21 May – 28 August 2016
White Cube at Glyndebourne
White Cube presented the second year of its collaboration with Glyndebourne Festival, White Cube at Glyndebourne, with an exhibition of work by Raqib Shaw. Born in 1974 in Kolkata and raised in Kashmir, Shaw came to London in 1993 where he has since lived and worked. His ornate and meticulously detailed paintings use labour-intensive and delicate painterly techniques to explore fantastical visions with a cinematic breadth. For this exhibition, presented in a gallery custom designed by the award-winning architectural studio Carmody Groarke, Shaw produced three new, large-scale paintings in direct response to the programme of this year’s Glyndebourne Festival.
Shaw’s approach to painting is unique in its use of a personal iconography that reflects his own cultural hybridity, drawing on both Eastern and Western sources. Considering his painting to be ‘a satire on the human condition’ (1), Shaw’s obsessively decorative compositions reference such diverse sources as English prose and poetry of the Romantic period, Old Master paintings, in particular those of Bosch and Brueghel, Persian miniatures and the art, literature and myths of his native country. For his new works Shaw, himself a passionate opera fan, has taken inspiration from the traditions and landscape of Glyndebourne as well as from two operas staged at this year’s festival: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In Self Portrait as Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) (2016), a lavish picnic feast laid out by the side of a lake features a reclining figure with the head of a donkey, wearing a sumptuous richly embroidered gold kimono. While the scene is certainly a foil for Shaw’s passion for decorative details (such as the woven cranes and chrysanthemums of the kimono, and the glittering patterns of flowers and mushrooms spread across the ground like a carpet) it also refers directly to Bottom from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shaw’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedy is sinister; a tainted paradise where the sumptuous picnic feast of stuffed boar head, lobster and ripe fruits is infested with snakes and invaded by cavorting horn-headed, skull-faced fairies. The fairies here are transgressively erotic, inspired in part by a scene in Ken Russell's film Women in Love (1969) and by the paintings of Ruben and Carracci. These half-human, half-animal protagonists abound in Shaw’s work, the result not only of an interest in mythology but also the correlation between human and animal behaviour.
This painting depicts a bacchanalian and carnivalesque world abundant with fruit and flowers and populated by animals and mythical creatures, all of which are rendered in exquisite detail but imbued with a dark and sinister sensibility. As Homi K. Bhabha has written about Shaw’s work, he ‘[...] propels the surface of his painting into new decorative dimensions and figurative heights [...] while he explores the obscure depths of a personal mythology of life’s exigent and extreme experiences.’ (2)
In the painting titled Act 3 in the Organ Room at Glyndebourne (Die Meistersinger) (2016), Shaw focuses on the majestic organ room at Glyndebourne, which was built during the 1920s. Using its structure as setting for a grotesque mythological vision, the painting features mole-rats with decomposing flesh, swinging from the ceiling or leaping over the furniture with wild abandon. Shaw creates these paintings using a quick-drying enamel paint, which is applied with porcupine quills to areas which have been pre-defined in gold paint, as in the cloisonné technique, lending their surface an almost three-dimensional presence. His use of sharp perspective coupled with overall detail results in a visual tension that is destabilising. ‘I am continually exploring spatial issues: how the relationships between background and foreground, emptiness and pattern, three-dimensionality and flatness, figuration and abstraction, interpretation and meaning, exist anxiously on the threshold of nervous collapse’ he has said. (3)
1. Shaw quoted in 'A Conditional Fairytale', Fereshteh Daftari, Raqib Shaw, Paradise Lost, White Cube, London 2011, p.114
2. Homi K. Bhabha, 'An Art of Exquisite Anxiety', Raqib Shaw – Absence of God, White Cube, London 2009, p.5
3. Shaw in conversation with Kunsthalle Wien, in Raqib Shaw, Absence of God, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna 2009, p.106
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