Of surface, materiality and the rhetoric of 'quietness'
Informal is a site of remembrance – though not addressed to social-historical memory. What it recalls are some specific features of reality and art – the latter is tapped as part of an archeology to reinvent a language, namely 'gestural abstraction'. Seen by many as something of a 'spectre' from the mid-twentieth century, a time when modernism peaked and also began to bear the brunt of the emerging new art, abstraction is given another spin by Sayed Zahid Iqbal, the artist behind Informal. The agential relation of subject (artist) to object (artwork) is extended to some new tactile aspects of the object since a number of extraneous materials are summoned to attend to the (sur)face of each work. The artist digs up materials from his locale to emphasize his sense of belonging.
The notion of attaining 'objecthood' by rejecting illusion, which is a purely modernist ambition, propels one into a whole new gambit. To treat the surface as the ultimate playground sets in motion a game involving adding and taking away elements to develop a stratum which, for this young abstractionist, assumes a reality of its own. Zahid, responsible for populating the site of his first solo with mostly paintings of somber variety, offers a personalized 'skin reality', to quote Nicolas Bourriaud.
This recently held solo painting exhibition was an extensive survey of this young artist's paintings of the last decade or so. The works conceal the core performance involved in the making of his lingo – the simultaneity of inward and outward movements. The artist devises his painted or/and constructed space as a 'rhetoric of silence' which asks of its creator to astutely reorganize the materials thereby achieving its unique atmosphere besides enabling some vague references to the outside. 'Eternity' as an 'instrument of command' is thus set aside to make elastic the self-referential object/artwork which continues to foster the tie with reality by way of gathering into its surface an assortment of debris and found materials. However, the elements used are made to lose their personalities, for they are the elements of a process in progression – base/raw materials for the object to take a final shape.
Iqbal's praxis sends one across time to (re)view the possibilities the early abstractionists failed to see. Courtesy of the local forerunners, abstraction as a language has become recognizable through a number of well known fixed profiles in this clime. One of them has undoubtedly accomplished its goal using gesture-heavy picture plne, and its exponents were once known as the prime movers of the visual equivalent of Modernity which sought to redefine the art of Bangladesh beginning in the early 1960s. Murtaja Baseer, Mohammad Kibria et al, especially the latter for his persistence, remained at the apex of the movement which made 'textured surface' a mainstay in the transmission of art propounded as objects of contemplation. Such works, though came heavily laden with actual or make-belief texture, also often displayed a tendency to turn the entire ecosystem of the painting into a misty haze, as is the case with many a post-Kibria abstractionist.
As a counterpoint to such transcendental image-making process one may choose to devise each work as plain tangible surface which looks more like a solid object than serving as a window through which an indefinable image with a simulated depth of field appears. As a young abstractionist Zahid does just that by practically introducing surface qualities and impressions that are vaguely recognizable. By pouring and attaching materials onto the surface of the work this young artist apparently initiates a retreat to 'objecthood'.
Yet in the final analysis, Zahid's objects are presented also as an 'image' to affect our vision as is evident in Informal-4 The undecidability of the 'visual field', where absence and presence as well as imageness and objecthood remain operational in equal proportion, makes meaning generation a lengthy process. For any artwork to become a site of experience, in sync with John Dewey's view, in opposition to art as a symbolic or semiotic system, the deferral of meaning is to be accepted as part of the linguistic scheme.
The ingredients used are applied in layers, and in this layering or sedimentation one glimpses extra-textual – spontaneously arrived at, though governed by a certain idea of painting as a site of experience. One recalls a rather large work by the artist which hung few years back at the now defunct Dhaka Art Center – it continued to drip tar during the show. After spending some time with his works one gradually wakes up to the fact that 'process' seems more an appropriate gateway to his domain rather than the topographical reality of the object which, in turn, is the result of the material accumulated onto the surface according to a certain learned scheme. The composition involving reorganization of the materials as well as the aesthetic elements lends weight to the end result. This material robustness of the painting sometimes work as an obstacle in opposition to an unveiling that might have provided cues to their respective characters. Perhaps this is a way for this young artist to turn 'hard fact' into 'quiet fiction'. A stratagem that hinges upon a definitive back and forth between material aggression and rhetorical expression can also be understood in relation to what Greenberg used to refer as 'closed window' – a trope to redefine 'surface' where flatness is central but there lurks a sense of the window that is non-exhibitive of depth. Informal 2 is representative of such ethos.
As inscriptions of mental space, or simply, a series of unstable visual fields, Zahid's process-oriented works use a range of materials – from tar to ashes extracted from dried leaves to jute hessian, or lime and khair (black cutch) used with betel leaves by chewers to even coconut husk. As a somber homage to Alberto Burri et al some of Iqbal's works produced in various sizes seem like a series of unresolved signifiers asserting their presence in actual art spaces independent of other forms of creation or existing as objects of intrinsic value. One must wonder when taken as a whole, what inference is reached – whether they point to existential coordinates in whose proximity the body is lost in the infinite Other, or operate as an inspiration for the imago-seeking subject, or provide a hint of an abyss while pushing us to the limits of our vision. Whatever the case, they may be here to spark a silent awakening of our value-free vision, thus making each encounter something akin to an ultimate disembodied engagement with the primeval space which we have lost touch with as modern subjects.
'Informal' ran its course between March 8 and April 5, 2016, at Kala Kendra, Dhaka.