Developed in New York during the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism is a post-World War II art movement that elevated New York City as the heart of the Western art world. This predominantly American movement is characterised by gestural brush-strokes, mark-making and a perceived impression of spontaneity. It rejected the traditional standards of composition and design by employing a general lack of concern for pictorial idealisation.
Rabeya Jalil’s latest solo exhibition, Marks and Meanings, held at Canvas Gallery is a testament to the fact that she is arguably one of the few contemporary Pakistani artists whose longstanding practice incarnates the recognisable tenets of Abstract Expressionism.
She displays vivid but jarringly banal colour harmonies to convey strong emotional and expressive content. Jalil acknowledges that her work is informed by the Abstract Expressionist movement, and cites artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and Willem De Kooning as inspiration.
Her works depict a simultaneously tense and spirited presentation of objects in a primitivist style, that evinces a sense of humour, ambiguity, alienation and inner turmoil. The extreme expressiveness of colour and figurative subject matter as well as significant surface activity and texturalism, resist a cohesive style. The vigorous scratches, strokes and imprints, amongst other mark-making techniques, lend a tactile quality to the artist’s works.
Another source of inspiration for Jalil is children’s drawings, which propels one to question the nature of her art-making process. When a child draws a human portrait, he or she relies more on intuition. Children’s nascent minds are not developed enough to identify the lack of resemblance or proportions. They believe they capture the closest similarity and the most accurate depiction they can achieve. For an adult, especially a formally trained artist, to approach the work similar to a child’s process produces a serious challenge, which they must overcome. Adults will likely be fully aware of the unlikeness captured in their drawings. Moreover, every stroke they apply will be more reliant on their consciousness and their will than on their inherent tendency. Untethering oneself from this complicated situation of knowing/not knowing is perhaps what best encapsulates Jalil’s art trajectory: a practice that is theorised in art as “unlearning” but contradictorily requires one to “relearn” in process.
Rabeya Jalil’s latest body of work reinvigorates the spirit of Abstract Expressionism
While Jalil’s prior work is perceived to emulate children’s drawings, to regard the same for her current body of work would be a misjudgement. The paintings not only showcase a psychological and emotional maturity but also dexterity that one can only achieve through rigorous practice and a position of expert knowledge.
It is further evident in her current series, in which Jalil departs from representational illustrations that often require a contrived approach. Her work is undeniably more abstract and derived from instinct, overcoming the obstacle through the process of unlearning.
The artist’s gestural and expressive paintings also voice her stance on the pedagogical approaches in teaching art, as well as on our acquired predispositions on aesthetics.
Most art schools stress on equipping the students with skills to create representational images that portray an uncanny resemblance. In doing so, they impart the rigid principles of painting and drawing that, in the professional realm are malleable in the ever-changing paradigm of high art. Paintings created during the period of abstract expressionism are considered radical and controversial for their time, as they rejected the restrictions against imagery and gestural treatment, and acted as a rebellion against traditional means of making art.
While the diverse and contradictory gestures of pictorial abstraction are, in some paintings, woven with either socio-cultural or personal narratives, in other works they shift away from any representational function, as Jalil resists drawing forms from the visible world. The artist lays more emphasis on what is inside her mind than depicting external realities. She not only introspects to exhibit the framework of her mind, but also draws the viewers for a psychoanalytic engagement with her pieces.
Spontaneity, gesture and innovation are behind the thinking and creative process of Jalil’s works. She prefers to rely more on chance and extempore than a more conscious, predetermined and cautious approach. With a particular emphasis laid on the exploitation of the variable physical characteristics of paint to evoke expressive qualities, she consequentially makes the process of painting the concept as well as the visual subject in her oeuvre.
“Marks and Meanings” was exhibited at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from November 03, 2020, to November 12, 2020
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 22nd, 2020