Natural and urbane beauty
‘Abstract Serenity’ is not serene all throughout, though it is primed with a passive, innocuous form of transmission born of the urban thirst for 'abstract wildernesses'. Considering its main scenographic model, the image(s), or the surfaces, though processed to a certain maturity, seems to want to compensate for the 'loss of the real' with its link to Dhaka's erstwhile semi-occupied open spaces – the disappeared/ing landscape in the face of merciless urbanization taking place over the last thirty or so years.
Most of Syed Hassan Mahmud's works, therefore, operate as reflections on, or effect of lost nature. What the viewers are witness to, thus, can apparently be considered a repository of symbols arising out of the artist's attempts at generalization of the particular brought into existence via memory applying mainstream painterly techne.
Hasan Mahmud's solo exhibition is a long awaited event; he had his last eighteen years back. Still, the language he has been successfully exploring in all these years has not been staged in all its nuances – a number of series have been set aside to strike a note of consistency in the current display. One can look at this exhibition as a collection of emotionally and technically arrived at surrogates displayed in order to evoke a 'sense of loss' as well as an attempt to reveal one's capacity to submerge the viewer in a tautology of abstract expression.
Configured in 'surface' (not in scale, as in minimalism and abstract expressionism) while relying on the resonance that it may produce in the viewers, Hasan's work echoes both lived experience and the early pan-aesthetic idiom that travelled the world following the much touted 'triumph' of American painting a la Abstract Expressionism. There are works which arise out of the mid-zone – especially those that are at once performative and introspective – as is a pair of works on paper entitled In Memory of the Martyrs of 1971, where his craft is reduced to the bare minimum. In both of these works the artist actualizes self-referentiality with lines and brush strokes sparsely distributed in white backgrounds.
There are works where Hassan scrupulously departicularizes the particular, while he traces the particular in others, especially to recreate the urbanite's collusion with nature, one that is preserved in his own household in potted plants and overgrown lawns. This collusion with the particulars extend across his index with gestural idiom functioning as a celebration of the act of art making. In this sense Hasan is a formalist given to the tendency to venture beyond the purist lingo only when nature calls for such action. There are works that reside beyond the bounds of introspection to home in on the actual natural context, as in Obogahan or bathing, or to institute consummate reduction of the visible, as in Abandoned Nest 2.
The moot question is – how did he get rubbed into this? The unexpected obsolescence of the abstract idiom in the face of the demise of its most successful exponents such as Kazi Abdul Baset, Muhammad Kibria, et al., forces one to see Hasan's attempts as an anachronistic bid to continue what now has become a 'tradition', though modernist in disposition. Both Baset and Kibria had established their idioms and earned considerable fame in their lifetime. In the latter's case the purist/isolationist stance and the snooty/lofty axiom that transmuted the urban microsurfaces (zooming in on weathered walls, etc.) into celebration of texture and natural hues, buffered by his long-term commitment to abstraction, earned him a place in the 'ivory tower'. Keeping this in focus, Hasan tasks himself with the responsibility of working out a solution to the problem of nonrepresentative painting once again through a personalized register to echo the urban climate as well as unruffled nature. Though there is this loosening of the established grid visible only in some of the works, he too is inclined to tendencies that are recognizably urbane and suave.
'The absolute and the inviolate' (with regards to form/language), the mark of the minimalistic approach to art making, seemed to have gone through a revision as the artist's allegiance to the medium springs from the abstract expressionist's enthusiasm for 'spills' and 'splashes'. However, Hasan uses them with restraint, and as a consequence, institutes a calming effect on the works. Drip painting of Pollack is intentionally made sedate in his hand.
With the exceptional pieces, which have already been hinted at, this exhibition cuts a fissure across the dominant framework of the abstract language entrenched in most of his canvases.
The sets of works, entitled Illuminating Love and Blood in the Forest, non-formulaic as the others, contrast the polite, sanitized expression of the rest of the oeuvre (embodied by the visual synthesis the artist enables by resorting to nature and Western abstract languages) with the sense of the neural. Devised to zero in on life's intimate experiences, the second series – two works in all – which the artist articulates via a new-found expressionistic zeal, and even arrives at through a slightly orgiastic maneuvering, are works that use splashes and haphazard brush strokes leaving behind an accoutrement of signs and symptoms brought forth with passion.
About his intimation of the bodily experience in these two works, Hasan says that they 'violate the nature of the show.' Though by inserting into the exhibition an additional visceral element, Hasan deviates from his main mooring, he does not let the image sink into what we know as 'bathos'. Alluding to the process of mating and birthing, which involves blood-letting, he breaches his contract with his monochromatic, monolithic imagery. Therefore, in two of these medium-sized works, exceptional as they are in appearance, a vertically rendered red smudge in mid-space testifying to the rupture of the hymen helps in reorienting our visual-cognitive focus.
In the final analysis, Syed Hasan's (re)construction of the abstract idiom does not entirely rest on his main theme of painting as a meditation on the concept of beauty and serenity which seeks to attain a sense of 'beyondness' transcending the urban chaos/reality and even psychosis and semiosphere that are attendant on it. Consequently, most of the time, his exertions are likely to result in relatively untrammeled imagery. In opposition to such a mature language there lies, in his cache, new ammunition. The works that drift towards the empathetically felt nature, though cerebral in their constitution, may also serve as a way to reconfigure his current abstract language.
Over the last 40 years or so, Hasan has been cultivating a sensorial set of cognates through a strategy that has travelled in a number of complementary directions. If the main oeuvre is about restraint and reserve, the exceptional ones are a provocation.
If one is to see this show in light of his changing trajectory, one must revisit an art camp at the Bengal Centre in 2010, which occasioned a new technique. Hasan instinctively turned to action painting, launching, for the first time in his life, a process of image making by way of throwing colours onto the canvas. If this was a new start for this fifty-plus artist, it is through the unpredictable evoking of the 'primordial event', the original sin which forever binds Adam and Eve in what we have come to know as 'love' while also rolling out a sequence of events – the first being their expulsion from the heavenly sphere into the vortex of the earthly delights. Perhaps by putting corporeality at the very center of his discourse, and by being 'orgasmic' in his expression, Hasan will have the opportunity to forge a language that goes against the very grain of the polite society which is eternally celebrating the temperate.
The exhibition entitled ‘Abstract Serenity ‘ran between October 24 and November 15, 2014, at Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts.
PHOTOS COURTESY: ARTCON