Raqib Shaw seems like one of those grandee artists who have suddenly appeared out of nowhere. That is, till you do a bit of research on the Web, and discover just what, and how much, you’ve been missing. Calcutta born, raised in Kashmir, now living and working in London, he’s had solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami, and Tate Britain (both 2006); at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (2008); Kunstalle Wien, Austria (2009) and Manchester City at Gallery (2013), which later toured to Galerie Rodolfinum in Prague (2013).
His prices at auction are often eye-wateringly high. In October 2007, just before the big financial crash, a large painting, 120” x 60”, made £2,708,500, which was then, and may still be, a world record for any Indian artwork. Since then, there have been a number of auction results in six figures, north of the half-million mark. The most recent I can find was for £722,500, at Christie’s London, in June of last year. Interestingly all of these prices were made in sterling, in the London auction rooms. None apparently in New York, the lair of some of the art-world’s highest profile big punters. In other words, Shaw is very much a homegrown art star. Despite his Indian origins, he is one of our own, an icon of London’s cultural hybridity. His studio is located in Peckham.
His new show at White Cube Bermondsey is curtly entitled Self-Portraits. In other words, this is yet another, very ambitious example of the “ Pay attention, this is all about ME!” tendency in high-end contemporary art. However, this demand is presented in a much more interesting and more complex way than it is in the endless series of self-portraits produced by Georg Baselitz, some of which were shown recently at the same gallery, which often functions as a conveniently large space where big egos can unfold.
Shaw, as the hero of his own tale, features as a blue-faced avatar of the Hindu god Krishna. A web-site conveniently informs me that:
“The color of the Personality of Godhead, Krishna, is described here asnilotpala-dala, meaning that it is like that of a lotus flower with petals tinted blue and white. People always ask why Krishna is blue. The color of the Lord has not been imagined by an artist. It is described in authoritative scripture.
In the Brahma-samhita also, the color of Krishna’s body is compared to that of a bluish cloud. The color of the Lord is not poetical imagination. “
If you didn’t know that already, you do now.
What is perhaps more interesting than this is that Shaw places himself firmly in the midst of the ‘appropriationist’ tendency that is causing such a stir in the current art world. Krishna/Raqib disports himself in settings barrowed from Old Master painters as various as Antonello da Messina, Crivelli, Zurbarán and Jan Steenwyck the Younger. There are also lots of echoes of Hieronymus Bosch and the Dance of Death prints of Hans Holbein. Capering skeletons galore. It’s a melancholy, claustrophobic world – a cage for an ego, brilliantly realised.
There is absolutely no doubt that these are paintings at the highest level of craft, though the craft techniques used are often, as it turns out, very different from those employed by the Old Masters Shaw borrows from. Turning to the web for information yet again:
“The technique Shaw devised is unique. The initial drawing is done first on a wooden board. The edges of the drawing are then raised with stained glass paint from Switzerland that is commonly used to repair stained glass in chapels. It creates a solid barrier like a buffer dam. The enamel and metallic industrial paint mixture is then poured into the spaces between the outlines and then the paint is manipulated to the desired effect by a porcupine quill to meticulously enhance detailing.”
Despite Shaw’s track record in museums, already listed above, the contrast with the kind of art now being promoted by Tate Modern is striking, as are the physical circumstances in which it is shown. The galleries at White Cube are large, just as large as most of those at Tate Modern but, on a weekday lunchtime, they are sepulchrally empty, or nearly so. The paintings are unlabelled. If you ask at the front desk, there’s a typed sheet, to enable you to work out which is which. The only thing resembling an illustrated catalogue is a rather bafflingly designed hardcover book priced at £55. True, you don’t have to pay to get in – cheaper in that sense than much of what is offered at Tate. But you do get the feeling that you are rather condescendingly being allowed a peep into an alien world, situated on a planet far from your own. The message is that White Cube don’t really care much about attendances, unless those who attend have it in their power to produce a big cheque.
As Scott Fitzgerald once said, in a short story crisply entitled The Rich Boy (I quote the whole paragraph, because it is so often truncated, reduced to just the first two sentences):
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”
The paintings at White Cube somehow resonate with these attitudes.
You’d better believe it. There are two contemporary art worlds just now. In many ways this exhibition shows how far apart they are from one another.
Image: Self Portrait in the Study at Peckham (After Vincenzo Catena) Kashmir Version 2015-2016 Photo: Raqib Shaw (Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd) Courtesy White Cube
Until 11 September White Cube Bermondsey