On Art

The Painter and the Sea

2010 | Lala Rukh's Hieroglyphics series at Koel Gallery; Newsline, Pakistan

Lala Rukh’s latest works bring home oceans, especially to those who have known only a single sea. Millimetre by millimetre, she pulls forth illumination, pushes it under, teases as she makes another stark point. Drawing with iridescent paint upon a base of carbon, she presents a black to make black itself seem grey; darkness so deep it can only be home to light.

Based in Lahore, Lala Rukh understands the ocean as only those separated from it can. She now brings over 30 years of reflection into these reminders of what creates sight. Subtle glimmers—epiphanies received on the verge of slumber—tether themselves to the horizon. Shifting lazily, tongues of insight or flickers of amusement tunnel with each unfolding motion. On a surface almost solid enough to tread upon, these pathways and codes become a means to their own ends.

On a physical level, the minimalism makes these drawings deceptively simple. A pencilled horizon; dots, scattered or concentrated; tiny strokes coalesced into writhing wisps. The danger with minimalism, though, is that it may not invite you in: Barrenness can be confused with bareness, a radicle with a whole seed, and there will be no sustenance left for feeling or thought.

These are different. Approach them with a blundering, swaggering air and they will slip aside, still standing erect. Walk quietly and they will look you in the eye, coolly trusting. They are contained, unobtrusive yet impossible to miss—and give of themselves with a small smile.

In a time suffused with talk of expansion, of shrugging off shrouds, chains and blinkers, here are works that make no blazing call. That is not to say they are not about revelation, of course. Understood as segments of the artist’s process—exclusive to specific spaces and times—they become an eternal addition to the viewer’s inner dialogue.

28 pieces are on display (two segments, ten sets in all). Extraordinarily, the sequences have an aspect of diminishment without being reductive. In one, light trails down, collects itself and springs: The sea flings stars into the sky. In others, elements live out their cycles: The moon, visible but always unseen, calmly traverses the sky. Swathes of shadow could be epilogues or preludes: The light speeds home, gifting darkness, but just over the horizon it will be pouring itself out. Here, a spangled ocean belays its darkness, there, dimensions shift entirely; what, really, reflects what?

Lala Rukh’s works have rhythm. As stand-alones, they vibrate hypnotically. As sets, they shift and take wing. Simple changes become immensely meaningful: Same size, different place; same place, different size; so, too, the play between intensity and shape. These markings simultaneously reach out like banners, beckoning lazily, and travel their course within and beyond. They are invitations to descend and float; to seize the opportunities of another lightness, another plane.

Many years ago, the artist was making lines that became codified, almost calligraphic. Then came detailed but abstract representations of the ocean. Now, her impulse for eliminating excess has brought her here—here, where believing is seeing. Here, where glass melts and silvers ones insides; as she observes, there is always, always a horizon.


2012 | Ayesha Siddiqui at Koel Gallery; The Friday Times, Pakistan

It takes only two atoms to make a line. Three, to make a triangle. Ayesha Siddiqui understands the complexity that attends such clarity: The geometric possibilities are infinite. So vast is this web of mathematics governing the seemingly ungovernable, it can only be approached by marking with simultaneous precision and abandon. The big questions involving science and the spiritual often place them in conflict, but the scientific is an essential expression of the divine. Hence, Siddiqui's quest: To commune with the Absolute through the visible and identifiable; to overcome the anarchy within and synchronise with the universe.

'Hidden Agenda', displayed at Karachi's Koel Gallery, showcases paintings that partially depart from the ones she exhibited last year. Some of those had an almost basic need to grasp the geometric form. This time, one lifts more completely into regions beyond the everyday mind. There is something cosmic about the spaces she creates. In a physical sense, galaxies explode and black holes beckon; her background in landscape painting is evident. Metaphysically, these spaces leap to the beat of a universal drummer. There is the underlying thrum of an infallible system.

The paintings are relatively large, averaging four feet square; the largest diptych is seven by eight feet. They boldly pulse and ripple, unexpectedly catching the light and compelling viewers to swing closer. As with everything else, Siddiqui is circumspect regarding her materials, revealing only that enamel paint has been "mixed with some chemicals". The result is sensuous metallic splotches, splatters and drizzles flying thickly over the most delicate, watercolour-like textures and gradients. The colour palette seems to echo the search for building blocks: Dark neutrals with a primary colour or two, most often yellow or something within its family. With her intuitive sense of composition, the mechanics of impulse and paint—the vagaries of drop, swirl and coalescence—channel into principles and proportions.

Just as Siddiqui's paint extends beyond the canvas, swollen and shimmering with promise, so do her markings extend beneath the skin. Her Ph.D. thesis at the University of the Punjab is titled 'The Evolution of Geometric Form in Western and Pakistan Painting: An Introvert Artist's Perspective'. Here, "introvert" cannot be interpreted in the familiar sense, i.e. shy or withdrawn, but regains its most profound meaning: One who goes within to energise the self. And, deepest within, what is there but the universe? It is in us as much as we are in it, and Siddiqui is not revealing, she is being. She reaches for her own immortal ideal.

Like footnotes to the larger text, small geometric shapes repeatedly anchor the exuberant organic. Here is a code, devised to break into the eternal conversation between matter and intellect. It is also the evidence of one learning through replication: Absorbing the patterns of Creation by retracing the axes it extends upon. Geometry need not equate with the inorganic: It is about the precision of nature, not its absence. It is about demarcation, comprehension, extension; the mathematics of the Divine. Consider the fractals in a fern frond, or the formation of crystals; the organic and geometric are tethered together, each being musical notes to the other's stave.

The shapes are primarily squares and rectangles, which represent stability and the material plane. However, they also represent stasis and confinement. Often, like spaceships huddled over the horizon, these symbols are dwarfed by what they will navigate. Siddiqui raises some questions, made difficult by her obvious respect for the geometric. Her non-geometric elements are more lyrical and delicate, regardless of the expanse they cover. They make the geometric shapes, stubbornly squatting in rows, seem like an imposition. Yes, they are a language, but their execution is so straightforward—almost crayoned in—that the juxtaposition could jar if it didn't seem intended to provoke. Clearly, these basic shapes are merely an interpretation of a greater energy. They are the seeds of civilising the self.

The scale suddenly shifts. Across most canvases, top to bottom and side to side, bars are slammed—as though she has placed a stamp on this surface, this exploration, this dilemma. She raises a flag and it is both claim and bluff. It is like peering through a prison to the world beyond—but which side is outside? Here, hiddenness IS the agenda.

In what can best be described as an act of faith, creativity taps into unknown layers of the subconscious. Though geometry is ever-present in Siddiqui's work, there is also a joyfulness in criss-crossing points in space and time that don't correspond to geometric ideals. Yet…these organic markings are also geometers, cartwheeling and seeping across the canvas. From drizzle emerges a circle, whorls fill rectangles. So is there a conflict between the geometric—firm of intent, economical with direction—and the organic? Where reality is a metaphor for Ultimate Truth, and conflict but a resolution in progress, such a question seems unnecessary.


Pehli Manzil

2016 | Interpretive texts accompanying a 14-person show | Site-specific works in an old, uninhabited apartment; Karachi, Pakistan
Pehli Manzil (e-book of accompanying text).pdf