In this two part article, art historian and curator Sharmistha Ray recounts the story of Raqib Shaw, an Indian-born gay artist who is on the fast track to becoming an international star.
By the late 1990’s, painting was considered to be a ‘dead’ medium. The popular notion of the day was that painters could never come up with something new. Conceptual art was fashionable; painting was passé. In spite of this, Shaw persevered. For two years he experimented with the painterly medium in search of a new kind of painting. He painted in oils at first, making very precise portraits like the ones he saw at the National Galleries in London. However, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get his paintings to not look like copies of Botticelli or Michelangelo. Realizing that he could not (and did not) want to compete with the history of painting, he moved away from using oils and began to study industrial materials. He wanted to retain the painterly qualities of using oil, but switching to materials more tailored to our times enabled Shaw to make paintings that engaged in a dialogue with the history of painting and at the same time reflect on present-day concerns.
For his final show at Saint Martins, Shaw produced two distinct bodies of work. There were paintings of mainly portraits, and smaller, erotic drawings done in pencil. One of the paintings was of the Queen. While the Queen of England has been painted by every major British artist and attempted by many other minor ones, Shaw’s Queen was not a representation but a symbolic gesture for which Shaw used the portrait paintings of Elizabeth I at the National Portrait Gallery as a point of departure. “I wanted to choose a motif,” Shaw said at that time. “I wanted to find a subject with that sort of over-the-top campness…it was more about what a portrait of Elizabeth I in our day and age could be.” The drawings were structurally similar to the paintings but were concerned with an overt sense of eroticism. Glenn Scott-Wright, co-Director of Victoria Miro Gallery – a premier gallery for figurative art in London – expressed interest in Shaw’s work when he saw it at the final year show. However, as Shaw had been selling his work from his studio since his second year at college, he didn’t have enough works for an exhibition straight away. Instead, he spent a year after graduation integrating the two dominant strands in his work. It was only after leaving Central Saint Martins and while working towards his first solo exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery that Shaw was able to bring together in one format, the painterly figuration of the portraits with the implosive energy of the erotically charged drawings to create the massive, life-affirming, hallucinogenic portrayals of human desire seen in Garden of Earthly Delights.
The technique Shaw devised is unique. The initial drawing is done first on a wooden board. The edges of the drawing are then raised with stained glass paint from Switzerland that is commonly used to repair stained glass in chapels. It creates a solid barrier like a buffer dam. The enamel and metallic industrial paint mixture is then poured into the spaces between the outlines and then the paint is manipulated to the desired effect by a porcupine quill to meticulously enhance detailing. The quills give him a perfect blend of flexibility and control (he used to use needles but it was extremely tedious and time-consuming). The technique is similar to those found in early Asian pottery and is painstakingly laborious.
Shaw works on a flat, horizontal surface, moving from the middle of the composition to the outer edges. As the paint mixture has a fast-drying time, it is crucial that Shaw work on only small sections at a time and build the picture frame by frame. Shaw himself sees the finished painting only once it is complete and the work is up. Each painting can take a span of a few months to finish. Garden of Earthly Delights III is made with synthetic polymer paint, glitter, rhinestones and gems on board and reportedly took nine months to complete. The enamel paint creates a luminous glow; the glitter, rhinestones and gems sparkle. A myriad of images, patterns and colors scintillate the senses. The whole painting comes to life in a twinkle of an eye.
The process of painting is of key significance for Shaw. He becomes totally immersed in the painterly activity, losing himself in the deft play of material and narrative. It’s this process of ‘getting lost’ that allows Shaw to delve deeper into a subconscious realm from where the most palpable of desires emerge and take form through drawing and painting. Music is essential too. For a time, Shaw listened to Sufi music while he painted which put him in a kind of trance, moving him further inward, away from the real, material world and into a kaleidoscope of fantasies. Devising a new and undiscovered working method was to be the key for Shaw in unleashing a torrid stream of images that together create a narrative that subverts popular, widespread and established notions about social acceptability. Shaw’s sexuality, its complex machinations, and his layered negotiations with society from the time of his youth take center stage in the drama played out in his canvases. The paintings are sociological as much as they are personal documents. Like Bosch before him, the boundary between moral reasoning and carnal pleasure dissolves in a vivid display of fantasy and sensation in Shaw’s paintings. It turns the rest of us into voyeurs, guilty of participation in the sadomasochistic free-for-all.
To create the vast, minutiae of the underwater worlds depicted in Garden of Earthly Delights, Shaw spent countless hours at the Natural History Museum poring over old books and illustrations of aquatic life forms. Around this same time, Shaw became keenly aware of Japanese art. A Japanese friend also introduced Shaw to Japanese lacquered screens (Byobu) and the art of wedding kimonos (Uchikake), both of which Shaw draws upon as visual references in his work. He also painted pastiches inspired by the nineteenth-century printmaker Hokusai and created many studies of roses and flowers. Like Hokusai, Shaw didn’t want to merely paint flowers; he sought to capture the feeling of the wind through the petals.
Shaw is acutely aware of the beauty of his works, but he is quick to emphasize the presence of feeling as the necessary antecedent for beauty in art. It’s interesting to note Shaw is a solitary figure, preferring the exclusive isolation of his studio to the active social circuit of London’s art world. The loneliness of his childhood finds expression in adulthood. The near narcissistic characters that emerge from Shaw’s watery worlds, while they vibrate amid shoals of fish and plethora of sea urchin and coral reef, are instinctive self-portraits. In this dense habitat of his own making, Shaw finds a world that is of a dizzying kind of beauty, one that can only be borne only through silent meditation and a heightening of the senses. By the calling forth of feeling from the deepest recesses of the human psyche, Shaw’s constructs sexed-up utopias where pain and pleasure are availed of in equal measure. In 2004, Shaw’s solo exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery
was received to critical and popular acclaim and it also traveled to Deitch Projects in New York in 2005. The British art world sat up and took notice of the young artist who was re-imagining the history of European painting but with eclectic influences.
Shaw is currently is represented exclusively by White Cube, a blue-chip gallery in London that has on its roster, the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and Chuck Close. There’s no doubt that Raqib Shaw has carved out a singular niche for himself in the treacherous terrains of the global art world that can sometimes swallow talent as fast as it discovers it. With a slew of museum exhibitions already under his belt and more on the way, the bluest of blue-chip gallery backing him, and adoring collectors who swear by his work, Shaw is getting the kind of endorsement he needs to be a long-term player in the art world. Raqib Shaw may be elusive but his ecstatic visions are utterly seductive with their irresistible blend of debauchery and irreverence.
*Editors Note : An original version of this article was published in Man’s World February 2009.