Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, UK
Raqib Shaw, After George Stubbs’ Cheetah and Stag (2013)
Much of Raqib Shaw’s work, in spite of its highly decorative qualities, is painful. Simian putti wielding pernicious bows and arrows flutter ominously in many of his paintings, hovering over struggling beastly figures. In this Wizard of Oz-like disturbia of demonized winged-monkeys, it seems as though the lost Dorothy will never find her way to Oz. And, to the viewer’s disappointment, there is no wizard. Anarchy and perversion dominate in Shaw’s psychedelic world of violent fantasy occupied by mutated beasts. Sparkles, glitter and flashes of gold adorn Shaw’s work, only to reveal the tortured and torturing beneath the shimmering surface. His active paintbrush animates grotesque figures, those frequently evil presences which are often difficult to accept when confronted with them.
Through repetition and carefully laid-out sequences, Shaw’s technique experiments with earlier styles such as Mughal-era miniature painting or Hieronymus Bosch. While some would have Shaw’s solo in Manchester reflect historical and religious references on both the Eastern and Western fronts, this seems to be instead a not-so-thinly veiled façade for a contemporary social critique. Whilst Shaw is so often criticized for merely producing baubles for collectors, his work also plays with hierarchical social constructions. The compliance of the commoner to corrupt politicians, or the like, is portrayed through the struggle between what Shaw refers to as ‘beasts and super beasts’. The survey collection of around 30 meticulously developed works calls out a very distinct 21st-century cry, if there is one. And, yes, Shaw believes there is.
Displaced from his native India, the London-based artist uses a variety of folklore to collectively touch on larger critical debates surrounding ‘New India’, the questionable end of empire and globalization in general. He’s not necessarily attacking any of cinematic ‘-woods’, like his New York contemporary Chitra Ghanesh, who also frequently uses tormented figures in her work. Rather, presented here is an entire system of sociopolitical binary forces at work and at play, situated in often sociopathic scenarios. Shaw’s work culminates in an ornate, delusional banquet fit for royalty, or at least collectors in the UAE. Aside from his works’ commercial appeal, they often recall the writings William S. Burroughs, as in the surrealistic sculpture Small Adam (2011).
Shaw’s tragic diversions mockingly point towards the moral downfall of our material-driven society, on a basic level. The work does not seem to put forward even the slightest glimpse of hope or change. For example, in the majority of his landscape paintings including the nighttime dreamscape Blue Moon Beam Gatherer (2010), the moon is presented to the viewer instead of the sun. In a pessimistic nod towards inevitable darkness, Shaw suggests the decay of a society that nevertheless sparkles. That said, his mythical constructions are not without a playful or comical side. The sculpture Narcissus (2009–11), for example, invites a laughable response in spite of the rendering of intensely grotesque figures. Perhaps that explains why Shaw felt compelled to decorate the gallery with flowers and greenery during the middle of the winter – an exhibition in its own right. Maybe he is not all doom and gloom after all.