In the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, to understand the ‘presence of absence’, one must arrive upon the realisation of what is still around (the present) and what is not there or missing (the absent). Paradoxically, one can only define the ‘presence of absence’ in its essence by establishing the ‘absence of presence.’
Arif Hussain Khokhar’s latest solo exhibition, Remnants at Karachi’s Koel Gallery, inspects this phenomenon. Mostly comprised of large-scale monochromatic works, the exhibition is an encapsulation of the vestiges that form during the process of painting. The works create an ambivalence by alluding to both a ‘presence of absence’ and an ‘absence of presence.’
The paintings are characterised by energetic, expressive brushstrokes that deliberately emphasise the sweep of the painter’s arm or movement of his hand. Every stroke, swipe, scribble and brand is left exposed and vulnerable for the viewer to scrutinise. He negotiates with the formalities of making a painting and employs the process as the conceptual and visual premise of his work.
The artist celebrates the language and materiality of various mediums and amplifies their characteristics through both vigorous as well as subtle mark-making techniques. While being static, the abstract expressionist visuals pulsate with rhythm and energy. They are still but also convey a burst of activity.
Each mark is the preservation of itself. These marks embody and divulge the lived experiences of the materials as well as the surface. For the artist, the process documents itself. Khokhar showcases a range of marks and stains, many of which are instantly recognisable to its viewers: the spills, drips, diffused seepage of liquids, the scribbles of pencils, the slashes of eraser strokes, the creases of fabric and paper and frottage — a technique in which the texture of the underlying surface is picked up by the material on top.
Arif Hussain Khokhar’s exhibition challenges our notions of imperfections, aesthetics and processes
He also captures the impressions left behind by objects in our everyday use — the folds of the bedsheet for instance, that every day wilfully creates a unique image after its occupant deserts their bed in the morning. The decrepit walls that weather from years of exposure to the blazing sun, polluted winds and torrential rains. And the imprint of images and text in a journal that transfers across to its neighbouring page after close contact. Khokher employs a range of techniques to capture these ‘remnants.’ Some of which he lets nature produce, some of which he creates through both pedantic and spontaneous interventions on the surface and some of which occur by chance or accident.
There is a sense of ephemerality imbued in Khokhar’s works. The obscure visuals may further disintegrate into nothingness and the impermanent stains may evaporate out of visibility. However, Khokhar challenges that perception through his choice of materials, scale and colour palette, which anchor the existence of his images and lend to their permanence.
The initial impression of any erasure or stain in an artwork is often that of a destructive act. It is something that Khokhar intends to question. The scratches, erasures and wipes may seem to subtract from the work and remove a layer but, undeniably, are also a layer in themselves and contradictorily construct an image.
The artist demonstrates no intention to produce pre-determined concrete, representational images. In doing so, he drastically alters the dynamics of his playing field, where aesthetics is an abstract concept, and where terms such as imperfections, errors and completion don’t exist. Khokhar lets himself be meandered by the process. This propels one to question when the artist considers his work to be finished and what that term even means in his dictionary.
Erasure and mark-making is nothing new; it is not unique to the moment of the digital, or indeed to any particular period of technology or art history. Since the beginning of recorded history, the human-technology of mark-making has been documented; and so has its antithesis, the possibility of erasure — the unmaking of the mark. Yet, despite this longstanding possibility, the practice of mark-making keeps evolving into a new meaning and relevance whenever aesthetic and information materiality is freshly at stake in a variety of contexts.
“Remnants” was exhibited at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from September 30, 2020 to October 14, 2020
Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 18th, 2020