Review by Sabrina Osborne
October 15, 2011


Rashid Rana
March 28-April 28, 2011
Lisson Gallery London

The concept of bringing something entirely new in existence by preying on what already exists has taken Rashid Rana places. Considered as one of the most significant contemporary artist from South Asia, Rashid Rana’s works were on display at Lisson Gallery in London. The exhibition showcased his works in 2/3D,examining the relationship between the whole and the fragmentary.  

This article is based on his “In Conversation “ with Jemima Montagu and Lisson Gallery’s Curatorial Director Greg Hilty.  Hilty remarked that, “Rashid Rana’s work demonstrates a powerful interplay between formal structure and highly charged content, creating a genuine hybrid of Asian and Western artistic traditions.”

Rashid was born in Lahore in 1968 and graduated from the city’s National College of Arts before receiving a Master of Fine Arts from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. It is known that Rashid trained as a painter in Lahore under modernists such as Zahoor ul Akhlaq. Later he explored the American abstraction of the 1990s. One can still find him making enquiries about 2D and 3D in his works. So Jemima Montagu’s first question was whether or not he considers himself as a painter?

Rashid said that like any other art student he also learned chiaroscuro and other stylistic conventions of the region like Mughal miniature and the basic elements of Islamic architecture, which formed the basis of the painting in Pakistan at the time. He was soon to familiarize himself with the latest international trends and post war painting. It was easy for him to recognize the very fact that the obsession with flatness in post war painting was the result of influences of art from various other civilizations. He was to fathom that the art in fluid worlds does not find its solution in East/West fusions only. In the 1980s his conceptual approach led him to paint his images from the world of the popular culture around him, a step he passed as soon as he realized the very fact that it is more meaningful to use a medium with somewhat active content with it, rather than using paint as passive a tool. Still one cannot deny that his composite images are like marks/gestures thus very close to painting.

During the 1980’s and 90s,  as an artist he was not afraid of indulging in appropriations of ideas of transliteration of images. The oscillation between the two extremes could only be unified with an image, which brought in oneness thus abstraction and poetic expression that could not be reduced to a literal tradition or reference. The text in his works existed in city of Lahore’s billboards and walls for years. Taking that text out of context and by building layers of it he investigates the embedded history of knowledge and unifies it as a poetic image at large.
Two forms of abstraction exist in his work, the grid and the more painterly abstraction with its horizontals and verticals. Rashid refers to Zahoor Akhlaq who used grid format in his paintings negotiating the fascination related to 2D, which is also evident in Rashid’s early grid works.  He later transformed it into pixel, taking the liberty of working as impressionist on the one hand and creating a geometric abstract image on the other. Dealing with abstraction more as a subject provided him with the freedom to play with both. “I have always been interested in the ‘idea of two-dimensionality’; it has manifested [itself] in the form of a grid which has inadvertently, and more often advertently, always been present in my work, from my deceptively abstract grid paintings of the early 1990s to recent pixel-based photo works of recent years,” said Rana,“To puzzle the audience is not the main objective; it’s more to do with taking fragments to create something very familiar. But when one looks at both the bigger and smaller picture together, it is then that preconceived notions about certain phenomena are challenged. Then they (the audience) make new connections and a meaning through very familiar imagery. The aim is to make the viewer challenge stereotypes,” comments the artist. There is tension between what the eye sees and misses (the view of the whole and its accumulated parts) as well as tension between artifice and reality (ornate carpets versus animal butchery). Fascinated by how meaning is often misunderstood in our media-oriented society, Rana's photographic practice cleverly creates images that offer an alternative view of how popular ideas and prejudices are created. The work meticulously creates a realm based on intimidation and intimate at the same time.
It is something of interest to observe that in the latest work titled Flesh & blood the grid has contents more abstract in nature as compared to the earlier work Carpet where more explicit pictorial elements were used making it more legible.
Rashid shared that looking at his works in retrospect made him realize that he was now more inclined towards creating subtle references in his works rather than having strong direct readable imagery to help works survive independently even when the validity of those references fades away with time.  

His famous Veil series reveals more about the process of oscillation in his work. These images of veiled women are built using multiple small images of naked female bodies accelerating tension between representation and abstraction as the big image gives way to representational legible smaller images unlike his recent works where even microscopic study of pixels does not help yield or identify, making one wonder if there is a recession from representation? For Rashid it is a more subtle approach to keep extreme geometric hard edge abstraction to highlighting the contradictions that exist in the modern world; the eternal conflict between perception and reality.

His works at the exhibition ‘Perpetual Paradoxes’ at Musée Guimet, France’s national museum of Asian art Paris in 2010, tried to reconstitute abstraction & spirituality through references of the human body taking direct references from Rothko’s works which is his obvious critique on the premise of abstraction of that period. Rashid agreed that for now he is moving away from a direct reference critique. Works like Desperately Seeking Paradise or Twin which depict the city skyline, bluntly critique on the World’s perception of Pakistan. Post 9/11, being an artist from Pakistan such works speak in a more didactic way when one dissects the image on macro and micro levels.

We have seen in curated shows like I love miniature, that Rashid tried to make use of conceptual devices to hold together various interests and translate them using simple language to provide access to a relatively wider audience though at times it can not escape the danger of making one-liners. In his mind he aimed his works to work on the varied strata’s of society. Aesthetics of advertisement and imagery come with this didactic approach. He used that as framework and then made it unfold in different stages to a deeper content. Rashid categories audiences into two: the first one - fellow artists, literary people and people associated with advertisement industry. This group being elite, carry a prior accumulation of knowledge, which enables them to quickly tag the work with associated jargon art terms, reducing the chances of the work being closesly scrutinised. The second category – the urban audience would spend time with the smaller images sprouting thousands of narratives. They go beyond the simplicity the work offers at first glance. When it comes to an International audience, it can get stuck with Western media and male thinking for example with Veil series. In Pakistan, so many women artists have used the veil in their works as a metaphor, turning it into a cliché, which proves that clichés are not just propagated through the Western media but by the artist in the country itself. In the works of Khalid Iqbaal, Punjab landscapes translates Punjabi nationalism. It was a conscious decision for Rashid to make his work to look simple and didactic in first appearance. He does not deny that Desperately seeking paradise has its political references but combining it with other formal interest and linking it with architecture, geometric abstraction, helps it remain interesting beyond the concept in many ways. Juxtaposing abstraction with representation has been a recurring theme in his works. Grid and pixilation come together in one piece. Appropriating cliché, not only as image but also as a concept is the key thread in the works.

Rashid talked about is early influences of post modern artist like Peter Helly, Lucian Freud, post war American painters like Jasper Jones and Rauschenberg, abstract artist like Agnes Marten including Zahoor who revived traditions of that region through his work with a different take. Rashid said that in the 1990s Lahore was banking on new miniature and was on the verge of decline as a cultural city when Karachi without the burden of history vivaciously used local vernacular that gave birth to trends like Karachi Pop. People like Quddus Mirza introduced conceptual art’s local version to Pakistani audience. At this stage art in Pakistan crossed new miniature and pop and soon a wave of new sensibility emerged which lasted a decade. School of Visual Arts, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore founded by Rashid Rana now leads the way on how contemporary artists are thinking and producing the works.

Rashid was now moving towards his desire to use abstraction as subject. The latest cubiod works are a deliberate attempt to play with the aesthetics of cube, to unpack it, open it with the help of familiar imagery. This is his newfound interest. Rashid looks at photography as a subject and his initial attempt is to push it into a third dimension by taking it out of context from 2D and then to take it on to some other architectural scale, creating photo sculpture. It braces iconic images as ontological clichés by presenting them as things, as images. The simple technique of image pixilation takes it to the level of abstraction, which also makes it look like sleek fashionable art. These are 3D sculptures, which are more about 2D. The works again focus on the eternal conflict between perception and reality.

A new monograph on the artist has recently been published by Chatterjee & Lal and Gallery Chemould Prescott Road and is was available for purchase during the course of the exhibition (March 30th to April 30th ,2011)

Rashid Rana (b1968) lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan. Solo exhibitions include Musee Guimet, Paris (2010); Art Public – Cabinet P.H., Geneva (2007); Chemould Prescott Road + Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai (2007); Nature Morte, New Delhi (2007); Philips Contemporary, Mumbai (2007). Group exhibitions include Saatchi Gallery, London (2010); Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland, Australia (2010); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2010); Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena (2010); Devi Foundation, New Delhi (2010);National Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan (2009); Asia Society, New York (2009).

(Image courtesy The artist and Lisson Gallery)

Books, 2010