A story can start from any point: the beginning, end or middle. The story of Imran Mir’s aesthetics has multiple beginnings and endings. Did I say ending? Perhaps I was wrong, because to connect the three-letter word ‘end’ with the art of Mir is an impossible, if not sacrilegious, act. Because an artist may stop painting or die but his work lives on in different ways. It continues in the eyes of others, his contemporaries and followers, and is recreated in the words of critics and in the world of curators.
The retrospective of Imran Mir Alchemist of Line curated by Nasreen Askari and Durriya Kazi is being held at the Mohatta Palace Museum Karachi (from Oct 21, 2017 to Oct 21, 2018). The works displayed in the rooms of the Museum convey an artistic quest. But in order to understand the art of Imran Mir, one must recall Frank Stella’s quote: “All I want anyone to get out of my paintings is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any conclusion . . . What you see is what you see.”
In Imran Mir also ‘what you see is what you see’. Compared to his contemporaries, his decision to use the language of abstraction as his mode of expression is a remarkable endeavour, considering that he opted for a vocabulary that is not popular, nor common, but modern. However, instead of following the norm, he decided to investigate and critique it. So, his works suffice as an artist’s reflections about visual language, its potential, possibility and potency.
In a number of works, titled (collectively) ‘Papers on Modern Art’, Mir expresses and experiments with an imagery which does not mean anything for an ordinary person. Like deciphering the script of an unknown or distant land, one needs to know the codes in order to comprehend the content, especially the art, of Imran Mir.
The retrospective (which includes remarkable sculptures too) reveals that his work, from the 1980s till 2014, evokes formal concerns of art-making. In parts, it is about the history of modernism in periphery where ideas learnt from others or the mainstream are analysed and modified to suit the situation at hand. So in his work from the early 1980s, particularly the series titled ‘Sixth Paper on Modern Art’, one does not find abstraction as a subject but a means to attain an ideal solution. Drawing from sources such as Golden Means and Leonardo da Vinci’s division of human proportions, Mir elaborates on the perfection of forms and its many explorations. Transit from black lines on a blank surface to more rectangular canvases in primary colours, the artist seeks a pictorial solution which appears immaculate, almost beyond human touch.
However, from that period on, his work is more about the visuality or the act of art-making. Thus, instead of referring to outside, it relies on the vocabulary often employed in the process of creating artworks. Grids, pyramids, circles, stripes, and organic marks frequent these surfaces. Occasionally, one reads some recognisable objects such as the contours of a green chilli, or the imprint of a human hand. Apart from these few examples, most works from the 1990s seem sublime, remote and recluse.
Mir’s paintings from that time define his aesthetics. The cornerstone of this visual vocabulary is the correlation between structure and openness. A connection that can be translated into terms like nature and culture, two domains in which we survive and negotiate our existence. Human in this universe (along being part of it) is surrounded by nature, which is organic, irregular, creative, spontaneous, free and wild. But he has also learnt to edit nature. In Imran Mir’s work, one traces this tension or entanglement between nature and culture. Nature is abrupt, spontaneous, and unpredictable, while culture is contained, controlled and constructed.
Mir deals with this blend of nature and culture, as one views in his paintings definite imagery next to a ‘so-called’ loose visual. Crosses against clouds, strips of colours next to the mannequin of a man, or circles of red amid squares of varying greys offer a painter’s vision who is combining two aspects of himself (a designer and an artist). But more than that, he depicts what resides within every human being: order and freedom.
The matter of order is solved in an innovative manner with reference to his later works, mainly from 2008. In these huge surfaces (some displayed in the room/section ‘Kinetic’), Mir establishes a unique link and balance between calculated and loose. Lines, which form either a spiral structure or circular objects, are astonishingly placed to prodcue a sense of space; it is further enhanced by modulated backgrounds or shift in tonal values of these lines. In one work from the same series, lines that formulate a round object are drawn in a rapid and irregular scheme, reminding one of how metal wires are joined for the underneath structure of a building. These also reflect the artist’s freedom in exploring and extending the idea of precision. Painted in vibrant colours, or choosing a minimal palette, these captivate the viewers’ gaze that moves along these marks like a person walks on clearly defined paths.
Some work from this period appears to have shifted focus. While keeping the same language, the imagery seems to venture into the realm of metaphor. His other canvases from 2010 offer a leap into that void which we call self. A mark moves in a loop, entangles, rotates, overlaps, or expands — either as a thick patch, or a combination of thin lines. These appear like the cartography of a person’s thoughts, emotions and sensations.
In other works too, the same sensibility is evolved into more loosely rendered forms — rounds in most cases and built with innumerable marks of acrylic on canvas — which may resemble a decaying mandala, a darkened sun or a dying star, emanating a strange sort of ‘un-light’ or a diffused glue. Immaculately constructed, these images (installed in the room/section ‘Perfect Imperfect’) open up a passage into other dimensions and hemispheres.
Many artists strive to attain this goal but Mir’s example indicates how this was achieved with minimum means. As towards the end of one’s life, all events, dates and memories merge. Likewise, the last body of his work is a testimony of how the two aspects of art, aesthetics and life, converge to create a synthesis of optical, personal and metaphysical experience.
Through these elegant, eloquent and elaborate pieces, Mir managed to communicate a basic truth. That art is not only ‘what you see is what you see’ but in the words of H.E. Gombrich, ‘what you want to see’. If the artist is fortunate, a work of art liberates itself from a single standpoint and is read in multiple ways and contexts.