The artist’s exquisite portraits and torsos of his friends and acquaintances have an eerie stillness that at first remind the viewer of postures in classic Greek or Roman sculptures, renowned for their portrayal of idealized perfect bodies.
But these imposing figures (48” X 48” for the most part) possess an aura. Looking away from the artist’s gaze they first look dormant, but as the gaze lingers they appear to have come to rest from a state of steady motion. Although unsure of whether the artist is armed with the phenomenon of synesthesia, each figure emerges with its own field of energy and what seems palpable is a disturbing sense of accumulated reality.
Signs of decay are found all over their physique and appear to be no different than decay of other organic matter such as leaves and stems, which sets in once they have fallen away from the plant body – their lifeline. These are not signs of physical scars or battle wounds and one is compelled to conclude that these reflect the subjects’ state of mind, a consequence of human anxiety and clearly, the artist is unsparingly honest in exploring the emotional state of human beings.
The social distance and the gnawing feeling of being threatened by the presence of others during the last year has primarily defined the absence of ‘normality’ in these perilous times. So different from the BC (Before COVID) era! Survey upon survey shows a continuing and overwhelming amount of anxiety in people’s lives globally, as a consequence. With lower levels of motivation and unhappiness for all, even the bravest on the frontlines have felt helpless at the state of human suffering and people were unable to even mourn even their dear ones. As ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’, which in BC belonged to the ambit of therapy, slowly encroached on everyday lexicon, the pandemic has changed lives, heightened stress levels and altered realities. Leading psychologists like Owen O’Kane are warning us of the long-term psychological distress in its wake, and call it the Post Pandemic Stress disorder or PPSD.
These are not signs of physical scars or battle wounds and one is compelled to conclude that these reflect the subjects’ state of mind, a consequence of human anxiety and clearly, the artist is unsparingly honest in exploring the emotional state of human beings
Whether the subject is a friend in ‘Feeling Blue’ and ‘Insomnia’ or a popular celebrity in ‘Wilting’ there is a sense of unease about each work. Even when they seem to be asleep, it is obviously a semi-conscious state, perhaps a nap but never deep or sound sleep. This reflects isolation and its affect on the human spirit.
In this age of digital media and the instant photo, Ahsan’s careful use of oil paint is a reminder of the patient toil that once went into creating impressions. Rendered in oil paints on fairly large untreated or raw canvas this body of work becomes a metaphor for raw human emotion. With his imperceptible brush strokes he deviates from the norm of using oil paints layered on primed canvas. At times appearing like works in acrylic or watercolour washes, it is a resoundingly successful experiment in this painterly technique.
True to his experimental nature where his previous bodies of work, consisting of apparently mundane objects were executed in hyper-realistic fashion in fiber-glass, the viewer continues to find an element of surprise. Even in the highly conceptual works in his Masters thesis in 2019, where the same item presented as a diptych both in 2-D and 3-D form, challenged viewers with optical illusions, showed his dexterity in manipulating the medium. The present series of paintings in a range of size and scale, done in the confines of the artist’s studio, shows his ability to bring lessons learnt in sculpture onto the painted surface, but not without the sensitivity that led him to take an emotional plunge together with his subjects.
In this age of digital media and the instant photo, Ahsan’s careful use of oil paint is a reminder of the patient toil that once went into creating impressions
Extended isolation, however, has also compelled us to notice and contemplate the ordinary in our lives, value those whose presence was taken for granted and has brought to the fore self care and the spirit of gratitude, no matter how minuscule. In the largest of the series ‘Rustle’ (72” X 60”) Ahsan leaves us with a note of optimism as a lone figure is shown seated among gigantic dried lotus pods. It is an image that is bound to stay with the viewer. Found in flood plains of slow moving rivers, lotus plants are a symbol of longevity; renowned for their resilience, lotus seeds can remain dormant for long periods as ponds and rivers dry out, yet during flood conditions seeds that have been dormant (at times even for centuries!) can rehydrate and begin new lotus colonies.
The practice of the accomplished British painter Lucien Freud known for his impasto realistic portraiture could not have been more diametrically opposed to his grandfather Sigmund’s psychoanalytic rendering of humans. However, once defending his explicit paintings of human bodies, Lucien said, “I want my paintings to feel like people.” And it would not be exaggeration to say that Ahsan Memon has accomplished just that.
Ahsan Memon is from Larkana, Sindh (BFA, MA, National College of Arts, Lahore). ‘Stained Shadows’ is on at O Art Space, Lahore, till April 12, 2021 and the artist may be contacted at @ahsan_memon150 on Instagram