Pictionary, she wrote…
Solo Show | Rabeya Jalil
Curated by Aasim Akhtar
Rabeya Jalil’s paintings range in scale from ones you could hold like a book to others that feel slightly larger than human in their dimensions. Their square format places them outside the traditions of landscape (horizontal) or portrait (vertical) painting. In many instances, she will join four or more paintings together, but the compositions will not be continuous across the seam between the canvases or boards. The square format announces that her paintings are self-sufficient artifices, not mirrors or windows; they stand apart from reality even as the artist responds to, and questions, her understanding of it. And as her work makes plainly evident, paint is the medium of inclusiveness; paint alone is capable of transforming and binding together all the elements of Jalil’s eclectic, expanding, unclassifiable lexicon – lists of words, things heard and read, pictographs, handprints, delicate linear images, roughly outlined figures, and stacks of interlocking blocks of colour.
An effervescent colourist, Jalil evokes the social/domestic world with her use of yellow ochre, umber, grass green, cerulean blue, deep violet, and vermilion, along with black an white, but her palette is never fixed. She runs the gamut from simple tonality to contrasting swaths of colour. In paintings that are divided into discrete areas, she might juxtapose two or even three different palettes, achieving a polyphony of colours, images and layers for the mind’s eye to sort out and reconfigure. The paintings (mostly mixed media) are simultaneously immediate and open-ended, simple and complex; they require viewers to constantly readjust their focus, to look and to read, and to distinguish between this and that. Jalil’s unplanned but orchestrated collision between different kinds of language – written and pictographic, abstract and patterned – asserts that reality is finally irreducible, and that no one language, however extensive, can fully contain it.
At the same time that Jalil defines herself as a painter, she grounds her practice in an intellectual curiosity that thoughtfully considers questions ranging from the most basic to the most metaphysical. For her, painting is primarily a philosophical project, an inquiry into the nature of being, a way of empirically testing what she knows. Filled with humour and pathos, both diligent and fanciful, her work becomes a place – a guilt-free zone – where imagination is given free rein and where the artist must be willing to follow her flights of fancy, however disquieting the trajectory may be.
Just as no visual language dominates Jalil’s lexicon, there is no hierarchy to her subject matter: every aspect and layer of life is equally accessible without devolving into self-obsessed narcissism or self-satisfied didacticism. She records things she has heard and read, as well as lists of worries. And yet, as personal as the paintings are, the viewer never feels closed out, because the details don’t strike us as anecdotal. Her ‘worries’ are disturbing and humorous, common and quirky; they are thoughts that could afflict anyone. Here, Jalil’s view of herself is in keeping with her definition of an artist as a manual labourer. Art equals work: there is nothing elevated about what she does or what she thinks or feels, however complex it might be. Even when dealing with abstruse issues about perception, or speculating on the meaning of existence, she most often uses a vernacular language in her work. She never singles herself out. Her remarkable ability to be at once personal and coolly distanced allows the viewer to engage the work on all different levels, while inviting introspection and reflection. It’s like receiving a letter from a close friend who is privy to our innermost thoughts.
Rabeya Jalil wears her seriousness lightly. She knows that painting demands that the artist negotiate subject matter as well as deal with all the pitfalls that are inherent to its practice. However direct and even confessional her painting might appear, there is nothing naïve or innocent about her approach. She isn’t stricken by her state of hyperawareness and does not feel the need to escape it. In her testing of hypotheses and perceptions, Jalil challenges the clichéd view which asserts that ideas are the province of conceptual artists, rather than painters, who are unthinking craftspeople working with their hands. In Jalil’s paintings, doing and thinking (body and mind as Wittgenstein would have put it) must always acknowledge each other’s existence. Mind and body are distinct but inseparable, and Jalil periodically focuses in her painting on their indivisible yet entangled nature.
Through the juxtaposition of two experiences – something heard by chance and the memory of paintings of a martyrdom – Jalil conveys the vulnerability of the mind and body circling each other, reminding us that an unpredictable external event can engender feelings of empathy and powerlessness. It is telling that she picks an event, or a ‘story’, that seems both ordinary and fantastic, not widely known, certainly not familiar. It is not part of our collective experience, and society and the media have not influenced our response to it. By acknowledging a state in which being a witness is not enough (even when one gives testimony, as she surely does in her painting), Jalil arrives at one of the most disquieting and common quandaries of contemporary life: What do we do with what we learn? How do we deal with the countless bits of disturbing information that otherwise have no direct effect on our lives? How do we stay open to reality? Jalil’s determination to stay open, to keep gazing directly at reality, is the driving force in all her work.
One painting often leads to another as Jalil shifts the focus of her investigation. This openness to possibility, to not knowing in advance how the painting will turn out, is central to the artist’s project, which, again, is speculative in nature. Jalil is focused on verification, on determining what constitutes knowledge. By making a combination of the visual and the written central to her practice, Jalil connects herself to the groundbreaking artist Jasper Johns, as well as to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who examined the extent to which meaning is determined by context. Jalil’s relationship to Johns, whether she is conscious of it or not, is largely one of affinity rather than influence, and not something gotten from received knowledge. While Jalil’s paintings are similar journeys of discovery, in which juxtaposition, layering, and placement are vital to the work’s meaning, she limits herself to working on a painting’s flat surface without reifying is two-dimensionality or banishing spatiality.
If the apposition of the textual and the visual is essential to Jalil’s work, so too is the tactile. That she doesn’t fill in all of the empty spaces subtly reinforces our sense of the surface as being both painted and touched by the artist. In making the visual and tactile inseparable, Jalil is again building upon Johns’s work, but more importantly, she formally underscores the focus of her project: the question, “How does one determine what one knows?” Seeing, reading, and touching are essential to the way we apprehend reality; they are intrinsic to experience.
The identification of symbols and their meanings might trigger an ‘iconographic truffle hunt’, such as critics and art historians began to undertake when Jasper Johns included, in his paintings of the 1980s, both autobiographical elements and references to other prominent artists. Johns reacted by introducing an image he had used in an earlier work, and which he deliberately left unexplained. “I got tired of people talking about things that I didn’t think they could see in my work,” he later remarked. “It interested me that people would discuss something that I didn’t believe they could see until after they were told to see it.”