Raqib Shaw @ Pace Gallery
by Christopher Hassett
London-based artist Raqib Shaw’s latest exhibition, Paradise Lost, is an ostensibly spectacular show, with firm emphasis on the spectacle. Sumptuous, excessive, manically expressive, allusions to Milton drift readily to McCarthy, whose Blood Meridian seems an apt linkage to Shaw’s hammering work. In piece after piece we encounter “a legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk fineries … and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious…” Indeed, more fevered dream than biblical, save for the incessant verticality of warfare, Shaw’s images slice cleanly through literature and traditional mythologies and arrive as aberrance in the visionary realms of India, Sri Lanka and more peripherally, Tibet. Nature is the true god in this series, and it is the only constant where we find anything of paradise, even when pushing in at its every edge are the imposing arenas of Classical antiquity, in all their rigid formalities. Nature loathes rigidity and in response, at least in Shaw’s work, there can only be battle, which time and again leaves symbols of permanence in ruin.
All of the minor paintings in the exhibition capture a fragment of this epic drama as it direly unfolds. The strongest of these is St. Sebastian of the Poppies, where bursting airborne from an explosion of poppies are a soldiering, simian-faced putti whose arrows cluster in the fanged and gaping groin of Sebastian. Sebastian, patron saint of archers and soldiers, howls in agony (or joy?) while tied in delicate vines to a crumbling Corinthian column. The two, we must assume, shall inevitably fall. The great piece here, one that took over a decade to complete, is the monumental Paradise Lost. Roughly 10’ x 60’, it is a fantastical revisioning of the artist’s youth in his native Kashmir before a Blakeian turn from innocence to experience. We first see our protagonist — Shaw as a sneakered lion king — in a setting that is both enchanting and savage. Wolf by his side, he sits at cliff’s edge under a full and singing moon, mouth agape, tongue lolling. In the conifers beneath rage flesh-gorging baboons, and for the next thirty feet we are treated to a natural world that is convincing and entirely lovely.
It is in this context that Shaw, the artist, finds himself in peak form, for despite the sparkle of gems there is nothing in the first half of Paradise Lost that smells of artifice. Nearly every image is open and alive, in full exhale: the sky, the trees, the roaring breath from each predacious beast. Even the olden, Eden-like cherry tree that both centers and divides the painting’s two halves, it too from its blossoms breathes a firmament of swallows. Yet as with Milton’s epic masterpiece of the same name, which worked so well in its supreme first half before succumbing in the second to its own weighty moralizing, so too does Shaw’s Paradise diminish in energy as it lumbers to a close. Beyond the tree there is again battle, ruin, but to what end? One feels this second half could peel safely from the first, sever itself from its own central limb (as would be its nature!), before sneaking off to hang with all the lesser pieces in the show. After the tree, we like Eve in the instant of awakening are suddenly aware of both the craftsman and the craft. There are few others in Western literature to rival Milton’s high poetry in Paradise Lost, nor his depiction of Satan in that heartbreaking yet entirely poetic fall into visible darkness. In contrast, Milton’s heaven is an abiding trap, while his stern, inveighing God is frankly intolerable.
Shaw, perhaps attempting to moralize in the opposite direction—toward Nature—nevertheless yields to a similar heavy-handedness in the painting’s final panels. This, however, shouldn’t imply failure. On the contrary, I think the painting ultimately succeeds, but it does so only on the completion of a larger arc that finds its source in natural wells within, in imaginal springs that brook no contrivance. This is precisely why most of the lesser paintings in the show do fail, for absent from each are the birthings of such vision, the umbilical blood that spills first as poetry before drying to cleverness and craft. As such, we witness in these secondary works the repetition of an ongoing tragic moment, but each tragedy, each depiction borne of a highly gifted hand, wings down upon us as mere delights for the skins of our eyes; our hearts remain yet untouched.
A compounding problem here is Shaw’s relentless inward turn. The narrative for nearly every canvas, even his impressive Paradise Lost, is hermetically closed. Each story, as if with varnish and brush, feels impenetrably sealed. There is nothing for us to learn or even quietly understand, for there is no message, for Shaw is unaware of having any audience. Which is a surprise because without question, and to great effect, we see Shaw swallowing whole the formalities embedded in the works of his Renaissance influences—the sticks and bones that structured their visions. What he misses, to the peril of his own vision, was their humanistic bent. Centuries later their paintings still radiate, not from glitter or precious stone but through their resonant ideas, which always came through as an exchange. Shaw to the contrary feels solely self-reflexive, self-pleased, if not wholly self-absorbed. Even as protagonist, the look is always regressive, terminally away. We, the audience, do not exist.