Titled Paradise Lost, Raqib Shaw’s exhibition of new sculptures and paintings of preternatural landscapes ostensibly has little to do with the Fall of Man. Shaw’s works firmly inhabit the realms of animal-populated fantasy; in the upstairs gallery, two polychrome dioramas face one another, each depicting an oversize swan perching on top of a circular well of gleaming oil strewn with gaudy lotuses and lilies. Each swan is tugging a grisly ribbon of flesh from the chest of a lolling figure caught between its wings. At first glance this seems to be a man, but its head resembles that of a bat or mouse with gouged-out eyes.
Titled Narcissus, the whole tableau is suggestive of a dark, debased scene from a Disney movie – a quixotic arcadia where nature remains red in tooth and claw. The installation also abounds with the spectres of classical myths. As the title makes explicit, the twin gleaming pools recall the tale of Narcissus – as mirror images of each other, and as individual enactments of the story. Here, however, the swan (as Narcissus) seems to have confounded Nemesis by wrenching its perceived double out of the water. The way in which it tears at its flesh echoes the fate of Prometheus, whose flesh was pecked daily by an eagle. The rapacious bird (white in one model, black in the other) simultaneously evokes the myth of Leda and the Swan, while its eyeless victim could be a ghoulish cartoon version of the stricken Oedipus.
In the main gallery is a series of sumptuously coloured panoramas rendered in paint, glitter and rhinestones, which might aptly be described as jewel-like were it not for their vast proportions. In one ellipse-shaped painting, rams lock horns beneath a full moon; in another, cheetahs frolic on the branches of a tree amid profusions of pink blossom, birds swarm across the turquoise sky, and a crowned figure (half man, half cat) swings across the scene on a rope. The works are explosions of ornate kitsch, repeating on the scale of history paintings the adornments of Indian restaurants the world over. Indeed, Shaw’s works mimic a host traditional decorative techniques including Indian silk painting, mosaic and inlay.
In formal terms, these epic-scaled paintings are seemingly free of irony and unabashed in their decorative opulence, a position which begins to seem faux-naïve and at odds with Shaw’s esoteric thematic scope. While the sculptures sit on just the right side of capriciousness, mixing whimsy with frenetic intertextuality and genuine darkness, the overall effect of the paintings is one of sickly-sweet ornamentation.
-- James Cahill, a writer living in London.
All images courtesy White Cube, London
Images: Raqib Shaw, 'Paradise Lost', White Cube Mason's Yard, London, © the artist, Photo: Benjamin Westoby, Courtesy White Cube; Raqib Shaw, Ode to the Lost Moon when the Nightingale was set Free II, 2009-11, Oil, acrylic, glitter, enamel and rhinestones on birch wood, 96 x 96 in. (243.8 x 243.8 cm), © the artist, Photo: Ellen Broughton, Courtesy White Cube
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