Shahzia Sikander and Princely Deer Hunters (ca. 1660 70)
When I look at old paintings, I am less interested to read where they are from, and instead respond more instinctively. It might be my mood at the time or one little thing I’m obsessed with in my own work, and I might try to locate that within a given painting. When looking at this painting of the deer hunt, I zoomed right into the paint’s topography. The rendered range and deliberation of the brush within the work is vast given its small scale, especially in the contrast between the starkly designed and composed two central riders and their horses against the softness of the landscape and the enveloping light. I also like the unexpected use of a device, gold for example, a fairly rigid medium and color transforms into a beautifully lucid and fluid agent here against the horizon line, functioning as a catalyst of transition between the highly stylized and the abstract. Utilizing a strategy for creating something unpredictable frees the artist from prescribed techniques and allows for greater range.
But strategy in general can be quite obvious in this work. There is a quality in this painting where the painter is not just imposing an aesthetic on the world. As Alex Nagel pointed out when we looked at it together, the world he is painting is a courtly world that is itself already designed. The world of these painters is already staged, so the framing and presentation of a composition will often reflect a kind of rhythmic space as a result. In this painting, for example, we know the whole hunting exercise is an orchestrated one. The horses’ manes are braided in a particular way, the riders are dressed just so—a sport, but on display. At times when I see a work that doesn’t have these aesthetic impositions, glitches where the art rejects formal protocols, it’s quite beautiful in some unexpected manner. For example, when brushwork gets to a point of liquidity where it’s not even brushwork anymore, as in the turbulent sky, reminiscent of marbled paper. There’s a certain dynamism in the way things dry when they’ve left liquid to form as it will.
The visual interest occurs when the artist takes liberties within more classical compositions. Not everything has to be fully defined or embellished. A type of in-between looseness can be very effective. The simplicity of line and form in rendering the deer is not only precise in sentiment but helps capture the animals as a panic-stricken herd. I am also curious about the “damaged” aspects of this painting, the way color relationships can create ambiguity in whether or not something is intentional. The painting possesses a calibrated modulation across its visual surface. The entire surface of this painting is visually intense, especially the juxtaposition of colors. The question, then, is how to engage the depth in the work. One is looking into a painting, not just looking at an object. One is invited to expand inward or “into” the scene and one can enter from any point on the painting’s surface.
When I study, I usually cut a small square out of a blank sheet of paper and then place the square over a reference area as a way to find unexpected details. In observing this painting, I studied the spaces between forms and the landscape around it as well as the space between colors. I also use a magnifying glass to dig deeper. With high magnification, details invisible to the naked eye start emerging. Layers of drawing under the painting can unexpectedly appear. This way of investigating is fascinating, as it also helps to break down the preciousness of the work. The hand of the artist, the back-and-forth of the line in illustrating a form, reveal the process of painting itself. In examining the deer in particular, I could see how closely their forms come together and separate, how their bodies evolve, how a formal dynamic is created with the line. There is usually a lot more liberty in the underlying drawing. The sketched lines are eventually refined to become just one careful line instead of a small sketch. The forms are not just stock figures thrown in.
My favorite part of this painting is its composition. I like how the center is so manicured while the edges collect the clutter. It hints at a bigger world beyond what is depicted.
SHAHZIA SIKANDER is an artist. She lives in New York.