Consistently used throughout history, icons continue to dominate our visual landscape. With much wit and whimsy, Fahd Burki, a 28-year-old recent graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Art, explores the artistic potential of such powerful images in his first solo exhibition in Dubai.
Burki is the standout among a promising crop of young Pakistani artists represented by Lahore’s Grey Noise gallery. These artists largely forgo the subject matter and media commonly associated with contemporary art from Pakistan—miniatures, veils, militarism, fundamentalism and terrorism—evincing instead a refreshing openness to technology’s potential, exploring digital media, sound and installation practice, often with a minimalist sensibility.
Marked by a strong graphic quality, a single image dominates the frame of each of Burki’s nine medium-sized vertical compositions; flat, frontal and floating against mostly white backgrounds, each image is a carefully calibrated composite of sharply edged geometric forms and lines that mimics the neutrality of a digital image. However, these images are painstakingly and somewhat perversely executed by hand, with the artist skillfully using matte acrylic paints (with occasional collage elements) on paper, in a suitably sober, almost drab, palette of black, taupe and a series of chalky grays and pasty pinks. These latest works mark a further step in Burki’s progression toward greater abstraction, as he evacuates his images of the vestiges of illusory depth and narrative suggestion seen in earlier work, while retaining the barest of outside reference and recognizable content. The result is a series of always playful, at times menacing icons or symbols harvested from a personal mythology of the present, at once disconcertingly familiar and completely novel.
The simplicity of Burki’s images engages both our eyes and our curiosity, while their rigorously maintained neutrality allows them to remain semantically flexible, requiring us to project our interpretations onto the images. Augur (2009), a black lightbulb-like form, with three white apertures transforming it into a rudimentary face or a futuristic mask, its top half ensconced in a rectilinear black hood, acknowledges this demand through its prophetic title. While Burki’s single-word titles ask for interpretation—though highly abstracted, Augur does resemble a soothsayer or shaman—how, or even whether, the image relates to its title is never entirely clear. Meaning is better understood as a series of tentative prognostications, conjectured from signs and omens. In Hope (2009), for example, the loop of black rope crisscrossing between a pair of pale gray wing-like forms—possibly angelic—is both a tether that keeps the wings together and earthbound and a harness that allows one to put them on and escape. The work seems to suggest that utopian fantasy promises liberation but needs to be held in check.
The strongest works in this exhibition hum with darker subtexts—intimations of violence and sex, death and pleasure, the body and the bodily—introduced through the subtlest of tweaks. In Watcher (2010), a black circle, hovering above a many-sided vertical black shape floating in a field of dull blue, is transformed into an ominous, omnipresent surveillance apparatus through a small, eye-like, white aperture at its center. Plenitude (2010), a gray horseshoe—a common good-luck charm—resembles the truncated cylinder of a revolver, the five black circles enclosed serving as individual bullet chambers. Similarly, Source (2009), a provocative black biomorph whose vertical ink blot-like form appears both incidental and carefully engineered, is both a vaginal void topped with a trinity of breast-like bumps and an inverted phallus. And in Lullaby (2010), a pimple-like taupe mound and a delicately drawn black tuft lining the swelling’s surface, tops a long spike. The delicious wisps resemble both hair and grass, and Burki’s amusing composite oscillates between body and landscape, suggesting a possible melding of the figure and ground of traditional painting, united in the understated elegance of an abstracted icon.