Open presence is an acknowledgment of the space of consciousness, an intermediate space between senses and states. A place one may come to observation without preferences. A holding place between the ordinary and sublime at once. The skin, senses and states are porous through which one may sieve into open presence, where everything touches everything.
All major mystical traditions have recognized that there is a paradox at the heart of the journey of return to Origin. …Put simply, this is that we are already what we seek, and that what we are looking for on the Path with such an intensity of striving and passion and discipline is already within and around us at all moments. The journey and all its different ordeals are all emanations of the One Spirit that is manifesting everything in all dimensions; every rung of the ladder we climb toward final awareness is made of the divine stuff of awareness itself; Divine Consciousness is at once creating and manifesting all things and acting in and as all things in various states of self-disguise throughout all the different levels and dimensions of the universe.
Andrew Harvey “It is only when we realize that life is taking us nowhere that it begins to have meaning.” P.D. Ouspensky
2016 . 1 A word of love in the form of burning awareness, i offer oil on paper 112 x 74 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 2 Open presence, where everything touches everything oil on paper 114 x 63 cm [private collection]
2016 . 3 Elements at the heart of time that forms cannot reach oil on paper 158 x 74 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 11 The form of the last shadow wood 122 x 20 x 20 cm [artist collection]
2015 . 1 In the absolute presence of a distant light . 1 oil on paper 93 x 63 cm [private collection]
2015 . 2 In the absolute presence of a distant light . 2 oil on paper 93 x 63 cm [private collection]
2016 . 9 In the absolute presence of a distant light 3 oil on paper 30 x 20 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 10 In the absolute presence of a distant light 4 oil on paper 30 x 20 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 17 Skin rituals over a flesh weakness oil on timber 92 x 92 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 18 And of skies it is said 'there are seven' oil on timber 92 x 92 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 6 Looking through the ancient sepia into future fluorescence. 2 parchment, digital print. 30 x 20 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 5 Looking through the ancient sepia into future fluorescence.1 parchment, digital print. 30 x 20 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 12 Touching blind, inside out . 1 pigment and oil on paper 63 x 46 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 13 Touching blind, inside out . 2 pigment and oil on paper 63 x 46 cm [private collection]
2016 . 14 Touching blind, inside out . 3 pigment and oil on paper 63 x 46 cm [private collection]
2016 . 15 Touching blind, inside out . 4 pigment and oil on paper 63 x 46 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 16 Touching blind, inside out . 5 pigment and oil on paper 63 x 46 cm [artist collection]
2016 . 21 oil and pigment on paper 46 x 55 cm . 18 x 21.6 inches [private collection]
2016 . 22 oil and pigment on paper 46 x 55 cm . 18 x 21.6 inches [private collection]
2016 . 23 oil and pigment on paper 46 x 55 cm . 18 x 21.6 inches [artist collection]
2016 . 4 Dawning into coherence wood 102 x 20 x 20 cm [artist collection]
2015 . 3 The way one comes to fade oil on paper 114 x 71 cm [artist collection]
“August 1998, Washington DC, The National Gallery of Art played host to a historic show of Mark Rothko. Walking through the show was an experience that was nonpareil. You couldn’t walk for long. There was an uncanny sensation that made you sit, made you want to contemplate, for seconds, minutes, hours. It was the inane experience of ‘silence’,” recounts Uma Nair.
If colour could only paralyse the viewer’s mind and imagination, it was here. Think of the opposite sensation. Of colours soft, sombre, so filled with angst that it could be a bleeding piece of heart. Contrast the tenor of hues in this show entitled ‘Open Presence’ — a suite of paintings on paper and timber, and sculptures — by Ayessha Quraishi at Koel Gallery in Karachi. The years reflect the phases of meditative melancholy, and solitude becomes a choice that celebrates the stance. The shades of the setting sun, the autumnal instincts in time all seep through to give at times a ranged horizon that appears, not as a forbidding pulsation that we cannot traverse, but as a presence that has been scattered by the sky’s weight.
For Ayessha, the sky dispels the darkness but also brings in a distilled diffusion that distinguishes the tenets of time in the experience that mirrors its own terrain. When the deeper tones revel you can sense an avalanching, of the freight of sienna and burnt charcoal towards the eye. Indeed, these perspectives are often so precariously projected that, ideally, the viewer ought to adopt a silent stance to do them justice. “I have always been preoccupied with the distinct possibilities of space,” whispers Ayessha. ‘Space forms the foundation of the abstract expression. Why should I talk about it?’ Her question sets the tone for the emphatic silence that she expects the viewer to imbibe. Whether light or dark, it is the formless sensation of colour that grows with the meditative monologue as well as the monochromatic miasma that enfolds. It is here that one understands the Zen that pervades Ayessha’s idiom. Subtle minimalist renditions skim the interiors of the contemplated terrain.
Ayessha’s personal choices seem remote, so singularly ascetic, and extremely bare in terms of the resolutions that it makes you wonder if the artist asks for a little more than solitude, a stillness perhaps like the pause in a concerto in which she can layer over those first memories, the experience of a rare other openness that she has sought out. In all her works, there are only two distinct planes. There is the horizontal break of single spatial construct that speaks of the language of classic minimalism. In more ways than one, you wonder if the painted moment is the artist’s haven, if the painting itself is her notion of a spiritual home. Could the painted moment be the escape of a time when she felt trapped? She characterises the seizing of the cataclysmic encounters to metamorphose it into a calming effect, so as to dim the dismal degrees of despair.
Reading the phases of Ayessha’s evolution over two decades is akin to reading the canonical texts of Buddhism; they are so much the only durable dictates that you can carry with you in the imagination.
You look for signs to see if her pain is palpable. Tensions are created on the surface, and then intentions and dichotomies break cover. As the paint is banked down or piled up, or stroked in brisk staccato bristles, a mystery of infinitude develops.
There is no grandeur here in these ‘landscapes’ — there is only a spiritual quietude that propels itself into the extension of the self that retracts from the universe, to find another world — a world that diminishes the desire for external alacrities, and multiplies the quest for transcendentalism. For Ayessha, this desire is propelled by an overriding sense of mingled vulnerability to the outer world which results in the magnification of both curiosity and abject desolation.
The dialectic between the inner and the outer world is not the only one mediated in these paintings: Ayessha’s ‘landscapes’ (read mindscapes) are like mappings that reverberate with a series of adjacent assimilations and associations. This is moody lyricism at its best, it is like the sunset that swathes the sky in its tenacity of multicoloured hues, it is the torrent of darkness that creeps into the shade of trees, it is the ghostly galleon that vanishes from sight when the cloud of anxiety disturbs its very entity. Silence for Ayessha does not merely mirror a day; it is life in itself — the sunset of expectation that has drowned in the abyss of destiny. This is why silence becomes the negotiator as in ‘touching blind, inside out’.
There is no unpredictability here — metaphors are intimately reflective of natural processes, and part of her own structure of evolution that emerges out of a logical conclusion in terms of the dictates of her own conscience. These works are the embodiment of the natural forces of life; they define the compositional pole of the projection of suppressed desires. A fine-tuned spiritual sensibility operates here, it is as if the artist is heaping broken dreams on a dark plateau and opening doors that lead into shadowed hills of angst. The tranquil renditions lead to a rhythmic exchange between the tentative tremolo of terrain and the assurance of the darker in-depth reaches that swim through them, the viewer then is caught between the atmospheric magic of maximal intent and the contoured nuances of visual moorings, as in the series entitled ‘in the absolute presence of a distant light’.
A horizontal shard of light often pierces the surface of Ayessha’s work and splits the pictorial plane rupturing the surface into two schizophrenic spaces. One reverberates with the din of the materialistic world; the other recalls the yogi’s renunciation. The restlessness of one frame is counteracted by the calming expanse of the other. One senses the artist’s torment as she flits between the two, trying a delicate balancing act, attempting a reconciliation of these two apparent contradictions within her interior universe.
One senses her yearnings to break free of life’s entrapments and to abandon herself to an introspective space where she can attain a divine, joyful oneness. An existence shorn of complications, a life pared down to the essentials. So she shifts spaces, trying to expand the contours of this meditative expanse. But the boundaries remain resilient, impervious to her entreaties, a reminder of her all too human frailties. Yet she doesn’t give in, employing other means instead to liberate the self from life’s complications. Like a soothing swathe of light that seeps into the humming space from the outer edges, illuminating and enlightening as it travels along. Perhaps one day the horizontal shard of light that pierces the plane will fade. Perhaps one day, the ruptured plane will heal and become whole again.
If you have seen Mark Rothko, you will understand the language of spiritual serenity. You will also acknowledge the wisdom of Rothko’s words when he said: “the people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” Transcending and translating colour is the sojourn that Ayessha takes, it is as if she has stepped out of the slow road of reality into the hills of obscurity, that she has walked for over two decades, past forms suggestive of placid lakes and isolated woods surmounted by the clouds of the tides of time. Towards the end, the sojourn becomes a ritual, formulaic in its gestures, but completely ridden with the isolation of angst; and the artist then begins an inward transcendence.
This transcendence evokes the embracing of pensiveness and the charm of solitude. It becomes the very abacus on which creativity blooms to personify the crucibles of creation. The colours of Ayessha’s inner travails leave us with an experience of truth even as we absorb the nuances of her own meanderings and ponder over the significance of the unsaid predicament. This is perhaps the history of a person, of a society that traps, nurtures, challenges and even liberates her if she battles against the unequal forces with commitment and integrity. There are no semantic niceties in these works, because Ayessha herself is an extremely introverted individual.
Open Presence, an exhibition of Ayessha Quraishi’s artwork, was held at Koel Gallery Karachi from the 1st to the 17th of September 2016. The exhibition offered a rare opportunity to experience the work of one of Pakistan’s most original and reclusive artists.
The moment is simultaneously present throughout Ayessha Quraishi’s work – as if it were a gathering together of all time into an eternity that is Open Presence. In Quraishi’s art this openness makes its presence felt rather than known. In bypassing the limited reasoning of the analytical mind and connecting to pure consciousness, the making of meaning itself becomes a continuous, dynamic process, an open ended dialogue between the contemplated and the contemplator.
The sculpture occupying “the form of the last shadow” embraces an evocative ambiguity of form commensurate with its title. If a shadow can be said to have form this form would necessarily be fluid, as time is fluid, and indeed the wave-like contours are suggestive of movement yet at the same time they embody a graceful balance as if someone were holding a yoga pose. As in Quraishi’s paintings the surface is alive, tactile, porous – it becomes an invocation of that largest, all-enveloping organ of our body containing all of our senses, the skin, as well as earth which is the skin of the planet we inhabit.
Surface and texture are also exquisitely rendered in the series of ten paintings titled “touching blind, inside out”. True to their names, these paintings are a kind of living osmosis: they breathe through a subtle wordless braille mirroring how we breathe and communicate wordlessly, through our skin.
The series of paintings titled “in the absolute presence of a distant light” sees Quraishi revisiting the monochromatic tones that have been characteristic of her recent work. The eye travels along microtonal gradations and delicate gestural markings. These somber yet luminous pieces have a strong horizontal linearity which could be seen as the “distance”of a horizon but their beauty lies in being resistant to a reductive interpretation. The “light” represented here comes from within as well as from a distant glimmer. In stark juxtaposition to the monochrome series the two paintings titled “and of skies it is said ‘there are seven’ ” and “skin rituals over a flesh weakness” jolt one’s senses awake. In the former the energy is entirely vertical, leading the eye to dizzying heights. There is a velocity here, suggestive of flight. With its eye popping blues and reds “skin rituals over a flesh weakness” feels seismographic and tectonic in its intensity.
The series titled ‘looking through the ancient sepia into future florescence, many a self-portrait emerged’ is a testament to Quraishi’s continuous experimentation with hybrid digital forms of art. In this series, digital prints are overlaid with a translucent paper that serves as a membrane. Viewed through this sepia veil the pieces acquire an intriguing patina and mystery which is deepened by her radical statement to term these works “self portraits” when they are deliberately devoid of any figurative content. This, then is the self that escapes the limited boundary of personhood and leaps into its primal constituent elements of light, color and line.
Colour comes to the fore in the large paintings titled “an exaltation”. These have been termed by the artist as “works in progress”, however if one is encountering Quraishi’s work for the first time they would appear to be finished paintings. As someone who has known the artist’s work for nearly two decades and has been mesmerized with her early work; in particular the art journals which constitute a seemingly infinite number of chromatic and linear explorations on a small scale; it has been refreshing to note that where most artists would be content with variations on a theme of a winning formula, Quraishi is continually pushing the boundaries of her visual vocabulary. As soon as one thinks she has “settled” into a particular style she surprises with a change of scale, chromatics, and mediums. She is continually challenging herself as an artist and reinventing her art.
My personal favorite of all the paintings in the show, the title painting “open presence, where everything touches everything” is a masterpiece. One gets a strong sense of vibrant movement, reminiscent in its intensity of the most primal creative forces. There is concentration and expansion here. I was reminded of that other marvelous creation by the Argentine master, Julio Cortazar. In his book From The Observatory, written on site in Jaipur in the 1970s, disparate natural phenomena such as stars and eels are strung together in an inspired stream of consciousness. This painting speaks to me in a similar fashion, in ways both cosmic and visceral. The right side of the painting is an expansive flow of light lines touched by a single fiery red streak that flames like a wound of passion or a meteor across the infinite sky of consciousness. This is balanced by the dark, deeply sedimented gravitas of the left side of the canvas. The simultaneous tension and attraction between light and dark nodes in this painting creates an incredible electricity.
To merely call these works “abstract art “does not do them justice. In foregoing recognizable form they return us to the elements, to our senses and to our primordial being. In this way they embody both timelessness and instantaneity. At the same time there is a deep and thoughtful engagement with line, form and color that is the hallmark of a mature artist’s unstinting attention to the smallest detail. There are no sloppy strokes here, yet at the same time when Quraishi makes a bold gesture it is with the same one-pointed focus that a yogini would apply to her meditation or a tightrope walker would hold while crossing a razor thin wire from which a fall would entail certain death. When words end there is only bliss. We need only to open our doors of perception to be in Open Presence.
There is a meditative quality to Ayessha Quraishi’s panoramic work, a sense that raw feeling has been distilled into something perceptible but inexplicable. At her recent show at Koel Gallery titled Open Presence, Ayessha comes across as a medium for subliminal feelings that barely break the surface of conscious thought. Her statement explains: “Open Presence is the acknowledgement of the space of consciousness, an intermediate space between senses and states.”
Ayessha is a self-taught artist who has been exhibiting in group and solo shows since 1989. She has also participated in two biennials in Turkey. This is her second show at Koel Gallery. Ayessha renders her idea of what constitutes intermediate space by creating abstract fields of colour, geometry and texture. She uses colour in striated bands and feathery strokes in the style of gestural mark painting — a term that developed out of the Abstract Expressionism of the ‘action painters’ such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. The loose and flowing application of paint was meant to represent a mental state or emotion and therefore create a subjective landscape of inner feelings.
Ayessha’s paintings come across as serene rather than dynamic. Her art is anti-didactic and metaphysical. It leaves comprehensibility up to the response of the viewer. There is a hint of automatism, of letting the emotions filter the impressions of the universe through the person of the artist. This is particularly evident in works which combine abstraction with some recognisable imagery as in the paired paintings titled ‘in the absolute presence of a distant light’ 1 & 2. Painted in monochromatic shades of grey, these paintings show a glimmer of the distant horizon as if seen on a dark, moonless night.
Her work is purely abstract. She restricts the colour palette to white, black and sepia hues. In the series ‘touching blind, inside out’ 1-10, worked in oil and pigment on paper, a similar exploration with secondary colour mixes has been executed to the point where several paintings are virtual colour fields with impasto paint. Number 1 in the ‘touching blind…’ series emphasises texture alone, as it is painted ivory white with all over cracking of the paint.
Each work is accompanied by a poetic title that gives a hint about Ayessha’s state of mind that has inspired that particular piece. The titles are as enigmatic as they are intriguing, such as ‘a word of love in the shape of burning awareness, I offer.’ All titles are written in lower case and form a significant part of the viewing experience. Their riddling play appeals to intuition rather than to the intellect.
Several paintings have been unconventionally framed within wide, wooden brackets that grasp the sheet of paper at two ends. Two beautiful wood sculptures are included in the show. Their material is raw, fissured and unpolished, with rounded curves as if sculpted by wind and water. The sculpture titled ‘dawning into coherence’ stands upright at 40 inches. It is barely suggestive of the human form and yet it cannot be mistaken for anything else. The second sculpture called ‘the form of the last shadow’ is horizontal, perhaps in death or sleep. The strongly embryonic and featureless mass of the sculptures suggests states of intermediate being rather than accomplished form. The titles provoke reflection on what comes before and what is left after the business of living.
The wall-mounted plaque at the entrance of the gallery displays the artist’s statement, which also includes quotations by two writers. The first quotation is from Andrew Harvey, a writer on mystic traditions. His quotation includes the statement: “The journey and all its different ordeals are all emanations of the One Spirit that is manifesting everything in all dimensions…”
The second quotation is from P D Ouspensky, the Russian esoteric philosopher. It states: “It is only when we realise that life is taking us nowhere that it begins to have meaning.” A spectrum of sorts comes into being between the “One Spirit” in Harvey’s quotation and the “nowhere” in Ouspensky’s statement. Within the spectrum of an all-encompassing energy and an indeterminate journey, numerous intermediate states become possible. The artist’s pairing of quotations provides another clue with regard to her intent in developing the notion of open presence.