Text | Aasim Akthar
Visuals | Courtesy writer & artist
Babar Gull’s linear paintings pose formal dilemmas, linguistic slippages, and categorical paradoxes that turn formal analysis into a game – and perhaps that’s the point. To attempt to describe these pieces is to willingly abandon the possibility of fixity, as his work has an uncanny way of being perpetually in advance of its pursuer. Stated another way, Gull’s work performs a set of operations that unmoor the term ‘geometric abstraction’ leading viewers in unexpected directions – obliging us to begin the game again.
This process of repetition, by carving out a new point of arrival and departure with each of the twenty-one works presented in this exhibition, produces variations that are best considered comparatively. For instance, if in There Is No Darkness, sinuous surfaces of colour meander around the painting’s edges to create a glaring lacuna of white in the centre of the composition, then in And The Earth Was, a likewise empty space is framed by an equally vivacious band of hard-edge facets and curvilinear perturbations. Both works activate the modernist tension between figure and ground and the problem of the framing edge, evoking evanescent veils and taut clearings. Yet Gull’s biomorphic bulges insinuate the presence of the pleasure principle as an irrepressible formal substance. Similarly, if in monochromatic patches of colour hover above and below the ground, then in …, reductive abstraction has been sliced and diced into smaller units, proverbially woven into a tapestry or atlas separated from a broad white surface. For a viewer confronted with these paradigms of twentieth-century avant-garde aesthetics, simultaneously seeing the likes of Agnes Martin and Yves Klein in the work is inevitable. But Gull transposes modernism’s heroic self-presentation into a minor key: The diminutive size of his monochromes and their decorative leanings allow them to read also as objects of play, craft, and design. However charged this territory may be, to identify merely the historic references in Gull’s work is to tumble into a well-laid trap – one set to reveal the beholder’s own belatedness in understanding that, foremost, these paintings are producing new conditions of possibility.
Despite this exhibition’s constellation of filiations, Gull is no run-of-the-mill third or fourth generation modernist. If anything, what his work suggests is that contemporary abstraction cannot be determined or defined by any single identity or index, but rather that it ceaselessly fosters new connections. Yet Babar Gull’s handwork, veering from nonchalant to brazen and obsessive, never allows the references to music and folk culture (by his own admission) to settle into facile codification. And here I do not mean into a literal signification, but rather into a comfortable and consistent notion of what abstract painting is. Only adding to this ambivalence are Gull’s titles. In his hands, ‘painting’ and ‘abstraction’ not only are susceptible to constant modification but are always revitalizing themselves by dismantling their own authority.
Lahore-based Babar Gull has been painting the same painting since 2016, so to speak: alternating rows of vertical and horizontal lines neatly scalped into the skin of wasli with a razor-sharp cutter to form a grid of squares. Staggered across the surface to occupy pictorial space as an all over pattern, these graphic lines allude to the occupation of time. Wistfully titled as ‘Graphic Trajectories’, these gridlocked works demonstrate the artist’s superlatively disciplined approach. Each work has been meticulously hand painted with pigments, filling the squares of equivalent dimensions (and, as always, equivalent design), precisely aligned and conjoined to form a larger matrix, multiplying the scope of its jagged pattern.
Though each painted shape is manageably human scale, the works, when installed, exude a persistent sense of magnification and closeness. Gull’s latticework is so tightly organized that claustrophobia threatens to set in even as dizziness has already taken hold. Vision bounces compulsively between hundreds of angled lines as the viewer attempts to map structural alignments along overlapping axes, as though tracking sight lines across an orchard. The crosscurrent sends a shudder through the grid’s familiar order, shifting linear weight. As though a strong hit of Op art, the effect is dependably hypnotic.
For being abstract, these works – terse and dry, yet richly redolent and associative – picture so much. Absorbed into the pulp ground, Gull’s repeating, ever-expanding pattern doubles painting as printed textile and suggests that the wasli be experienced like freshly pressed linen. The mesh-like field is itself a graphic stylization of the interwoven structure of fabric, seen here as a metaphor for densely stitched interrelations. Analogously, perhaps, the pattern reads schematically as a force field, an energy map of interlocking charges evenly dispersed in entropic equilibrium. But beyond the preferentiality of his geometric abstractions, what’s most vertiginous about Gull’s paintings is the exuberant, ecstatic, unrelenting single-mindedness with which he has produced them, mantra-like. And increasingly, it seems that the paintings aren’t so abstract after all, but rather are quite literal indexes of the persistence that is their impetus. Ultimately, the artist’s labour and conviction in pattern – as an aesthetic mode and template for existence – are his real subjects.
Babar Gull’s modernism evolves gradually from a substratum of biomorphic forms. It is a geometry that provides a plane of attention and awareness upon which the perception of sublimity depends. His is the space of the sublime, a form of prayer, utterances in an open space – lake, field or desert. To quote from a Biblical passage: ‘…make level in the desert a highway for our God.’1 Complement it with a Tao thought:
‘If water is so clear, so level
How much more the spirit of man?’
Gull carries the aura of self-sufficiency, and proclaims the oracular nature of art. The work then is not about nature, but about only the experience of being before nature. The logic of this solitude is precisely that nature as referent is abolished in favour of an ideal structure of a grid that becalms the vision into undifferentiated states of rest. A lyric may thus be opened out to reveal its inner matrix, so that the sensation that the very dismantling of the great visible structures of nature creates would surface: the inflected face of water or invisible wind currents from the desert plains computed on to a notation ally marked graph.
The grid proper has of course a connection with a properly substantiated modernist moment. Mondrian, for example, who derives a logic from nature but takes it into a hypothetical structure of the universe as conceived of, or rather conflated with, the structure of the mind. Thus even when nature is the ultimate referent, it is the eye as part of the mind that gives intelligible coherence in a non-representational image. By the time we come to late modernism, Clement Greenberg’s theorizing favours the picture plane as the ultimate field of vision wherein experience (of nature) is finally translated into an eminently visible form, devoid even of linguistic meaning, as of any kind of illusionistic reality. Gull’s work could be read in terms of these late manifestations.
Agnes Martin worked with simple found objects; she painted dots of atmospheric colours; she drew people, grass, as little rectangles; she worked out spaces between drops of rain. She made an airy matrix. Similarly, she was interested in weaving, which led to the open form of the lattice. Her grids and parallel lines were undulating, following a pencil along a string or measuring tape; and they were nearly invisible: ‘luminous containers for the shimmer of line.’ To quote a passage from Rosalind Krauss: ‘…the grid announces among other things, a modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.’
Babar Gull’s drawings, etched with precision instruments, are strictly ruled. Tense like arrows, echoes, shafts of light. This complex graphic conjunction, a steeply positioned and delicately webbed wing, is strung to yield a set of notes that splinter into echoes and traverse the elements in a series of repetitive sounds displaced in time. Yet the works remain optical, and thus the perceptual field persists. The drawing floats and settles like a macroscopic grid on the paper, it appears as a mini matrix in the lucid eye. With a mere glance, Gull maps out the terrain he sees across these great distances, from the ground above to the sky below in a transparent interlace of land, water, air.
Gull’s drawings raise the question of perspective in several different ways. Perspective as an ubiquitous premise of thought; and the vanishing point as the flip face of imagist art that is mostly representational and anthropomorphic and full of object presence, blocking the horizon by foregrounded bodies. Here, in Gull’s drawings, all is distance. There is nothing waiting at the end of the perspectival trajectory, no encounter at the vanishing point. Displaced through percussive shifts of the receding target, the vanishing point stretches both terrain and memory.
‘Those who know, cannot tell’, says Jalaluddin Rumi. It is in the manner of a monk’s pragmatics that Babar Gull has worked, where there is nothing more to see than there is to do, turning vast bodily navigation into a meditative act, a formal configuration.
About the Author:
Aasim Akhtar is an independent artist, art critic and curator. He teaches Art Appreciation and Studio Practice at The National College of Arts, Rawalpindi. His has been published in magazines, catalogues, and books both nationally and internationally, and his art work has been widely exhibited.He is the author of two published books, Regards Croises (1996) and The Distant Steppe (1997), and has just finished writing his third, Dialogues with Threads: Traditions of Embroidery in Hazara.