With the intensity and drive of a visionary, Unver Shafi has been honing a forceful and idiosyncratic approach to picture making for more than three decades.
One strain of the 1990s figurative painting revival, the one in which the likes of Jamil Naqsh and Colin David titillated with gendered subjects even as they thrilled with high technique, now finds itself on the sticky wicket of middle age. No one doubts that these painters’ breakthrough work was meant in earnest but its frisson still relied on a certain irony, and irony — like homage — always retains the hormonal whiff of adolescence.
So what does the painter who squandered an outmoded virtuosity do? What does the ambitious contrarian do when he grows up and finds that he’s nigh as canonised, as he always wanted to be?
The most famous test case may be Unver Shafi’s. His select paintings in acrylic on show at Koel Gallery in Karachi (from January 19 till mid-February) offered both reason for hope and evidence of confusion. He still reveres the masters of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. His easel-friendly, faux-primitive heads and dark psychological narrative tableaux tax the visual memory. The main engine of his project now, however, seems neither social satire nor formal aestheticism nor personal waggery but a desire to ape as many traditions as possible, making cartoon imitation itself a comment on our times. But ultimately, this relentless reflex toward allusion is dispiriting, like a comedian’s act that leans too heavily on impressions.
This is a shame, since his primary values are neither reactionary nor parodic. He is interested in technical refinement, and he is instead dedicated to eclecticism, which shows off his talent for colour, line and proportion while joyously refusing to control it.
Shafi may simply be too wary to do more than spar with the ghosts of the pantheon, but I suspect a more apt reason for his peripatetics is that he has something more earnest to prove than his own chops. He japes on identity, smarter and more lacerating than his. The more bullying Shafi’s jokes and the more retrouve his aesthetics, the less affecting his efforts. Where he eschews the traps and tropes of the 1990s, both the irony and the traditionalism, the multiculturalism and the commercialism, he seems more likely to transcend the cheaper thrills of his cohort. He has visual audacity, as in August Head whose limp red scowl squirted directly out of the tube extends the pure colour play of Henri Matisse. He can be a subtle observer or he can be a humane social critic.
Shafi’s recent show reveals a painter who is still actively integrating new subject matter while simultaneously reconsidering the abstract impulses of his earlier work. The formal vocabulary has originally manifested as quasi-psychedelic biomorphic abstractions and has since evolved to include concrete figures — women and men. He’s slowly built a world of nameable things in a purposeful evasion of subtlety, an attempt to purge a subject of its nuance, and reduce it to an essential visual archetype.
These figures seem part satires, part visions. They flirt with comprehensibility like nightmares half-remembered. Neither is linked closely enough to the world to be readily identifiable, nor far enough adrift to be dismissed as a fantasy. Like Tarot cards, they hold an indistinct iconic power with the present.
Unver Shafi conjures forth an other. This other is as yet unidentified and genuinely differentiated being, a different sex, and a different sensibility — one that not only deviates from but also exists within the still overwhelmingly male and straight modern teleologies of art. The body of work on show proposed an open-ended modernity — one that remains incomplete, is not secluded within the past, and has drifted into our present. In Urdu Poetry, a stylised woman’s torso is shown in profile, laced-up in girdle-like wrappings. Indeed, Shafi hung all the art according to its potential for dramatising form as an always social fact, for rendering modernity as an artistically and psychologically twisted state, with a deeply bodily, libidinal heritage that has yet to be unpacked.
Shafi poses abstraction neither as removed nor withdrawn, but as a socially determined realm of contemporary life, of corporeal and affective experience. Startlingly, his paintings elicit from abstraction its supposed opposite: a new kind of figuration, where the body and sex are everywhere yet not quite identifiable.
Shafi’s work and its configuration in this exhibition appear as a meticulously formulated statement on the gendered history of painterly abstraction. For instance, one of the compositions Desi Wedding #6 features an arrangement of shapes that is clearly representational: The rounded, egg-shell coloured centre shape takes the form of an ellipsis while the array of dots in red, yellow and turquoise at its top indicates blossoms and henna-painted hands. The kitschy figuration dominates the whole and acts as a wry riposte to the hardedge commodity critique or technological utopianism of the enamel paintings of Marcel Broodthaers.
However, Shafi lets cliché take over our perception, presenting a series of amuse-bouches, forms that oscillate between opaque abstraction and soothingly figurative allusion. But there is nothing soothing about the show. If the works on view played out the cliche of painting’s proximity to stereotyped sentiment, they have the effect of twisting the knife — of “giving us the painting we deserve,” to paraphrase Douglas Crimp’s notorious quip.
The finished surfaces of these selected works conducted between a year or so are stunningly beautiful, the abstract compositions transfixing. Yet they lack geometric balance, coming to rest, teasingly, on the verge of aesthetic equilibrium. It is a playful cruelty: Our perception is lured in by comfortably gendered elements — the radiant palette, the deep colours — only to have the controlled graphic lopsidedness withhold any gratification, thus revealing something unruly and libidinous within.
If, since the ‘80s, we have witnessed generations of painters ironically restaging the tropes of modernism as a farce, Shafi shows us the limits of this approach. These artists’ very practices remain embedded in, in fact depend on, the heroic modern myth as a counterpoint: They can’t resist seeing painting as part of a doomed teleological manhood. And here what is most remarkable about Shafi’s show becomes apparent. With his careful use of cliché, Shafi pushes us to relinquish our gendered conception of painting altogether, to see modernist form as something that has always been bound to libidinal constellations still open for painterly negotiation. Shafi gives us the painting we deserve, but the joke’s not on painting — it’s on us.