The invention and refinement of abstraction in the late 20th century was one of the most fertile periods in art history. Perhaps its biggest breakthrough came when artists began to shift their concern towards techniques. They gradually drifted from representational imagery to not only celebrate materiality and processes but to also highlight concepts around colour, mark-making and perception. This departure was highly contested and expectedly met with criticism by purists. However, the works produced in this era laid out an important fact — when the prerogative of artworks change, so too their procedures.

Ayessha Quraishi’s artworks demonstrated this phenomenon in a recently held exhibition, Between Light at Koel Gallery in Karachi. Curated by Zarmeene Shah, the exhibition was a mid-career retrospective of Quraishi’s journey into abstraction, gestural painting and ephemerality. Her works dating from 1985 till 2020 were chronologically displayed in the gallery space and the viewers could instantly say that the self-taught artist has always held an interest in abstraction.

In one of her earlier works, ‘Sitting With Hands Crossed’ Quraishi uses a radiograph pen and just three fluid strokes to deploy a seated figure. And in a series of monochromatic drawings, she combines dots, lines and primary shapes to create portraits, figures and landscapes. This confabulation between shapes, lines and grids is a recurring feature in her practice, which surfaces in more mature and mutated forms in her later works.

For instance, in her video ‘Sky Frames’, Quraishi crops and presents the exposed skeletal grids of dilapidated hoardings that once defined Karachi’s skyline. These mammoth structures not only obstruct the horizon but also manage to frame the sky within itself. In ‘Stillness Between Two Thoughts’ a broad black band flows between two white forms to create a disruptive void. In ‘The Rest Is Math’ Quraishi superimposes an impression of a frail lattice on a monochromatic colour field.

Ayessha Quraishi’s mid-career retrospective showcases her continuing negotiation with the intangible

Quraishi’s works are layered with various dichotomies. Many of them are silent and sombre in nature, yet they pulsate with energy which she accentuates through her vigorous mark-making. They are meditative and calming, and evoke a sense of urgency with their technique. The expansive depths of the colour fields hold enough control to enamour the audience in deep thought. To produce something so subtle and finessed from continued aggressive intrusions on to the surface is a stirring contrast in itself. It is not easy to discern whether the artist was spontaneous in her process, leaving much of the outcome on chance, or whether she was pedantic and methodical in her approach. This engagement of various antitheses can only reflect the momentary and fluctuating nature of the human mind and emotions. Produced in 2012 in an open studio residency at Koel Gallery, ‘Scroll’ documents the process of constant erasure and addition, possibly narrating the contemplative skirmish with oneself.

The artist is drawn towards realising the impalpable. Her work insinuates those ephemeral moments that may be sensory, visceral or metaphysical. The large patches of colour and patterns float within the frames and mimic the fleeting phenomenon of closed eye hallucinations. The back and forth motions of her paint-strokes visualise the impatience of such instants to escape out of the frame and out of existence.

Most of the artworks are a documentation of time itself. Quraishi reinforces that by using alternate subjects and surfaces such as journals, photo albums and X-rays which she calculatingly distresses and intervenes on.

The entire exhibition explores the nature of marks and mark-making in abstract paintings and highlights it as an activity of incredible consequence. The works range across a spectrum of styles, from the spirited and gestural to the placid and restrained to the austere and mechanical. The artist stains and smears, employs both choppy strokes and fluid swipes and commutes between painting dry-on-dry and wet-on-wet. Quraishi flirts with abstraction and, through her expert line and brushwork, juxtaposes abstract passages with representational elements to portray the intangible moments bygone.

“Between Light” was exhibited at Koel Gallery in Karachi from January 21 to February 4, 2020

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 9th, 2020

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