In the not so distant past art was synonymous primarily with painting. Art history is, to a large extent, a glorious image and colour-infused history of painting. In our milieu even today, most people not professionally involved with art automatically associate “art” with “painting.” It has been the dominant art discipline in Pakistan for over half a century, variously manifested through modernist expression, landscapes, portraiture, genre painting and calligraphy.
Taking pleasure in remembering the painterly gesture and the impact of the imagery of those times may seem a disservice to the dynamic new aesthetic that has catapulted Pakistan on to the global art map. But, opening like an art history volume, Chughtai’s enthralling colour washes, Ustad Allah Bakhsh’s grand narratives, Zubeida Agha and Shakir Ali’s modern idiom and Khalid Iqbal’s landscapes make for a pleasing recall.
Ahmed Parvez’s restless irrational colour bursts, Sadequain’s tormented linear effusions, the chromatic brilliance and “calculated” spontaneity of Gulgee’s brushwork are among the many features that standout of a glorious art era. Paintings by Jamil Naqsh romancing his pigeons are a joy to behold; Colin David’s nudes are in a class of their own and even Iqbal Mehdi scores points for his studies of women finely etched in sepia ink.
This eclectic trove of robust painterly art was all but eclipsed when a burgeoning new generation of graduate school artists revolutionised art-making with radical new media. The contemporary miniature and multimedia art – eagerly welcomed and widely celebrated when it first began to spread its wings, over two decades ago – is still flying high.
A virtual shot in the arm for the hitherto small, insular artscape of yesterday, this new aesthetic is determining the future of art from Pakistan. Not only has it given us the emblematic new miniature but has also spawned miniature-inspired art forms, generated a cadre of globetrotting, international award-winning artists, and most recently produced biennales on home ground.
In such a flurry of activity, why then does the viewers’ mind wander back to the pure painterly practice of yesteryear? Is this a reaction to an over-connected, complex and conflict- riddled world where evoking simpler times is so appealing or is it because the new aesthetic is still evolving and it will be a while before we acquire a taste for it.
There is a comfort level in revisiting the familiar and the established. Unlike the instant impact of old paintings current art’s complexity demands extended engagement. One tugs at the heartstrings and the other quizzes the mind. Often the categorical indeterminacy of the works – their refusal to settle comfortably into any particular medium or message – shifts the burden of interpretation on to the viewer who must “invent” a meaning for them.
Some are witty and intelligently coded, but most are unnecessarily complex or ambiguous and fail to leave their mark. Heavily burdened with postcolonial theory, crucial identity anxieties and disturbing political and social concerns, new art aligns itself with the contemporary global art platform from where it receives its greatest validation. But then the painting genre’s shaky status is also under debate there as well.
Distinguished painter David Hockney (in a 2012 BBC interview to Will Gompertz) thinks that over his lifetime art has become “less”. He blames the art establishment for becoming over-enamoured with conceptual art: “It gave up on images a bit,” the artist lamented. Museums and galleries jumped too willingly into the unmade bed of conceptual art where lights go on and off in a game of philosophical riddles.
Unlike new art’s fast-forward pace, the painting discipline is reclining in pause mode. Unfortunately, painting today is just not interested in being novel anymore. Instead recycles or redeploys pre-existing styles for new purposes. The challenge facing the aesthetic now is to create its own, new conditions under which it can continue to assert itself next to other forms of expression.
The history of painting is dotted with its confrontations with new media and discourses that challenged its standing. Photography, films, and computer technology have dealt fatal blows to the genre. They have influenced and altered painting as have conceptual art and the readymade, action painting, pop art, mass media and the internet.
Painting has thus continually been expanded and its boundaries dissolved but it again needs to assert and reinvent itself to be of the times like the new media which have overtaken it. A “post-Internet” phase has to emerge for its evolution in the digital age.