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A tale of two choices

Shahid Jalal’s new paintings to be soon displayed at Karachi’s Frere Hall in Karachi perplex through his sheer command on visual vocabulary

A tale of two choices
The Grapevine (L); Amaltaas tree with beehive in Ghazala’s garden (R).

Human beings may not have been born with the Original Sin, but they do bear a curse — of options or dealing with the other choice. A person has to pick one of the two which in his opinion is more authentic, better, appropriate. He is doomed to select between good and evil, passion and profit, day and night, heart and mind, family and friend. For some the choice is as basic, banal and simple as between a PC or Apple, leg piece or breast portion of a tandoori chicken, black or green tea.

Apart from these serious and minor choices, one has to face other dilemmas too, especially if one is a creative individual. In our midst, the public arena has somehow invaded, overpowered and almost suffocated the private domain; even among close family and friends, the discussion soon drifts to political topics and global concerns. This is also because of perpetual projection of news — of crises and cruelties.

An artist or writer can not be detached from his surroundings. Living in a world marked with growing unrest, poverty, terrorism and what not, one has to decide on one’s ethical affinities: about making a choice from responding to immediate problems or turning towards other subjects which are not connected to a specific time or region. In fact this often creates dissatisfaction among the producers and consumers of art. If the artist decides to make his political and social environment a part of his imagery, the absence of other, more poetic, pictorial and formal themes keep disturbing him and his viewers. On the other hand, if he focuses on these subjects alone, the lack of political and social consciousness in his work becomes a cause of disappointment, for the maker and viewers of those art pieces.

Thus an artist may wake up in the morning and read about the death by burning of a Christian couple at the hands of a religiously-motivated mob, or watch the line of dead bodies after a blast on the border between India and Pakistan or other such gruesome incidents (the list is long and never ending). But then looking beyond his room, into the garden blooming with roses, he sits down to paint them. His act of picking a visual that has nothing to do with the turbulent times may be described as escapism by some. For several it signifies a political position— of reminding the other dimensions of our existence that are usually marred due to excessive emphasis on the political scenario. Like Shakir Ali who painted flowers and moon during the war of 1965 only because he wanted to make a moon that shines on both sides and flowers which grow across the line of boundary.

Although these are landscapes, his choice of angle, view and composition describes a different solution. In these paintings, thick physical texture has been replaced with a delicate tactile quality.

Shahid Jalal seems to be following the same course. In his recent works, one could glimpse a slice of nature at its best. His canvases (to be displayed in November at the Frere Hall in Karachi) convey a calmness, quiet and comfort in the same way as a person experiences these while looking at trees, fields and flowers. Most works depict images of gardens, hedges and huge flowerbeds. Although a few surfaces include interiors (in different lights) or sections of houses with branches and creepers on top, scenes of Nisar Road and views outside of his studio, a large number of works indicate a shift in the aesthetics, vision and pictorial strategies of the painter.

Jalal was known for applying thick colours on his canvases in the beginning of his career. These impastos created a kind of low relief texture in his landscapes, which included vast fields, trees, village houses, or large territories seen from a bird’s eye and separated in geometric shapes. In those works, the visuals picked by the artist and the treatment adopted by him co-existed but were never at ease with each other. Hence the thick application of paint was a method to render every form, whether it suited the subject or not.

Trees at the end of the road.

Trees at the end of the road.

It would be relevant to guess why he preferred this kind of painting technique. He probably wanted to attain a sense of flatness (painting on canvas is a flat object!) in his landscapes. This may sound paradoxical because the genre of landscape is about creating the illusion of deep space on a two-dimensional surface but Jalal aimed for another ‘layer’ of flatness in his views of fields. The evenness of texture and touch, achieved through a heavy coat of pigments, could have made it possible to feel the flatness. But in those works, this dichotomy remained an unresolved point till the artist abandoned heavy impasto.

In the recent works, one can sense the success of the artist towards combining the two contrasting elements. Although these are landscapes, his choice of angle, view and composition clearly describes a different solution. In these paintings, thick physical texture has been replaced with a delicate (optical) tactile quality, since many canvases are filled with screens of some sorts: branches of trees, foliage, creepers on the walls and flower beds in vast spans are devices to create and convey busy texture (in terms of subject and imagery).


Chrysanthemums in Cyma and Sikander’s Garden

Here the viewer is more aware of the busyness of the surface, but is unable to differentiate between the real and virtual textures. This aspect of perplexing the audience through the command on visual vocabulary is one of the most important features of Shahid Jalal’s new paintings.

The element of actuality is so strong that from a distance the flowers in garden appear as real plants with air, light and mist in the atmosphere. Works such as Marigold in Lawrence Garden, Chrysanthemums in Cyma and Sikander’s Garden, Yellow Cockscombs, The Largest Carpet of Flowers in the World, Marigold by the Fence, Chrysanthemums in the Park, and Arrangement of Marigolds in the Park are some of the most convincing pieces in which the painter is able to re-create the sense/essence of the real. A feat that reminds of Plato’s discourse in The Republic: “We have seen that there are three sorts of bed. The first exists in nature, and we would say, I suppose, that it was made by god. The second is made by the carpenter. And the third by the painter. So painter, carpenter, and god are each responsible for one kind of bed.”

In his recent works Jalal rises to the level of painter, whose views of flowers can be equated with the archetype of flower created by God and the real flowers grown by the gardener!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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