May issue 2009

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

The well-known New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, wrote in 2004 that “painting survives on a case-by-case basis, its successes amounting to special exemptions from a verdict of history.” He was defending his and some other people’s enduring interest in painting, which was suffering as a result of the rise of Minimalism and, subsequently, conceptual art in the ’60s. Painting was declared dead. And those who are still painting today are, in fact, defying history — I mean those who show promise or who have already made their place in the world of art. In a recent exhibition by painter Omar Farid at the Indus Gallery, such defiance, even though unconscious, was evident. I wish I had written on him.

Moeen Faruqi’s current exhibition at the Canvas Gallery is a similar defiance of history, although without any intent to do so. He paints because he loves to, and he expresses himself through this medium. The exhibition consists of three types of work. One comprises his old style, in which stiff figures stand boxed into their own spaces and do not connect. His subject was, if I understand it, alienation of people who look like effigies and are not aware of, nor in touch with each other. Given the subject matter, his use of colour and brush strokes was rather underwhelming. Basically, he should have been an expressionist painter of the kind who bleeds, but mixes his blood with the spectrum of the rainbow. There ought to have been joy in his paintings as there is in most tragic works, be it Greek theatre or Shakespearean tragedy.

There are other works in the exhibition which are innovative and full of possibilities were the artist to pursue them. The problem with Faruqi is that he wishes to be correct by his standards, is reticent and seems afraid of the genie bottled up inside him. He must let it out and even if he does not succeed, he may, as Picasso said long ago, find yet another style in his failed attempt. This second type of work consists of drawings touched with colour against black paper, featuring animals. In one, a woman is holding a cat while a man stands at a distance from her. Strangely enough, the cat connects the two, however tenuously. Another painting includes a tortoise and some other animal and they, too, seem to connect. The one I liked was that of a reclining figure, as if the man had fallen, and on his knees perches an owl, looking much wiser than the man himself. In all these works it seems as if the animals share some primeval wisdom which they are lending to allow the humans to engage more completely with the world they live in.

The third type of work in the exhibition consists of painted busts of human figures made of fibre glass. Faruqi has used the surface of the busts to paint his usual kind of figures. The Greeks painted their statues, even the marble ones, and so did the Gandharan sculptors. In Faruqi’s case, the idea of painted busts reminded me of Yakuzas, members of the Japanese underworld who have their entire bodies covered with tattoos. The cannibals of the Pacific Islands painted their faces; primitive peoples decorated themselves with tattoos; in modern cultures, wrestlers and hoodlums do the same as do young people in America and England by way of fashion. Working on these busts presents a rich field of possibilities, both the figures and their tattooed surfaces, which Faruqi should play with.

Moeen Faruqi expresses an interest in pre-Renaissance and Gothic art, and these should provide him with enough fodder. He must simply let the genie out of the bottle and allow it take its own innovative course on his canvas.