Kiran Saleem’s latest exhibition of artworks at the Sanat Gallery picks up yet another thread in her explorations of Western art history and its impact on our current regional and contemporary context. Previously, her replicas of iconic images from Western art history questioned the idea of the original and shed light on how these images travel across space and time, and the mechanisms of power that determine their enduring global relevance. The current body of work voices similar concerns through a study of colour, reimagining history through contemporary techniques and medium and, in a way, questioning the virtues of both.
Saleem’s work springs from an exploration of the devices of image distribution in the modern world. Original masterpieces from history reach various corners of the world in printed form in books or as digital reproductions on our computer screens. As art students and artists, we consume and digest these works not in their original glory and grandeur, but are required to use them as a basis for study and inspiration. The complexity of the image, the texture of brushstrokes, the depths of colour and the patina of age, are all compressed into a single layer of pixels.
The artist explores this idea through masterpieces of the Western historical canon, which derive their beauty from the multiplicity of colours, the mingling of various hues to create complex images with depth and volume. The artist splits this vast chromatic spectrum into the four basic hues of digital printing ink — magenta, cyan, yellow and black — illustrating how this depth and complexity is removed through digital reproduction. However, the result doesn’t necessarily take away from the original artwork. Instead, it creates a new, contemporary interpretation of it. It, then, becomes a study of the evolution of the methods of image production, rather than a critique of its degeneration.
Kiran Saleem reimagines iconic images from art history through a contemporary lens
This study isn’t limited to colour, however, and extends towards medium as well. In the “Mystique” series, the marble Greek statue of the ‘Aphrodite of Milos’ (130-100 BC) is reproduced through digital printing in the four printing colours. As it stands reproduced in PLA, a 3-D medium, with its imperfections clearly on display, it noticeably loses the splendour of the original, yet acquires something else as it becomes its contemporary iteration, and truer to the ways in which we experience the world in this day and age.
The works that the artist chooses for these explorations also add another dimension to the debate. ‘Aphrodite of Milos’ is the goddess of love and beauty, while ‘The Three Graces’ (1794) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, referenced in ‘Muses in Three,’ features the companions of Aphrodite who themselves represent charm, beauty and human creativity. These works are prime examples of the standards of beauty of a particular time and culture. These standards become universal through problematic power relations within colonised regions. The experience of beauty differs widely between cultures, but these differences are erased when they are aligned with Western ideals, proliferated through devices such as artistic canons that become the standard of art education across the world. This brings into question the authority of Western art history and its aesthetic sensibilities which is usually taken for granted.
‘Resplendence’ offers a different view of female beauty altogether, featuring Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefit Supervisor Sleeping’ (1994) — a nude of an obese woman sleeping on a couch with hanging pillows of fat accentuated through colour, paint and light. What might be considered repulsive is rendered beautiful through treatment of colour by the artist. Yet, even as these hues are split and flattened by Saleem, the beauty of the image remains, taking on a different quality. We also see the shifts in the ways the female body is viewed and represented over a period of exactly 200 years, from Regnault to Freud, and how it can be interpreted in current times.
“Mystery of Mystique” was on display at the Sanat Gallery in Karachi from November 15 till November 21, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 30th, 2018