The power of a painter is not connected to his fame or fortune but to the fact that he is the only person who knows the secret life of a canvas. How a white surface receives its first lines and initial marks, followed by brush strokes, coats of paint, thick impasto as well as scrapping away of unwanted colours till the final layers.
The private knowledge of a work of art does not stop here. Once it reaches an art gallery and is placed next to other works, it assumes a different look and meaning, sometimes surprising for its maker. Now the artist becomes the viewer, and begins to read imagery, content and context which are new for him. The discovery makes him realise he was not alone in the studio but was surrounded — and influenced — by ghosts from art history as well as from his surroundings.
Seeing the new paintings of Ali Raza at his studio was a different experience than viewing them at his solo exhibition ‘New Pain-tings’ at the Rohats 2, Lahore. The opportunity to glimpse a work which was still in process, to inquire about his technique, to walk between tables laden with brushes and paints, and to pass the cabinet lined with books of art theory, artists’ lives and literature, was necessary to understand the painter and his creation. Volumes of Arthur C Danto and collected writings and interviews of Gerhard Richter were a few among his studio acquisitions.
Ali Raza has been working in acrylic for some time but the recent canvases reflect how the act of painting and the material of paint have become more important — perhaps the only reality — for him. His paintings are built with layers of acrylic (house) paint using a number of tools — brush, marker, edge of discarded credit cards — to make multiple marks. He constructs his imagery bit by bit, and even in their last, complete stage one can trace the earlier, underneath applications. The surfaces seem to have been composed of abrupt daubs of paint but, on a second look, one comes to know about the artist’s craft and control in creating the overall impact of the work.
In terms of their general effect, Raza’s paintings follow a certain format: a seemingly recognisable shape or object on top of visual texture, managed through movement of art-making tools or a balance of diversity of hues.
In one group of paintings, the background — usually a single colour — is covered with a layer of another shade, often leaving a ruptured area of undercoat colour. One can see marks of red, yellow, grey or green covering black backgrounds. But Raza adds another layer of imagery and meaning. It is the inclusion of a flat surface, for example a paper is stuck on the textured canvas (which in reality is painted). Actually the paper appears to be ripped once it was glued on top.
In this body of work, perhaps the most interesting, almost a key to his aesthetics, is ‘Two Ends of the Same’, with two geometrical shapes resting on the intersecting lines of grey on black background. Initially one is perplexed by the presence of a white and black, oddly cropped shapes. On a further look, one realises the two shapes are actually two halves of one rectangle, spread in space, hence creating lines of unusual perspective. This painting indicates how Ali Raza, a student of Zahoor ul Akhlaq, picked his interest in perspective and explored the difference and link between two- and three-dimensionality.
The Renaissance concept of perspective, discovered by Florentine architect Brunelleschi (around 1413), altered the course of Western painting. In other parts of the world, in contrast to linear perspective, different practices of depicting space were in use. In the Indian miniature paintings, multiple perspectives were incorporated in order to assert the flatness of the paper on which the image was made.
In the art of Pakistan, Akhlaq extended his pictorial research on this aspect of perspective, its limitation and possibilities through his work and influenced a number of artists and students. Each of them explored these formal concerns in their own way. In Ali Raza’s work, the flatness of surface is established by joining the flatness of paper with the flatness of texture (both painted). Thus his work extends the tradition of miniature painting and the legacy of Zahoor ul Akhlaq.
The influence of his teacher and mentor is evident in Adam, in which Raza employs a grid, rectangle within a frame, and a hovering cloud on one side/edge, signature segments of Akhlaq’s pictorial vocabulary.
His recent canvases are not only stylistically different from his earlier paintings but are distinct in terms of handling the concept. Here, drips, marks and lines of varying colours are applied on top of each other, either to make a dense body, or leaving white spaces in-between, along with a large, defined shape. Either it is the edge of white cube (Majority Minority) or the silhouette of a black boat (Riptide). The juxtaposition and contrast of loosely added marks and precisely drawn forms make these works interesting since he has attempted the idea of flatness in a new scheme.
Comparison to Richter would be arbitrary but, following his instinct, he maintains flatness through an even spread of tones, hues and tints. Multiple marks of strong, pure and vivid shades become a dense mass for a spectator’s eye to pick in a blink of an instant, move around and later penetrate inside the web of varying colours and shapes.
The pictorial puzzles (unread-ability of boat at the first glance) soon lead to the interaction with these surfaces. Their cool-headed treatment and variation on the same theme and technique force a viewer to think that what he sees in the blink on an eye is a prolonged experience that survives more in the mind than being just a passing reflection on the retina or on a rectangular canvas.
The exhibition will remain open till February 15, 2017