If there ever was an exhibit I’d tagged in my calendar as an unmissable event, it was ‘Utopian Ideas’ by British artist Dom Pattinson. The name itself served as a kickstart for an otherwise drab Tuesday evening. At 4 pm with lowering caffeine levels and a two page long to do list which I’d been doodling on for the last 2 hours, I realised that I did need a dose of Utopia. The exhibit at Sanat was a rare sight for us Karachiites, while there is a burgeoning local art scene in the last decade with exhibitions becoming a daily occurrence, there is almost never an exhibit by a foreign artist and that too one with such global acclaim.
Dom Pattinson, a British artist whose oeuvre is considered to be a fuse of graffiti or street art and urban art, claims his muse to be everyday life and the chasms that exist both within an individual’s mind and his or her conflict with societal norms. Pattinson’s work highlights the irony of conflicting opinions bringing an almost satirical tone with the use of graffiti as a medium, an otherwise frowned upon art form usually strayed away from but it is in fact the strongest, rawest medium of art because it comes from sentiments, love & hate, struggles, adolescent woes, political rebellion and from those marginalized or unheard. Over the years, art has transcended the notion that it served as merely an aesthetic, idyllic to acquire for those who could afford and has become a means of expression with now varying mediums. In the spectrum between street art and fine art, a new genre emerges by the name of urban art, different from the act of graffiti which is considered as vandalism and this makes its point and yet has a place in closed spaces only open to public/controlled spaces – the irony of this is also something Pattinson highlights in his works. Those who would throng to exhibition spaces to see his works may not have taken much interest had they been mere spray paintings on a forlorn train station wall, a scrapyard door or even a dark alleyway home to recluses and frowned upon social degenerates / outcasts. One might smile at the irony of this, and that may be the very idea that Pattinson is trying to make with loud, colorful, bold and thought-provoking symbols in his works. Pattinson on many occasions has insisted that his work is not intended to hold political messages, but he is often influenced by global conflicts in his midst. As is rightly said about the artist, his muse is the conflicted and dual nature of everyday life and the impact it has on the world’s diverse population – something which he is conscious of. Dom seeks to give his works the platform through which the messages he is highlighting within them evoke sentiments of the very people who may need to see them, the need to control the free spirited, rawness of street graffiti by confining it to the medium he has is done quite deliberately as though he jokes with its acquirers and gallery visitors like myself who claim to feel the sharpness of his messages in a modern, clean, restricted gallery space not frequented by the masses. Then again, his art is for exactly those people, and if he may to highlight a gap in issues such as gender equality, human rights, racial equality and homosexual rights.
The concurrent theme in his work is questioning the dualities in life, evoking serious thought on the subject, but their representation on canvas is done so in an eye-catching manner, with neon colors and a modern appeal so that a funky, pop art, bright feel draws the viewer to it. Although the messages within his works show sharp conflicts and dichotomies, the message which he seeks to bring is universal and leaves room for each viewer to interpret in their own way, relating each image to their personal experiences and struggles. His oeuvre is very aware of the global dilemmas, the plight of the marginalized and shunned population and the irony wrapped in that.
Growing up in the Soviet Union, Pattinson was inspired by Soviet political propaganda – an effectively mastered art used as a tool to brainwash the masses to support the then government through patriotic and idealist messages. Pattinson had also lived in North Ireland where he witnessed young activists from Sinn Fein, a political movement which collected together for self determination and independence from Great Britain and their acts of rebellion expressed with street graffiti. From an early age, Pattinson was aware and sensitive to the issue of human rights, diversity and support for marginalized population and it is as he says his will to unite and harmonize the world and its population with his art. His works mirror graffiti forms but are deliberately done on canvas to be able to have them displayed in closed spaces, such as art galleries and museums – a satire on the idea of ‘art for elitist minds’ for whom which the messages within his works will be more blaring.
He works with mixed media, repeated stencil patterns, a pastel neon palette, using bold black symbols interspersed with bursts of bright colors, his use of the interesting juxtaposition of symbols and the stark colour contrasts resonate impactfully with his messages of duality. He works with printmaking, stenciling, spray painting (mirroring graffiti art), collage of various imagery, acrylics, as well as installations and sculptures which have more recently become part of his new works touching issues of social activism and homosexual rights.
His exhibition at the Sanat Gallery which opened on the 20th February is not his first in Karachi, only a year ago in March, an exhibition ‘ Urban Longing’ was displayed at the Sanat with 13 grappling works of his. His motivation to exhibit in Karachi was fueled by a desire to allow the viewer to relate to the messages in his works – thus the universality of works and highlighting that social and right based issues are struggle in every corner of the world. His second exhibition titled ‘Utopian Ideas’ displayed 10 of his works, all produced in 2017, post his 2016 exhibit in Karachi. A much needed gallery and art dialogue space like Sanat has been instrumental in building bridges between local and foreign artists – in a world where there exists numerous polar opposites, where dilemmas seem to be same only with the difference of accents, it is increasingly helpful to blur the geographical and cultural limitations which may have restricted art in the past. The gallery space has also been a consistent platform encouraging young artists for dialogue and discourse, an important element for the longevity of art today.
As I picked up the exhibition catalogue, I could not help but pick up on the quote by John F. Kennedy on the first page, “…We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought…” I could not help but marvel at the harsh truth of these words and revel in how we often cover the need to experience painful thought to understand reality. The lives we live today have become increasingly mundane and robotic and we hardly stop to reflect on the hypocrisies that exist in our every day life, some of which we are culprits for. We pride others and ourselves in reinforcing our opinions and after some time, believe what we have told, right then I knew that the works displayed in the gallery space would evoke a thought within a thought and shed off layers of forced and asserted truths. Pattinson does so ever so gauntly and subtly, where his messages, loaded with irony, are sure to leave a knowing smirk on its viewer’s face. The artist intermingles colourful psychedelia and questionable, bold yet playful imagery to evoke a sense of overt rebellion. At the same time, his works have an aesthetic appeal that is both modern and strikingly ‘hip’. In some way or form, all the works displayed at ‘Utopian Ideas’ have colours, symbols and this meanings weaves through them.
Interestingly, in Pattinson’s works, there are layers to be unfolded, some overt and some not, even with the stark contrasts which allow the viewer to immediately relate to the conflicting thoughts and the irony wrapped within them, there are several finer more hidden elements where he addresses specific issues. A particular work titled ‘Stand Out, Stand Proud!’ produced in 2017 part of the exhibit was part of a series of works inspired by Mollie Thomas, the first ever gay contest for the pageant contest for Ms. California. The painting shows three zebras in a row, the one the middle is stencilled using only black and white stripes whereas both Zebras on either side are sprayed with neon colours on their bodies with spectacles and hearts. Although the painting affixes itself on questioning homosexual rights, it in a way questions human rights, inequality and embraces the right to be unique in way. The original piece which was commissioned by Mollie Thomas was put on display in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, New York on Valentines Day in 2017. The installation is a figure of an elephant with zebra stripes with bright colours. Here, Pattinson weaves in the symbol of the elephant to represent its “protected but poached” standing in the modern global ecosystem, a contrast itself and the symbol of the zebra to reflect on the idea of camouflage. This installation was put as a selfie station in central New York to raise awareness on homosexual rights. One of his works at Sanat exhibition was particularly stirring but seemingly peaceful, a butterfly silhouette is stencilled in his signature bold black spray paint style and inside the figure are elephants in bright colours, the title of the work, “Irrelaphance of Flight” speaks volumes of any individual’s or collective’s pursuit to highlight rights and their importance and instead Pattinson seems to be comparing this pursuit to be a fleeting one – unattainable. A particular favourite of mine from the collection at Utopian Ideas was a canvas with a stencil of a toddler holding the world in his hands wearing a stethoscope and a doctor’s head light whereas the world is wrapped with signs which say ‘Fragile’ and spray painting writing on top which reads ‘I got this’, the irony in this particular piece is unmistakeable, Pattinson’s seems to infer that the world is out of control, being handled by a toddler as a caretaker and doctor – an eye opening piece in my opinion to all the global atrocities, the hypocrisies and the gloss over truths of social media and other forms of narcissism invoking artificial appeasers.
Pattinson’s work is unique as on one hand its worth reaches up to 10,000 GBPs but his ability to understand the plight of the common man makes him fit into a creed which is not even remotely elitist, unlike the acquirers of his works. He has donated to several charities which include foundations working for the welfare of refugees in Syria and other medical issues like Ebola. His work also has somewhat of a celebratory appeal, recently actor George Clooney commissioned him to make a piece for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for their wedding. He has also recently been commissioned to design the Ted Baker store in New York, so while he works on social issues of marginalized populations, the fanfare he enjoys in elite circles allows him to display his work timelessly.
It is as if the artist is tying to question notions of art, its form and the audience it caters to – art as we know it today is fluid and his works are great evidence which prove this notion. With already two exhibitions in Karachi at the Sanat, one hopes that this will encourage many other foreign, critically acclaimed or emerging artists to showcase at our galleries and exhibition spaces, and with Karachi Biennale as an open platform where this is already happening, Karachi may once again blossom culturally and diversely like it did decades ago.
Shanal is a lawyer by profession and works in the development sector for a corporation in Karachi. Aside from her main endeavors, she takes keen interest in art, culture and art history and has more recently started to work on critiques.