“Raqib Shaw : Dream Warrior, Keeper of Myths…”

Written by Camille Okhio.

For a look into a deep dark yet colorful subconscious one can read Dostoyevsky. Or they can view a painting by Raqib Shaw. I use the word “painting” loosely as Shaw’s work reflects the use of a much wider variety of media. Shaw does not prescribe to one kind of fantasy. He incorporates multiple interpretations of myth and wonder into his works. Spanning countries, centuries and faiths. His ability to meld all that he sees is truly impressive. Especially as he does so in such a seamless fashion. His fanciful displays somehow find a way to remain plausible.


Surely this contributes to the reason he shot to fame so early on in his career. Even if one does not have the wherewithal to stand in front of a single Shaw piece for fifteen full minutes as I do, you are still struck by the immediacy and action of the figures within his compositions. The interaction between the figures in Shaw’s work calls to mind early renaissance classical depictions of war. In their energy and the dynamic positioning of their bodies, Shaw’s figures reverberate off the edges of his works with boundless energy and barely concealed malice.


After George Stubbs’ Cheetah and Stag (2013)

Shaw’s work is luminous yet dark. At times troubling even. But never without communicating an expression of raw energy and saturated fancy. Shaw’s compositions bring to mind a combination of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s composite portraits, 1001 Nights, The Jungle Book and a bedazzled Hieronymous Bosch. Arcimboldo, a personal favorite, combined forms of all sorts under a general theme, to communicate not one but at least two images or ideas.


A section of Suite of the Rouge Boudoir of Beasts, 2012

This is not the first time he has been referenced by a contemporary artist, but this is indeed the first time his influence has manifested in this particular way. The connection is indeed so subtle that it is almost imperceptible to the uninformed eye. The characters in Shaw’s work are alight and alive with complexity and individual consciousness. They do not appear as a mass, but as a collection of independently acting creatures.

Shaw’s characters are always in action. Even the nightmarish creatures crouched in the corners of some of his work seem to be heaving with the breath of a bull right before it bolts at you. If they aren’t swinging from a branch of twisted rope candy, then they are dancing on the back of a jewel dripped horse. Perhaps lounging on a bed of crystal flowers or acrobatically slitting the throat of an equally energetic rival. Everything in Shaw’s work is alive. But it is not all the same. Shaw’s work explores elements of good and evil, indicating that the two are not black and white. Through exploring these concepts in his fantasy, Shaw displays his opinions on “reality” and the existence of good and bad energy within our realm.


In this vein both daytime and nighttime are represented in Shaw’s compositions. When I first saw his work I immediately thought of Hercules Segers (c.1590-1638), the dutch landscape artist whose work was featured in the film Werner Herzog presented at the last Whitney Biennial. In this film Herzog animated and presented the compositions of Segers to a dramatic score of early classical music. His film transported the viewer into a dreamlike Tolkein-esque place in which one is taken on an adventure through the complex, detailed subconscious of another. Eerie, beautiful and haunting, Herzog’s film and Segers’ landscapes share an element of nostalgia. They leave one contemplating a menacing alternate reality.


The value of Shaw’s work is that he can create a landscape purely out of his minds eye, creating unique settings that have truly never been composed before. Links are made, as previously mentioned, to Northern Renaissance Artists, religious works, myth and fancy, but Shaw manages to connect these widely varying references seamlessly in impressive, multi-dimensional paintings and sculptures.
Shaw inhabits the role of the mad scientist, creating hybrids and splicing artistic DNA to create creatures that possess the skills of many. It’s as if Shaw has created a new (visual) language. He has interpreted the old in a completely new way. And as all that is truly new, this language is intimidating and scary. But not without its rewards. Shaw’s body of work, a Frankenstein it is unholy and new but it functions and it dumbfounds.

24508 c

Somewhere in between Bosch, “twilight” and Hercules Segers, Raqib Shaw manages to create dreamy, psychedelic, haunting scenes. He has joined the noble quest of portraying a world without taboo, in the grand tradition of fanciful/dark painters, starting in the 15th century. Either to divorce his scenes from reality or to provide them with another level of adventure. Shaw includes his hybrid cultures in erotic, fearsome and debaucherous positions.


“Paradise Lost”

They call to mind the demon of the Northern Renaissance religious triptych – bestial, devoid of reason, energetic, dreamlike and yet humorous in a way. Perpetually threatening, regardless of their humor, Shaw’s creatures prove a simple point. That which we have never seen before, is always initially interpreted as alarming. That alarm may very well be tinged with intrigue, but at its core, the emotion is frightening. That is the reason our dreams can be a source of fear. Or if you need a more historical example: human’s ideas concerning the possibility of an afterlife. If we do not construct an afterlife which mimics life on earth, than the alternative of an existence which one has no experience with is enough to drive any sort of compulsive behavior. Shaw’s paintings exhibit this phenomenon to a lesser degree.


Like in a nightmarish 1001 nights, Shaw weaves a narrative which one can get lost in, with almost too many characters to count. He spends equal time on the faces of the fanciful demons which lurk in every corner of his works, as he does on the foliage and crumbling edifices. Each leaf and each limb display the same high level of energy and density. Shaw does not “let up” on any part of his compositions. He doesn’t allow you time to catch your breath, which I love. His work is exhilarating. He is as unlikely to skimp on a central figure as he is to choose a blurry mass as a background, rather than the involved backgrounds he chooses to present us.

Shaw redefines the traditional idea of a nightmare. When we think of a nightmare (wc?) we think dark, dank, dodgy or muddled. Shaw’s work is in no way dank, dodgy or muddled. Perhaps dark in an existential, physiological way. He brings that of frightening folk lore into sharp, bright, glittering relief. Shaw updates what Grunewald did with his Isenheim Altarpiece and presents it to us in a creeping yet energetic contemporary frame. He references the nightmarish creatures of Bosch in the same way. In Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights even the benevolent creatures are frightening in a psychological sense.

A section of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

In fact, Raqib Shaw is one of the few that has followed loosely in the tradition of northern renaissance religious painters. Bosch namely, but also Hugo van der Goes to a lesser extent, and the aforementioned Matthias Grunewald. Differing from Shaw, Bosch’s purpose in inventing and portraying the unique, cartoonish, sometimes genuinely terrifying creatures of his paintings, was to inspire a healthy fear of hell and/or Satan (and his minions, possibly those pictured in Shaw’s work) in his audience. Shaw’s semi-hidden wildlings, also remind the viewer of the possibility of indecipherable dimensions. Though today’s audience may take to the idea of hellish creatures really existing rather haltingly in comparison to the 15th century netherland villagers Bosch was exposed to, the possibility of their existence is still a topic of interest.


The creatures in Raqib Shaw’s work embody the raw human emotions that we suppress on a day basis, which are usually expressed visually in a “bestial” host. The balance of Shaw’s fanciful scenes lull you into a sense of “comfortable voyeurism” as I like to call it, until, at a closer look, they erupt with the unbridled energy of a multicolored supernova. They are frankly dare I say, just fucking beautiful. But beautiful in a way that doesn’t make you want to possess but ponder, for fear that possessing such a thing may be more than one can handle. That to me is good art. It is something so completely immersive that it not only impresses you with its unique beauty, but snatches you and owns you, if you look just a moment too long. Art that is capable of possessing its viewer rather than the other way around, in this value-centric climate, that I must say, is truly impressive.

Camille Okhio is Senior Arts Writer for By Such and Such