Waqas Khan is a man of contradictions. Standing an imposing 1,88m tall, with hands the size of a basketball player’s, it is difficult to imagine that this gregarious young man is able to create works of intricate detail which often require a magnifying glass as a viewing tool. Khan lives and works in Lahore and was trained at the National College of Art, a school that produced artists such as Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi who are famous for their revival of traditional miniature painting in their contemporary practice. Despite the intricate detail Khan creates on wasli paper, there is nothing miniature about Khan or his work. Just as the smallest part of matter, an atom, has the potential to reach infinite scale as it forms compounds, so do the elements of Waqas Khan’s drawings. Khan’s smaller format works, such as Forming Spaces VIII-XV, are ideas that the artist plans to expand into large format works in the future, such as The Breath of the Compassionate IV, in the future. Miniature painting is finite within a framed plane; while Khan begins his work from the outside and continues inwards, his work has no frame and evokes the potential of expanding beyond the confines of the space and time.
Khan’s meditative works are created by the contact between his hand and the wasli paper; Khan’s emotions drive his hand, and a simple change in his breathing or the tension with which he holds the pen will completely transform the stroke of his instrument. Khan uses only permanent ink in his work, and he lays his emotions out bare on the paper. There is no way to correct the drawing or hide marks that were created from the most intimate of his thoughts. Emotions are effervescent, but Khan is able to permanently chronicle passing feelings in his meticulous drawings. Khan’s work is an extension of himself and it is not something that can be done with assistants, but only through the process of a highly disciplined daily drawing routine in the studio. In the same vein, the work requires empathy from the viewer to access its emotional meaning, and Khan’s work can only be experienced in person. With this effort comes reward; Khan’s work gives back what you give to it. The more attention you pay and the closer you look, the more attached you become to the work and its mysteries unravel. French novelist Laurence Cossé once wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to master than repetition. If you do it badly, it’s clumsy, stupid. When it’s well done, it’s like a little echo, like waves, poetry itself”i. Echos, waves, poetry, love: these are all found in Khan’s sensitive drawings.
Khan puts as much effort into living as he does to working, and his work reflects the richness of his life experience which is spent between jam sessions with musicians in Lahore (who claim his studio as their own after working hours) and long walks in the countryside at his family farm. Khan loves his working process and is obsessive about his need to work. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wrote, “I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform -or perhaps distort- yourself through persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality”ii. Khan’s fingers are permanently distorted from the drawing process, but like a ballerina with distorted feet, it is a tool to enable seemingly effortless perfection.
Another contradiction in Khan’s work is that the more he fillls up the wasli paper with his microscopic dots, loops, and lines, the more important the voids in the space become. The empty spaces on the page are as important as the densely drawn ones, as beautifully illustrated in The Hole, 2014. Khan claims Sufi spirituality as a strong influence on his being. “Let there be spaces in your togetherness,” wrote Sufi inspired Lebanese artist and poet Khalil Gibran in The Prophet when describing marriage, “and let the winds of the heavens dance between you”iii. In a series called The Breath of the Compassionate, Khan’s work evokes the complexities of love; the spaces where two people come together, the spaces where they will never converge, and the mutations, scars, and effort that come with holding togetherness and separateness together. Khan’s works, regardless of the scale, are full of complex emotions and ideas formed from seemingly simple marks. In Khan’s second solo show at Sabrina Amrani Gallery, the artist left out a title, prompting the audience to find their own interpretations and connections by empathizing with the work. Rather than priming the space with words, Khan lets the viewer prime it with their own emotional state of being, reversing the usual hierarchy between artist and viewer.
i Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore, trans. Alison Anderson(London: Europa Editions, 2010).
ii Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, trans. Philip Gabriel
(New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2008), 68.
iii Khalil Gibran, The Prophet (London: Martino Fine Books, 2011).
The first encounter is that of the naked eye with an object which is not yet an artwork; the artwork is still forming itself through manifold perception channels, while the cultural object and the retina are becoming acquainted with each other. At first there is a gesture of confusion, attempting to break through the apparently endless grids, visible only through the gaps and the cracks in this vast field, enclosed by the illusion of a frame. The viewer thinks at first: Oh, it's a drawing! And the objects, albeit nowhere symbolic as totems and statues, and clear to the point of transparence, are much further than they appear, as in a cosmic rear view mirror. This is because drawing, at least in the case of Waqas Khan, is not a composition, but a release from containment: saturated space is liberated from its own formal properties by means of meticulous markings. They enable space to withdraw from the terror of solidity and spill over the world; doubling itself as both surface and emotion.
Saturation is still one of the defining features of contemporary art. Retrospective exhibitions of major contemporary artists often display large scale works that defy perception scales, and whole sections at art fairs showcase only 'oversized' works; rivers, boats and houses are either staged in or partially transported to exhibition spaces and understood 'critically'. The question belongs to both art and architecture: the vertical spaces of aluminum and glass become autonomous natural forces in the skyline and grow out of human scale, mortally diminishing our size without leaving us atrophied and unable to grasp this new sense of space-ness. The grandeur, which is both technological and historical, is paradoxically consistent with the Duchampian proposal that eschews the idea of a retinal art that is meant to only please the eye; playing into the hands of the reactionary aestheticism of previous centuries.
Khan's proposal, however modest, is not a reversal of the gigantism of contemporary art, but the intimate desire to seduce you into better and slower observation, at the risk of realizing that the retinal experience is not optic alone, that there are many possibilities of bodily perception. In his work, organic existence rises between the human body and the world; they constitute each other through a pure consciousness which emanates out of both labor and miracle. The artist, currently working and living in Lahore, in the Punjab region of Pakistan, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is immersed into the architectural gigantism that punctuates contemporary life, particularly in the developing world where the architectural and political forces of urban homogeneity and verticality, are met with violent responses. Yet, his work is not documentary or even representational. The artist is looking for a warmer place where one can simultaneously find, more intimacy and more universality.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in the larger South Asia and Middle East region, Khan was not trained in Western art and then traveled back to search for a tradition in ruins either as nostalgia or re-invention, but rather, fed from a living tradition with a long history, at a cosmopolitan art academy in Pakistan. His evolved-from-Bardhakhat technique, based on Mughal miniature paintings that originated in the 16th century in the multicultural worlds of India and Persia, turns to Rotring pens and wasli paper, seeking the perfect environment for a patient and meticulous practice that demands intense concentration and an exemption from the visual dispersion of the world; as Maurice Merleau-Ponty postulated it, “Only the painter is entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he sees”. Although Khan is not a painter, he operates as one: Allowing space to play with its simple material properties. A history of art with a history of materials and alive traditions as backbone.
The Western equivalent of this technique would be the Pointillism of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, in the late 19th century and that belongs to the history of Impressionism. They used in their work the 'point' technique in order to extract more light, color and exterior from a simple palette (a technique ultimately mastered by Camille Pissarro), as opposed to the dark interiors of classical art. Musical Pointillism, also known as Punctualism, however, resonates better with Khan: in the middle of the 20th century, postulated that music consists of separately formed particles which, regardless of their complexity, are assigned an immediate value in compositional scales, so that discreet values are maintained throughout in all music parameters. Similarly, in Waqas Khan's work, systems of complexity converge, which are not dominated by large structures but by self-standing units or monads. As in music theory, the whole is a function of time, yet free from measurements of time.
Examples of this 'point music' would be the «Structures» of Pierre Boulez (1952-1961) and John Cage's «Rioanji» (1983), both of which are profoundly influenced by the East and with an emphasis on form rather than message. Cage's case in particular is of interest here as the work was inspired by his visit to the eponymous garden in 1962: While the work remains so formally minimal, it attempts nothing than to imitate nature and transport you back to the fabulous Kyoto garden. The legendary Sarkis, an artist from Turkey, re interpreted in his «Cage, Ryoanji, flute partition according to Sarkis» (2013), the music sheets of Cage in ninety-six watercolors, consisting only of dotted lines and inspired by calligraphy. May it be that Waqas Khan's objects will be read once as music? An answer is difficult to approach, especially as his works deal with concrete cultural objects (they speak the language of a culture, at the intersection between organic and conceptual).
These objects, emerging as surfaces, disintegrate in the presence of the viewer, and become pure consciousness. I was particularly struck by the artist's dreams inside dreams, in which the process of the work continues in his mind and then in the oneiric world, he remembers that he must sleep; only in order to wake up again and continue his stealth, meditative work; the process of writers and mystics. This intoxicating rigor of repetition is what brings him to the borderline of abstraction, which demands both freedom and discipline. Kandinsky, in his theory of point and line, concluded that the geometric point is the ultimate and most singular union of speech and silence, the most elementary collision between idea and material. But unlike Kandinsky, Khan did not develop a theory of the plane but rather creates his planes based on the implosion of dots around themselves; both ecstasy and blur: creating a speech in form of a diary. A careful practice, dotting circle by circle, holding his breath, in physically demanding self-containment.
"There are painters who for me are voyagers of truth. They have given me lessons. Whom do I call voyagers of truth? The one who painted water lilies for the last ten years of his life. The one who painted water lilies up until the last painting. Until his death", writes Hélène Cixous about Monet, who considered his life work of tri_ing importance compared to the water lilies that he painted over and over, hundreds of times. This kind of obsessive repetition, understood by psychoanalysis as a missed encounter with the real, becomes meditation and ascent when the artist chooses a human truth, translatable to all, over the contingencies of our political realities. Accordingly, every time I gaze into Waqas Khan's work, I need to come closer and closer; he demands unrestrained attention. It always seems to me as if he hasn't arrived, as if I'm not going to arrive, as if he is the artist of whom Cixous writes, 'The one who searches until the last painting.'