Agony And Ecstasy

DATED: 29 OCT 1998

Eagerly anticipating his forthcoming exhibition at his favourite venue, the Alhamra Gallery in Lahore, Unver Shafi Khan extracted individual paintings to show me from the stacks waiting to be packed. A visual feast of varying sizes, he handled them with care, pointing out the excellence of the frames and the way the glass is slotted to leave the surface untouched. As a reference to earlier displays, there was one piece consisting of assembled canvases, three contained in one frame, a previously favoured device. Gone too are the busy, small-scale pen and ink drawings of multiple design. His latest, small-scale artworks are painted with acrylics on paper or canvas. Open to interpretation, these painterly works are often the beginning of a series, of larger canvases, what Robert Hughes refers to as the artist making his own chorus.

Exhibiting his work since 1986, Unver Shafi has invariably revealed a diverse vocabulary of moods. This trait remains. In his latest collection one may trace the artists frame of mind through colour, optimistic, contemplative, mounting excitement as the sequence of works are increasingly enriched by experimentation with pigment. The desire to paint has dominated Unver Shafi Khans adult life. He had no qualms in giving up a successful career in advertising to become a full-time artist. ln this respect he follows the example of such distinguished artists as Jamil Naqsh and Shahid Saijad.

Viewing Unvers paintings one is aware of his love affair with paint, it is there in the colour, in the sensuous method of application. His canvases are vibrant with the seductive joy of creativity. The hands-on pleasure of refining and wielding the medium until it skims the canvas allowing light to pass through. I know of no other artist who can manipulate the viewer so thoroughly, draw them into the contemplative surfaces until they are themselves diffused into the essence of the medium.

The artist made his debut at the lndus Gallery in 1986, and since then has actively participated in national art events and shown his work in solo exhibitions in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. ln 93, his work was nominated at the lnternational Association of Art Critics Jury show in Paris. He was accorded a National award at the 8th National Visual Arts Exhibition in Islamabad in 96.

Unwer appears to investigate minimalistic and post-painterly virtues, synthesizing his analy- sis into an essence that does not distinguish between the painting itself or the object represented. His fusing of elements procreates an art-form that primarily represents itself. The artists concerns confront basic elements, areas of colour, the abstraction of form confined within hard edge boundaries. There is an ongoing investigation that examines the aesthetic properties of colour and design.

Burqa?, the title of several canvases of ambiguous form, are the vestiges of the earlier analysis of traditional cultural emblems, shamianas, pillars or shrouded forms, the encounter between custom and post-modern perceptions. Unver approaches the dilemma with assertive stretches of colour that shock the eye of the beholder, initiating a dialogue at once stimulating and controversial. The striving to manipulate and control light irradiates the work with a subtle awareness of movement, energy, a life source sensed rather than seen. There are suggestions of submergence and growth.

Painted with intensity, large, transfused distillations of no gestural colour seduce the eye. Infinitely fine layers of translucent oil paint blended while damp, colour upon colour, and invent an idiom of rare colours like a parallel rainbow. The artist offers the observer a view of fundamental aesthetics without regard to issue of content. The apparent simplicity of approach is misleading, he develops intricate intellectual structures. Work that confronts the viewer with a complex aesthetic response rooted in his or her own assumptions.