Meaning and minimalism

April 26, 2020

The debate on imitation and art spills over into virtual world in times of coronavirus pandemic.

In the Midst of Darkness 1, 2012-13.

In The Republic, Plato discusses reality, imitation and art: “God, then created only one real bed-in-itself in nature”. A carpenter makes the copy of that perfect bed. When a painter paints a bed, it is a copy of a copy.

In our milieu, the picture of the bed has been further removed from the original, as physical artwork is now being accessed virtually without encountering the actual art object.

In keeping with the demands of times of coronavirus, Aicon Art, New York, is having its debut virtual exhibition, In the Midst of Darkness, from April 16 to May 23, 2020.

From the Opus series 8, 2018.

This is the fourth solo show for Rasheed Araeen with the gallery.

Even if you are confined to your study in Lahore, you can click on the link, and have a virtual tour of the show, without having to apply for a US visa, booking a flight, renting a hotel room and packing appropriate clothes for NYC.

You can visit the display area as many times and at any time of the day or night.

This freedom of enjoying art — while keeping a distance, let’s say, of 11,343 kilometres (Lahore to New York City) — is a blessing in disguise, besides being a pleasure.

Red Square Breaking into Primary Colors, 2005.

Once you scroll down a painting or a sculpture of Araeen on screen, you merge the visual with the memory of what you saw in past at various venues around the world.

Virtual experience is perhaps a logical solution. Even under normal conditions, you cannot go to each gallery, museum and private collection, where the artworks are installed.

Some manage to see only a few; others get to see several more. As for the rest of the art pieces, you followthem in exhibition catalogues, monographs, magazines and online articles.

In our minds, we concoct a blend of what is viewed physically and in reproduction; often matching the actual work in the gallery with its picture seen previously in print or on screen. In some instances, one is disappointed.

We associate this phenomenon with mechanical and virtual means of information.

However, there have been examples of past artists’ works existing solely in texts or in copies.

For instance, no original painting of China’s greatest poet and painter, Wang Wei (699-761 AD), has survived. His reputation rests on replicas.

In the post-Corona world, it seems, all art would be a copy of an original idea/object.

Rasheed Araeen’s work in the present exhibition seems to have fulfilled the demands of both the ancient and the contemporary epochs. A majority of paintings and constructions must (or should) have been fabricated following the instruction/plan of the artist.

Araeen is at the height of his long due and well-deserved mainstream recognition.

Rasheed Araeen is at the height of mainstream recognition. After migrating to the UK in 1964, he produced works that addressed and denounced racial discrimination against coloured communities in Britain.

After migrating to the UK in 1964, he produced works that addressed and denounced racial discrimination against coloured communities in Britain. His work referred to the canon of high art even though he employed a language that incorporated street inscriptions, popular posters, cheap illustrations, promotional hoardings; and aesthetics of advertisement.

In the cross-like division of a canvas titled:Oh Dear, Oh Dear What a Mess You Have Made!(1987-1994), the artist used the staple imagery of abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock.

Araeen has incorporated the same structure of a cross (which immigrants have to bear in the white protestant England) in another work titled:Hallelujah (1987-1994), with a TV shot of a writer holding his yet-to-be-banned book in his hand, along with stripes of Urdu graffiti denouncing the US and demanding the execution of the author.

The composition of these works echoes the division of the Union Jack. But it also harks back to Araeen’s long-standing affair with construction.

Construction of lines, shapes and forms — which first started to emerge in his paintings of HDY Series, 1963 (inspired by the wind-catchers of Hyderabad, Sindh) — later evolved into structures of lines and shapes, witnessed in Indigo Square (2015); and Red Square Breaking into Primary Colours (2015) from the current exhibition.

After seeing so much of Rasheed Araeen’s art (Tate Britain, Serpentine Gallery, Sharjah Art Foundation, VM Gallery, Karachi, and Lahore Biennale), one wonders about the content of his fertile imagination.

In a text for Tate (2007), Araeen talks about his encounter with Anthony Caro’s work after he arrived in London in 1964 and its influence.

However, his later works appear to have a life of their own, beyond Caro and the minimalism of that period.

In a sense, Araeen was domesticating minimalism from the position of an individual with a history of geometry.

Most of Araeen’s work is not figurative, but abstract in nature except for his self-portraittitled, How Could One Paint a Self-Portrait!, 1978, and pictures from popular publications.

He does not subscribe to geometry as a cultural portfolio, yet the traces of geometry and mathematics can be spotted in his work.

Sculptures, which can be added to infimum remind the viewer of mathematical equations.

In his recent compositions, too, one finds a manipulation of basic geometric shapes (From the Opus Series, 2018).

In these canvases, elementary geometry is transcribed, but it seems that the tradition of geometry in Muslim society is not exercised or forced, even if is sometimes recognised by the artist.

Recall the brilliant, enchanting, and overpowering paintings, based upon Arabic text and titled Al-Ghazali, Al-Kindi, Ibn-Sina, alluding to great Muslim philosophers and thinkers who have contributed to the European Civilization.

In the same league, you come across paintings In the Midst of Darkness I (2012-13) and Ishq Haqiqi, Ishq Majazi (2014) with calculated distribution of patches, stripes and bands of varying colours.

Colours, various and vibrating, hold onto your gaze whether you see these surfaces in the corridors of the New York gallery or on a laptop screen in Lahore. They reveal situations the artist has been through — as a migrant, his politics as an outsider and his aesthetics as a maker of images at the end.

It seems that Araeen has put his aggressive stance to rest ever since he discovered that his minimal works could be as subversive as the more politically charged visuals.

Thus the work — from wooden constructions to painted canvases — appears to be more about formal resolutions.

This is logical because irrespective of one’s beliefs, circumstances and other pursuits, when it comes down to making a work of art, Araeen, like every other artist, has to sit at his desk and decide which colour to apply next or how large his sculpture should be - matters that embody meaning in a work of art.

The debate on imitation and art spills over into virtual world in times of coronavirus pandemic