Raqib Shaw created a sensation with his first suite of paintings loosely based on Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th-century triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delight. However, unlike the Flemish master, Shaw celebrated the pursuit of pleasure without boundaries, painting underwater paradises with hybrid creatures in erotic play. The paintings echo the patterned surfaces of miniature paintings or finely woven silk carpets and embroidered textiles, all part of Shaw’s Kashmiri Indian heritage.
The artist’s studio is in a former children’s nursery close to the City of London. The space is light and airy, divided into smaller rooms with muslin drapes. At the entrance stands the original school canteen, now stocked with bottles of wine and champagne; on its industrial countertop are pieces from Shaw’s extensive collection of Victorian china, which he uses to serve exotic teas—including kahwa from Kashmir—to guests. Incense burners, candles and leafy plants draw attention away from the massive ventilators that clear away fumes from the toxic materials—automotive paint and strong adhesives—that Shaw uses to make his delicate and extraordinarily detailed paintings.
Shaw’s creative process is as fascinating as the images themselves: to watch him work, with mask, goggles and headphones, is to enjoy a virtuoso performance. A single painting can take months to complete, beginning as an elaborate drawing on tracing paper before being transferred onto board. Shaw outlines the composition with a type of gold paint used in stained glass windows. Once that dries, he then carefully squeezes enamel paint into small sections, manipulates it with porcupine quills and finally embellishes the hard, shiny surface with tiny Swarovski crystals. This approach is not only laborious but also flirts with aesthetic “danger”—one small mistake and the entire painting must be abandoned. Undaunted, Shaw works at epic scale. When he started painting he rested the canvases on the floor, but now lays them flat on trestle tables. To reach the center, he supports himself with improvised elbow pads made of old socks.
Shaw rarely leaves his studio, often working late into the night with his music and dogs for company. A flight of stairs leads to the artist’s home below. The stairwell contains a chandelier decorated with barbed wire and little stuffed paper birds. Also downstairs is his library of books on flora and fauna, Medieval and Renaissance art, Dutch still-life painting, textile and jewelry design and 19th-century literature.
Shaw’s current work departs from portraits by Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII. Holbein has a special place in Shaw’s own journey from selling shawls in London’s posh Mayfair district to becoming a successful artist; an early encounter with Holbein’s The Ambassadors at the National Gallery in London sparked Shaw’s ambition to attend art school. In his “Holbein” suite, Shaw transforms sensitive records of courtiers into dramatic compositions of beauty and torture: Holbein’s famous sitters morph into animals, while others have their skin ruptured by caterpillars and maggots.
Shaw confesses that his paintings are ultimately autobiographical. Skulls, chains and explosions of blood have replaced the hedonism of the early works. On a long table are computer-generated illustrations of mosquitoes sucking blood, vultures feeding on a dead calf and cancer cells. A box of brightly colored crystals sits alongside these terrors—a telling juxtaposition. In Shaw’s mindscape, the beautiful and grotesque come together to create art of unique power.