Reintroducing the body into his works, Imran Qureshi applies paint to the pain of a region under seize. As Rajesh Punj scrutinises the grief and grandeur of his inaugural show at ROPAC, Paris.
Imran Qureshi is at a point now where he possibly spends much more of his time hovering just above the clouds than he is rooted to earth. Softly spoken and looking exhausted for all of the accumulated air miles under his belt, Qureshi is fundamentally a very honest and well intentioned artist, whose success he still has trouble comprehending. For his inaugural solo show at ROPAC, Paris; which comes off of the back of two major site specific commissions; And They Still Seek the Trace of Blood at the Bibliothéque Ste-Geneviève, (2014); for which Parisians were invited to queue to enter the academic enclave well into the night; and Two Loves at Quai d’Austerlitz (2014); Qureshi has since drawn together a body of works that for him deal with the landscape as a battle ground for a new kind of emotional aesthetic. Describing his works “either including the human body or those that have the aura of his body present.”
Idea of Landscape reads as an entirely two-dimensional show, of sizable canvases and delicate drawings that are sited as painterly explosions throughout the gallery. The decision to deliver Qureshi’s show in September draws with it a great deal of autumnal light that floods the impressive central space and illuminates the artist’s canvases; that beyond providing a spectacle positively pacifies the drama of many of his key works. As throughout the show, it becomes an emotional wrestling match between the head and the heart of whether Qureshi succeeds in recultivating the cannon of his original approach, instead of his works becoming entirely decorative. Tormented by the invasiveness of violence, Qureshi presses home “the idea of landscape has changed after 9/11. Because the land which is full of life and of nature, is in a second transformed into a bloody mass of landscape. And it’s quite a disturbing thing, because when we think of a landscape painter we have very peaceful images in our mind, but here it is something else. It is a different kind of landscape, which is more about the reality of the situation.”
Imran Qureshi. This Leprous Brightness, 2015. Acrylic paint on canvas. 91,4 x 152,4 cm (36 x 60 in). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. photo: Usman Javed.
And in order to qualify his works bodily and bloody appearance, Qureshi recalls a particularly violent incident in the Punjab district of Pakistan that influenced the works principal theme. In which two boys were lynched by the mob. “So with All Are The Colour of My Heart (2015), the body came into my work in this way for the first time in 2010. When there was an incident of two brothers being killed in a remote part of Punjab. And somebody made a video of the incident and it was leaked to the media and shown on TV. Which led to a huge reaction to the whole incident. I saw the video and was unable to see it fully, because it was so violent. And after I had a few seconds flashback of something of the event in my mind.”
Which led to Qureshi colouring his body red and submitting himself to his canvas come stretcher, as though a casualty of violence. It proved a turning point for a whole series of paper and panel works that for the artist were shaped as much by a history of violence in his country, as the riposte of many thousands of people against such animalistic actions. And rather than being guilty of inertia “people were still alive and that they are reacting, with a unanimous desire for peace. Because the majority are not like this, there are only a few people acting violently; but not the rest of the people. So that was the reasoning for combining the body with blood red. And of the bloody body with the floral patterns emerging from it. As hope appears to be coming out of a dead body. It is that kind of an idea.”
Imran Qureshi. Love Me, Love Me Not, 2015. Acrylic paint on canvas. 198,1 x 137,2 cm (78 x 54 in). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. photo: Usman Javed.
And as much as his new works merit our attention, it is as interesting to purvey his sudden and successful rise. As Qureshi fondly describes the turning point as his Sharjah Biennial commission in 2011, in which he decorated the courtyard of the Beit Al Serkal building with the work Blessings Upon the land of my Love. Qureshi’s signature style of layering beauty over violence was heralded with his receiving the biennale award that year. Which in turn lead more significantly to his being recognised as Deutsche Bank’s artist of the year in 2013. Which like a monsoon led to a whole series of high profile shows in less than twelve months. Qureshi’s ROPAC works are a combination of lashings of creative spirit, reeled in by pockets of miniature detail that appear to anchor his work, and give it its cultural currency. And for the artist as reluctant as he originally was to take on miniature painting, it has proved the making of the man, and the merit of his new show.
Imran Qureshi: The works (for this) are all made this year, so I would say there are two bodies of work here, one is with the human body, and of the presence of the human body; and the other works are without the human body, but still there is an indirect presence of the human body. These pieces are called Love Me, Love Me Not (2015), because of the way in which I have applied the paint, which recalls a game you can play whereby you remove the petals of a flower, as you recite the words ‘you love me’, ‘you love me not’. For which you don’t know the end result of the whole activity. So for me the violence the work evokes is similar to the current political situation. That nobody knows, and it is all so uncertain. With everything now you cannot say everything will be okay.
Imran Qureshi. Opening Word of This New Scripture, 2015. Acrylic paint and gold leaf on canvas. 152,4 x 182,9 cm (60 x 72 in). Each panel 152,4 x 91,4 cm (60 x 36 in). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. photo: Usman Javed.
Rajesh Punj: And are you talking of Pakistan specifically, or the wider disrupted geography of the Middle East?
IQ: No no everywhere, I think it is something else now. It is growing and it is unbelievable. On the one hand we are trying to reduce (the violence), but on the other hand they are purposely seeking to allow it to grow. So more specifically this show is called Idea of Landscape, and for me the idea of landscape has changed after 9/11. Because the land which is full of life and of nature, is in a second transformed into a bloody mass of landscape. And it’s quite a disturbing thing, because when we think of a landscape painter we have very peaceful images in our mind, but here it is something else. It is a different kind of landscape, which is more about the reality of the situation. So with All Are The Colour of My Heart (2015), the body came into my work in this way for the first time in 2010. When historically there was an incident of two very young boys, brothers being killed by the mob in a remote part of Punjab. And somebody made a video of the incident and it was leaked to the media and shown on TV. Which led to a huge reaction to the whole incident. I saw the video and was unable to see it fully, because it was so violent. And after I had a few seconds flashback of something of the event in my mind, but it was so disturbing even those few seconds that I couldn’t sleep. Then one night I went into my studio and I started using the red colour directly onto my body. In order I could take an impression of all of my body parts onto the paper, and then I did some initial drawing over the top; which is something I really wanted to come out of it. Because when this incident happened I thought this was the end of humanity, because of the way it all happened.
But interestingly the way in which people reacted it proved a very positive sign. Because after the incident people were really on the road; they were really talking about it, on the TV and in the media, they were demonstrating against this kind of violence. And a lot of people whom I thought would never react, did so in response to this horrific event. Really strong people were really disturbed by it. So that gave me the positive or a ‘positiveness’ with which to approach what I was doing. That people are still alive and that they are reacting, with a unanimous desire for peace. Because the majority are not like this, there are only a few people acting violently; but not the rest of the people. So that was the reasoning for combining the body with blood red. And of the bloody body with the floral patterns emerging from it. As hope appears to be coming out of a dead body. It is that kind of an idea.
Imran Qureshi. You Who Are U Love and My Life’s Enemy Too, 2015. Acrylic paint on canvas. 198,1 x 464,8 cm (78 x 183 in). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. photo: Usman Javed.
RP: So the first blood/body works do you did were in response to those horrific events in 2010?
IQ: I did exhibit works from the blood/body series in different shows, but after some years I decided to revisit the same ideas, just to see what kinds of changes were possible with the same vocabulary. And I think the inclusion of the body has changed in my work in a very subtle way. These works (at ROPAC), are more layered. And these works from the This Leprous Brightness (2015) series, with the inclusion of blood and the body, are here blending more powerfully with my other content.
So these are the images of my own body, and I applied paint to it and took the impression of my body onto the paper. It is also like a landscape in the way the body is laid out; and of the way the splashes are coming out of the body. It appears blood is coming out of it but there are flowers aswell. Leading to a series of works of smaller body parts; which are drawn from a similar mental state of mind.
The video is about my interest in the process of painting so I produced a couple of videos in the last two years. Conceptually they had something in them; and for me it was also about the process of my art practice at the same time. For me the process was becoming the content aswell. So when I use gold-leaf and miniature painting in my other artwork, it appears as a very fragile object. And when you are producing a work like that, you need not to breathe, because when you breathe the gold-leaf moves, and you cannot apply it to the paper. But when I am applying it, for me it is like I am killing the medium. It dies, as it is pasted onto the surface and it becomes flat. I wanted that the audience experience that sensation as I was experiencing it; so the video work is about floating gold-leaf in an unlimited kind of space, and it is a slow motion shot. It is almost like a still image, but it is moving very slowly. And it moving in a way that it looks like it is breathing, and for me it is very monumental at the same time. So a fragile thing here has another kind of power. And I have titled the work Breathing (2015); so we are not supposed to breath, but the gold-leaf itself is breathing.
Imran Qureshi. This Leprous Brightness, 2015. Emulsion, acrylic paint and gold leaf on canvas. 137,2 x 198,1 cm (54 x 78 in). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. photo: Usman Javed.
RP: The same work you showed at Ikon late last year, but more significantly as a medium is that a departure for you? Away from your predominantly two-dimensional approach?
IQ: I never see my use of a different medium as a big departure. I have made big departures before, with the work on the roof of the MET, New York, and the Sharjah courtyard; or the scale of the canvases; as a move away from devoting myself entirely to miniature paintings. There are departures in a sense but I don’t claim them as such, because it comes very naturally and everything develops in a very natural way. As a process it isn’t something that is making me feel uncomfortable, and I don’t really wish for that kind of art.
Inside Story (2015) and Rise N Fall (2015) are my new miniatures, where I am revisiting my older techniques, and these are the last (miniature works), of this show. These are very traditional, beautiful, exotic, decorated kinds of miniatures; but when you come close to them, there is an image of a landscape with something that is a bit violent in each of them. Whereby I create an act of violence. The trees of the foliage itself act like a character, and make for a narrative within the landscape. So essentially you should feel some discomfort when looking at them, and as miniature paintings they are disturbing. And these works from the This Leprous Brightness (2015) series, are my new canvases; and for them I am intentionally working with a lot of action painting.
RP: So with the canvases, are you painting more in the style of American Jackson Pollock? Or is your canvas upright?
IQ: Onto the floor in order they all drip in a certain way. And I made them all this year in 2015. For me when I am not working I need a certain kind of push to work from inside, and once that moment arrives I am very quick at putting something together. And when that moment is not there I cannot do anything. I will be sitting for days.
RP: In terms of the move from miniature painting and canvases, how did you translate your works onto a bigger scale, and withdrawn all of the detail at the same time?
IQ: I moved to canvases when I was originally commissioned to do the major installations at different sites; whether in Sydney, the MET, New York, Sharjah or Michigan. Essentially I noticed there was a lot happening with each splash when I was applying the paint, and all together it would always become a large-scale work; like a large scale canvas on the floor. And while making those works I was enjoying each and every stroke of the work. It can be so poetic sometimes and so incredibly beautiful, as people were able to walk all over them. But when I layered them, and coloured the floor with a lot of splashes; with each layer of paint somehow I lost those original details. So the audience are unable to read those details very easily. Where upon I immediately thought of making canvases depicting just those splashes, and of holding onto that poetic quality in the work. So the audience can also take pleasure as much I as I do, in each and every splash. And that was the original reason I moved to big scale canvases.
Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. Photo: Charles Duprat.
Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. Photo: Charles Duprat.
Imran Qureshi, Idea of Landscape, 12 September– 17 October 2015 at ROPAC, Marais, Paris.
Rajesh Punj, September 2015.
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