For his exhibition Chasing the Equus, Jibran Shahid presents drawings from two series, and sculptures, created over the past year. A sense of suspension and disorientation hovers over these works. Clearly, the artist has learned the Surrealists’ lessons about the hidden subversive power in the most ordinary things (or beings), and about art’s potential to break open even the toughest outer skin of reality. One strategy, which Shahid uses in this body of work, is juxtaposition (read fusion), in which the artist combines the human form with that of the horse in order to create hybrids that seem possible, if not plausible, yet at the same time touched by irony. Shahid’s hybrids, drawn with a gestural quality, are rendered with great realism, although they rarely cast shadows. They make no contact with the ground and seem out of scale. He sources his images from photographs, and the titles often evoke the theme of memory. And although Shahid has limited himself to a single medium – oil-based pencils and oil washes on canvas – his practice has no dearth of references to the history of both painting and photography.
Ideas of fragility and impermanence run through the drawings in Shahid’s oeuvre; the oil pencils’ material characteristics lend themselves perfectly to represent these seemingly ephemeral perceptions. The medium’s easy transformability and monochrome create ambiguous figures; these hybrid figures are not always what they seem. The artist says the works try to embody Heraclitus’s epigram “Everything flows; nothing stands still.” Here, it is difficult to tell the human from the beast – the two become interchangeable. This dynamism and sense of movement hints at the spirit of drawing that Shahid has tried to invoke. Uncertainty and vulnerability are, to him, life’s vital forces and central to his approach to drawing as discovery rather than static representation. These works on canvas evoke ambiguous images – unsettling apparitions and pareidolic illusions – of hybrid creatures. The smudges and markings interact to create multivalencies – to appear as images that are not fixed, yet are still there. The physical act of drawing, which itself is the overarching theme in the artist’s work, follows a two-stage process. Shahid first creates marks, allowing chance and accident to intervene; then he reacts to these marks. Slowly, over time, images begin to appear and take shape – neither abstract nor figurative, but rather phantasmagorical, relating to the realm of dreams and imagination. Shahid admits that he was thinking of the term drawing in two senses: that of producing an image from marks and lines, but also that of pulling, extracting something from within, through his memories, nostalgia, and the fluid space of imagination.
The artist had worked with ink on paper before shifting to oil-based pencils. He felt the liquid medium had more of a connection. He wanted to stray from line and also do away with tools, to let his hands feel closeness to the material he was working with. He chose to make his own powder by shaving pencil cores to create grainy and uneven bits, which helped bring about the accidental marks. In the series on view in this exhibition, he says, the texture of canvas is meant to allude to the corporeal. Furthermore, he applies the pencil and washes of oil to the canvas when it is both wet and dry, letting himself achieve a more layered and uneven texture. This practice has intensified the composite nature of the images – releasing them from stillness and imbuing them with a phantom spirit. In the first series of drawings on view, formally agreeable and subjectively compelling, the human figure sprawls languidly across the horizontal axis of the canvas – an alluring body in repose, inviting inquiry. Jibran Shahid has re-purposed this art-historical motif as the locus of his most recent body of work, in which he re-creates fanciful figure drawings. The body of work on show includes five large oil ‘paintings’ delineated by fine marks and presented on highly buffed, oiled grounds. His nude figures are not so much specific people as embodiments of the artist’s childhood alter egos. The morassed grounds of these works are luminous and limpid, as if John Singer Sargent had imbued the recumbent figures’ skins with internal light. But beyond these canvases’ impressive draughtsmanship, what is one to make of them? Does the work succumb to the sordid romance of the hazily rendered supine nude? Though his canvas is pure white and luminous, he uses it to convey the saturnine, nightmarish, gruesome underside of human existence. The works are a contradiction in terms – a diabolical fusion of unconscious feeling and self-conscious craft.
In the second series of drawings on canvas, a tendency to idealise form becomes apparent, particularly in the horse, which is shown ambling rather than walking normally. Shahid has gradually moved away from the live model seen in a rural or domestic context and comes to stress the heraldic character of the horse as if to record the actions and attitudes established in classical art and revived in the tournaments and pageantry of the day. For Leonardo, as for other Italian humanists, the horse was considered second only to man as an object worthy of attention. The drawings in this exhibition display an idealisation of form that can only be credited to a classical model, the spirit of which is conveyed by the romantic character of the figure, as of a winged horse. The smooth, delicate shading enhances the slender proportions of the animal. Horses of the same type are portrayed, and correspond in general proportions and in points of detail, e.g. the small head, ears pointed forward, short body, and pronounced hocks and hoofs. Because of the important place occupied by the horse in Renaissance life, it is not surprising that the equestrian monument, showing the union of man and horse, should have enjoyed a revival in Shahid’s work. On a more peaceable note, the noble recreations of tilting and jousting, with accompanying pageantry, were an essential part of Renaissance courtly life, as reflected in the following words: “I wish our courtier to be an accomplished and versatile horseman.” Among the drawings on show, there is one of an elegantly caparisoned horseman, wearing a feathered cap, and a series of fine clothing, datable to the last years of Renaissance.