Ubaid Syed’s abstract expressionist landscapes of northern Europe were exhibited at VM Art Gallery in Karachi last month under the title Midnight Sun. Paintings of landscapes are often seen as odes to nature, however when contextualized by the artist’s subjectivity they transcend from being just a comment on scenery.
The literary theorist Victor Shklovsky maintained that the purpose of art was "de-familiarization”, through which ‘a new form appears’. This new form is a result of the individual artist’s unique take on their subject matter and a conscious attempt to experiment with the processes and techniques used to explore it. The midnight sun, a phenomenon common to the Nordic landscape, forms the subject matter of Syed’s paintings; it occurs during the summers when the sun can be seen at midnight. This surreal phenomenon creates an intriguing play of light and shadow which the artist captures through acrylic and oil pastels on canvases of varying sizes, all which have the same title: Midnight Sun.
The artist uses his works to demonstrate how light transforms a landscape whose ‘visual certainties are only a kind of optical illusion’, and which according to the artist is constantly changing and moving. He attempts to break this visual barrier and present the various possibilities and ways in which a certain landscape can distort and become unfamiliar.
Some of the works that the viewer encounters seem to exist somewhere between landscape and abstraction. The work titled Midnight Sun No.30, at first glance, comprises of bold strokes of reds, blues, purples and greens. Only after some moments of contemplation does it reveal a distant cliff and perhaps a river. And suddenly it is evident that the seemingly erratic swipes of color are in fact deliberate and well thought out. The colors explore the play of light on the natural terrain of Lapland (Finland) and Narvik (Norway) and lend the paintings a sense of depth and perspective.
Some of the other works like Midnight Sun No.23 and Midnight Sun No.19 use colour in a more controlled manner, making it easier to recognise the topography of the area depicted, while others are so vigorous that it is hard to see familiar imagery within them. The works invite a more sensory exploration than a cerebral one; to experience the spontaneous burst of colour in a palette of green and the use of certain shades of colour create a sense of realism in an otherwise abstract body of work. The sizes of the canvas vary drastically which creates a contrast between the smaller, more claustrophobic paintings and the larger, more expansive ones. Perhaps the artist is touching upon the nature of urban and natural landscapes of cities through these contrasts.
The curation of the exhibition also highlighted the contrasts and differences in the artist’s displayed works. Instead of displaying the paintings in a manner that reveals the change in the artist’s style, works that are painted in a distinctly different way from one another were displayed in juxtaposition; bringing to light Syed’s art making process. Syed’s employment of various techniques and movements to manipulate his subject matter are easily visible when looking at either the oil pastel scribbles or a very delicately layered part of the canvas. Midnight Sun was a beautiful play on colour that offered something for everyone. It gave the viewers plenty to think about but also allowed them to just enjoy the brilliant hues that surprise, intrigue and delight.
All photographs have been provided by VM Gallery
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