It is hazardous for critics to try to interpret an artist’s work in a language other than his own. It is not a question of sensibility, of understanding of the logic of colour and form or even of conceding the error of the view that the artist’s job is to hold a mirror to the outer or inner reality. To analyse plastic arts in words is apt to involve a certain element of caprice.
Whatever the risk, the urge to speak or write about things that cannot be put into words is part of the human condition. It happens rarely that a work of art puts us at a loss for words and impels us to take refuge in silence. This is what Shireen Kamran’s new body of work shown at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, entitled, Recent Works (February 26-March 7, 2019) does. Are these paintings a treeless expanse swept by a gale or a storm-swept inner landscape of the mind? The meaning of the work, however, lies in the verve with which the artist has brought the inner and the outer realities together. This may not be a fusion of two disparate realities. On the contrary, it may well be a new reality in its own right, providing a visual experience far beyond the observed and experienced which touches us deeply in some mysterious way as it conjures up a new world.
Conversely, it could merely be a new composition of coloured surfaces rid of any traces of the familiar furniture of our past and present. Or perhaps the voice of a sage addressing us in a language not of negative dialectics but of fragments shored up against our ruin?
Kamran’s suite of paintings is prone to losing some of its resonance if it is taken literally. Here the artist is not transcribing a piece of reality; she is rather meditating on the passage of time and transcribing her reflections into a language quite different from that of words. Times may be out of joint, and things may be falling apart in actual life. But in her paintings, disparate elements somehow manage to hold together. This is what lends coherence to these mental landscapes. And this is what renders the visual experience that these paintings afford not only credible but also meaningful.
Taken to the extreme is Samuel Beckett’s view of art that “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express with the obligation to express.” Shireen Kamran is not the one to take her awareness of the limits of art to such despairing a conclusion. As she would agree, even Beckett conceded the obligation to express when there was, in fact, nothing to express. What Kamran manages to ‘express’ in her works is enough to make us curious about the source of her strength.
It is to be found in the cautiousness she takes in not imposing her vision on us. This is why she eschews theatrics. With age, her work has acquired a new calm. The question whether theory in the arts is the eye of practice or a mere rationalisation of every new direction taken by an innovative artist can be debated endlessly. The point is that theories date sooner than the works of art they seek to explain. Only recently, someone has pointed to propositions which concern the refusal of composition, of balancing, as an endlessly archaic device while others refer to the paring down of the work towards a unity which is no longer the sum of parts, ironically titled as The Sum of all Parts.
Kamran seems to have broken away from this kind of rationalisation quite early in her career. The strength of her work and the sense of serenity that presides over it is a result of a return to the roots. Those who think of it as escapism are the ones who are too involved with current confusions and surface agitations or those enamoured by the increasing din of the market to have any feeling left in them for the still centre of things.
It is true that the emotionally loaded symbols of solitude and desolation generate in us a kind of bewildered response, which comes close to existential anguish. The existential anguish is borne out of the encounter with absence, perhaps with absence borne out of the world in the throes of the absence of meaning. As in certain symphonic compositions, muffled strains of some musical phase, almost half-heard in the prelude, suddenly appear with a crescendo in the concluding part, what appeared to be vague motifs lurking in the background now occupy the centre space in Kamran’s recent works. Human figure, denuded of human emotion, is some kind of an anomaly. It is denial of the self. While not explicitly denying the existence of the self, Kamran refuses to circumscribe it to the anthropological scale of the human body. By releasing it from its human confines, and by fragmenting it, she has acquired a new kind of freedom – the freedom to universalise the aggrieved feeling of loneliness.
Without meaning to diffuse it, the thinker in Kamran sees that if not in the human body, it should find an anchorage, a location in some objective image. She makes this discovery in her recent work with its manifold metamorphoses. The mindscapes that she has ended up painting are abstract only in the sense that they indicate the absence of the human figure, while at the same time, being concrete and palpable. The following passage from Worsworth’s Prelude best sums up Shireen Kamran’s recent exhibition:
Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream,
A prospect in the mind.