’s works remind one, in a way, of Claes Oldenburg, another star of the Pop Art Movement, who created large-scale familiar objects: A bag of fries, cherry on the tip of a spoon, ice cream cone, cake, cheeseburgers, profiterole, along with some industrial and utilitarian products. Despite the apparent resemblance, Arslan’s work is different due to her position. She seems interested in food alone, plus “PS: I love painting”.
Somehow, the food items are a means to explore and extend the possibilities of painting, which she has done convincingly. Her application of paint is meant not just to render the form, it also follows the contours of the objects. The brush strokes thus move in accordance with the shape of a baked item or a fresh fruit. Further, now and then the fluidity of paint mimics substitutes for the swirl of cream, ketchup, and dressings (in any case, both paint and some of this stuff come out of a tube). Arslan skilfully translates the colour and texture of her favourite items into pictures. I remember seeing one of her past works at the Canvas Gallery’s office upstairs, a steel plate with chapati and a few samosas, looking so real and tempting that you had to repeatedly remind yourself that it was an art piece, and not something served with coffee.
At the Taseer exhibition, the artist has taken another direction in forging food. Here the choice of items is as important as her command over converting them into artworks. Perhaps more so. A majority of works indicate a certain income group. Although ice lolly and a pot with pieces of vegetable, fried eggs, and apples, bananas, and pomegranate can be associated with a wide range of population but the rest of her selection suggests a certain class.
One cannot criticise the artist for her choices in this regard. What she has portrayed and presented is close to her heart and home. It is somehow assumed that creative people will concentrate on grave and serious matters, which represent and address the society at large, and not something elitist and exclusive. They are not expected to focus on things pleasant and positive; or as basic as culinary items: colourful, tasty and quickly consumable.
Maryam Arslan, however, enjoys her freedom as an image maker. Her work affirms the wide availability of subjects for an artist. It does not matter what visual or idea an artist picks, but in what way he/she transform it.
In that context, one wonders what Maryam Arslan is after? Personal satisfaction, fascination or indulgence? But if we move away from the painter’s statement about “feeling of relaxation, pleasure and enjoyment in an individual”, her art conveys a bigger truth. Like Warhol, Arslan has made images which are consumed, thus connecting art to the market. Like a food shop or a café’s display window, the walls of her exhibition show items which could be purchased, possessed and prided on. Probably in an unconscious way, Maryam Arslan is commenting on the structure of art, because the class that enjoys Rainbow Pancakes, Breakfast Waffles, Dessert Platter and Lemon Tart is also the one that praises and collects art.