And How Many Rains Must Fall Before The Stains Are Washed Clean
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Imran Qureshi’s rooftop commissioned piece at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is an outrageous sight at first glance. Titled, “And How Many Rains Must Fall Before The Stains Are Washed Clean,” the work reminds one of the aftermath of a brutal attack. Vile blood stains cover a large portion of the open eight thousand square foot terrace. But from this effectively realistic splattering of red acrylic paint that is evocative of the frequent skirmishes in his country Pakistan, and increasing episodes of violence all over the world, Qureshi creates his regenerative art.
Blotches of scarlet paint, random and askew are converted with meticulous brush strokes of white paint into flowers, foliage, and nature creeping and burgeoning all over the space. Using the painstaking precision of Mughal miniature painting from the 16th and 17th centuries that is the mainstay of the artistic legacy of Pakistani art, Qureshi transforms an unpleasant sight into something pleasurable and aesthetically appealing. In the vein of Cy Twombly’s Bacchus series that is characterized by violent compilations of thrown paint from which one sees bloody dripping flowers, Qureshi’s vast depiction of foliage is no less appealing.
Working towards an emphatic painterly style, the large scale work is particularly effective in the way it both shocks the viewer as well as commands a presence in its redeeming quality. The viewer has to withstand its brutal scale whose effect is simultaneously grand and violent much like Twombly’s paintings. For Qureshi the quantum leap from miniature painting is its alteration in scale. He deviates from historical miniature paintings’ focus on scale wherein the highly elaborate rendering of figures, flora, fauna, ornaments, and architecture are to be marveled at because of the miniature format.
At the Metropolitan Museum the work was made specifically for the space, and he deftly commingles the rough unseemliness of thrown paint with the evenness of his painterly technique that has an arresting physicality to it. Exhilarating creativity, growth and destruction mark Qureshi’s art. A sense of freedom from the randomness of flinging paint emanates from his work. Once the paint is splattered it seems too wild to be tamed or even mastered. Yet flowers emerge and radiate from these spaces as the viewer enjoys the color of the paint and the process of its creation. Thick, dense portions are made into a progression of flowers that are pretty, delicate, and soothing. Some are akin to the multiple layers of dahlias and sunflowers while other fiery red splotches never depart from the viewer’s initial shock of encountering the work. It begs the question of whether certain parts are unfinished. However, it is interesting to see how the artist lets his painting speak to the viewer. In some places he intervenes with soft recurring shapes and forms that transport the viewer’s response to rebirth and regeneration, while others remind us of brutal political realities.
Yet critics question the effectiveness of Qureshi’s art. Unlike the impact of a similar site-specific work at the Sharjah Biennale in 2011, the horror of daily violence might be lost on the viewer in New York. But it still does not detract from the contemporaneousness and relevance to what is going on around us. Having won the 2013 Deutche Bank Award for artist of the year, and a substantial presence at the current Venice Biennale, Qureshi like many other artists from South Asia has found his moment in the sun. But more specifically, Qureshi’s work is characterized by a language that is no longer derivative or second to any other tradition. While his act of throwing paint follows in the convention of Jackson Pollock’s gestural painting, he uses a western format with his own indigenous sensibility to communicate what is clearly very important to him. If authenticity, the age old benchmark of good art is applied to his work, there is no doubt that Qureshi’s art is reflective of a deep passion, talent, and certitude in his need to communicate a pressing message for hope and change. Ultimately, if his work is about anything it is about painting, and what it means to put marks on a surface—in this case on the raw concrete slabs of the terrace—and how space is framed and shown.