Hiba Schahbaz was trained as a miniaturist painter by the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. Her early work, as well has her art now, powerfully combine high technical skill, a sense of the female position in Muslim Pakistan, and a slightly troubled, troubling feeling for herself as a painter who has moved from a highly hierarchical culture to America, where aesthetic pluralism can confuse a classically trained artist. Thankfully, she has remained levelheaded about her task, even as, in response to her new situation, she has enlarged a number of her paintings beyond the diminutive dimensions of her training and early career. Schahbaz has mostly kept close to her tradition, employing the discipline of her learned skills within the New York City environment, which tends to throw caution to the wind. As a result, her art has a measure and gravitas that not only belong to the painting traditions of her original culture, but to a seriousness of purpose we find in the artist herself.
On ViewThierry Goldberg Gallery
October 1 – November 8, 2015
Schahbaz’s combination of deadpan self-portraiture, usually but not always in the nude, and the exquisite details of architecture, flocks of birds, and plants, flowers, and trees make for memorable art. The Guard (2014), one of the largest pieces in the show with dimensions of 45 by 35 inches, is ostensibly a picture of a palace, embellished with two trees with foliage growing from impossibly thin branches and, on the first level, an armed guard of women closely resembling the artist. On the second floor, in three different rooms we see the artist naked in a bath, on a bed, and resting on a couch, but while the circumstances might seem to place the imagery erotically, the actual feeling of the nudes is dark, even somber without being overtly sexual. There is an initial repose to the painting that a closer look does away with; everything seems to be in order, except inevitably it is not. To emphasize the troubled nature of the milieu, Schahbaz goes quite far: she paints herself nude, hanging from a rope attached to the topmost part of the building. This is one of the mysteries of her art, but it can be said it imbues her work with a brooding quality that is deeply effective if not easily understood.
Silent Cry (2014) is an eerie, touching small painting of the artist in the nude, with a tree above, its undulating trunk crosses the middle of the picture. Beside it, there is a wolf baying silently to the open air. Golden flames seem to rise along Schahbaz’s body. As in all of her art, this mixture of unreal beauty and real torment conveys an engaged, but uneasy sense of reality, the dualities of which she points out with extreme skill. While there are no particular details indicating personal difficulties, the viewer senses that Schahbaz is communicating distress within her own coded, muted sensibility. The physical beauty of Schahbaz’s painting offsets the trouble we experience, but only partially. The suffering is not only personal, but universal, making the painting larger than a simple declaration of an uneasy self. Even the decorative elements in Self-Portrait with Roses (2014), in which Schahbaz reclines naked in a stylized landscape and is covered with roses, convey something hidden, perhaps mildly malevolent. Without this undercurrent of baleful emotion, these works would succumb to mere decoration. But they do not.
The hanging motif recurs in a small work from 2015, a dark-skinned Schahbaz hangs from a tree, whose branches and roots surround her. Again, she is without clothes, and holds a black rose while staring grimly off to the side of right side of the painting. Her hair is free and disheveled, and coupled with her mirthless gaze, the painting communicates a real sense of hopelessness. Whatever the source of the artist’s pessimism, or even despair, it is at least partially redeemed by the high technical quality of the painting. Appreciating this does not save us from a general feeling of doom, yet there is something positive to be said for work that so completely fulfills its paradigms as art. Schahbaz has made more than a few works like this over the course of time, beginning when she was a student at Pratt Institute, where I taught her in a seminar. She is still young, but no longer a fledgling in the New York art world. It will be interesting to see which way her work turns in the future. I especially hope that New York will see her paintings as fully contemporary art, rather than an exotic specialty by someone whose aesthetic lies in the distance.