Raqib Shaw : Palazzo della Memoria
April 22 to September 25, 2022
April 22 to September 25, 2022
I went to Ca’ Pesaro for the sole purpose of viewing Gustav Klimt’s Judith II (1909), but in two small, out-of-the-way rooms, there was an unexpected exhibition of contemporary art, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It was a showing of twelve paintings by Calcutta-born, Kashmir-raised, South London-based artist Raqib Shaw, titled Palazzo della Memoria (Memory Palace), curated by Sir Norman Rosenthal. Most of the paintings are being shown for the first time. Walking into these rooms was akin to walking into a gem-like dream of Western art-historical references, apocalyptic fires, cute dogs, and queer coding. There is a murderous man-rabbit, wearing tall rubber boots and holding a bloody knife, who appears in more than one painting. It’s unclear what this figure symbolizes, but he adds a darkly comic presence that suggests a possible threat, but also a thread of homoeroticism. The paintings are startlingly opulent, with intense colour that has resulted from Shaw’s praxis, which is time-consuming and uniquely haptic in how he engages with his chosen materials. He begins with detailed drawings, subsequently using acrylic liner and enamel paint to create raised lines on an aluminum surface. His use of industrial paint is just one of many unexpected juxtapositions in his oeuvre. Once the paint pools in the spaces created by the raised tracery, Shaw blends it with porcupine quills, which Indigenous artists have long used to decorate clothing and other material culture. These works are painfully detailed and painfully striking. Truly, they are some of the most gorgeous paintings I have ever seen.
The twelve paintings were conceived specifically for Ca’ Pesaro, and canonical paintings by Venetian artists, among others, were sources of inspiration for Shaw; examples include La Tempesta (2019–21), which alludes to Giorgione’s enigmatic painting of the same title (1506–08) held by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, and Agony in the Garden II (2020–21), which references Tintoretto’s The Prayer in the Garden (1578–81; Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice). The queering of works by white, heterosexual male “Old Masters” is not new, but Shaw’s paintings add to this act of queering the perspective of a man of colour in exile, referring not only to the Western art-historical tradition but also to Persian and Mughal miniatures, Hindu mythologies, and personal grief. Agony in the Garden II depicts an Edenic garden in the foreground (Shaw’s actual South London garden); a muscular man with a hare’s head wearing a tank top, jean shorts, and rubber boots prunes an unseen hedge with bloody shears in the lower right corner. In the middle ground, the artist, sitting on a small rocky overhang, wearing a blue paisley top, luxurious blue-suede loafers, and a light-blue scarf expertly twisted around his neck, picks yellow flowers and places them in a basket. In the background is the London skyline. Despite the quiet atmosphere of the painting, the title suggests the affective pain that lies underneath Shaw’s carefully fashioned exterior.