New York

Shahzia Sikander/“Out of India”

Deitch Projects/Queens Museum of Art

Shahzia Sikander, a twenty-eight-year-old Pakistani artist currently living in Houston, made a strong impression at the 1997 Whitney Biennial, and even more so in a Drawing Center “Selections” show, with her small-scale works on paper. A number of such works were on display in her first one-person exhibition in New York alongside six executed on a much larger scale: three paintings on canvas, two wall paintings, and a multilayered “tissue-paper collage” of more than thirty sheets pinned to the wall.

If Sikander’s intention was to avoid being pigeonholed as a miniaturist or intimist on the one hand, or as a draftsman rather than a painter on the other, then she has clearly succeeded. Her large-scale efforts are, if anything, even sharper than her works on paper. Their polyphonic flurries of discordant images—or not so much images as pieces of stories, since their illustrational origins remain patent even when indecipherable—are as broad in their address as they are hermetic in import. And Sikander’s draftsmanship is not wedded to the miniaturist’s excruciating refinement and precision; she can work fast, loose, and “primitive” when she wants, as she does in Beyond Surfaces (all works 1997).

Still, the fact that the most complicated and ambitious of the big pieces, Hood’s Red Rider #I, is also the weakest suggests that the artist is still unsure how to encompass her multiplicity of sources and techniques in a single work. Those sources range from the traditional miniature painting she studied in Lahore to pop culture and Western modernism, all pervaded by a fascination with the historical vicissitudes of the female image, à la Nancy Spero. These concatenated fragments need a certain amount of open space in order to resonate, and this she preserves in the other works on canvas here, Fleshy Weapons and G-endangered, in which big tracts of unpainted ground allow for implicit rather than overtly constructed space.

The innocent viewer could be forgiven for feeling transported by Sikander’s show back to the heyday of the Italian transavanguardia; after all, an artist like Francesco Clemente drew deeply on some of the same Indian traditions in which Sikander was trained. Is it so surprising that, with Sikander reaching from East to West as Clemente did from West to East, the two should have crossed paths? It’s a crossing more and more artists are making, as we could see in “Out of India: Contemporary Art of the South Asian Diaspora,” which included several of Sikander’s “miniatures.” If finding a form to accommodate multiplicity is a pivotal issue for her, that task also informs sonic of the most vivid of her peers’ works in “Out of India” as well. In the claustrophobic photographs of Samena Rana, who died in England in 1991, shards of imagery are chocked and compacted, while in Mohini Chandra’s Album Pacifica, 1997, images are voided: the album consists of 100 photographs of the backs of other photographs, a revelation of the materiality “behind” the image, and of the evanescence of that materiality as it becomes, itself, an image.

Yet Sikander’s subject matter, too, presents a dilemma. Insofar as her far-flung citations build up allegories of female identity transmuting across intersecting cultural contexts, any given viewer will recognize certain references while finding others utterly obscure. So the formal invention and exuberance of the paintings must do a good bit of the labor. It’s the artist’s off-balance and (in more than one sense) edgy composition that makes a work like Fleshy Weapons memorable, not the jazzy iconography. The painting’s juxtaposition of sharp and piercing forms with rounded, voluptuous ones tells its own tale about the crossing of aggression and tenderness, terror and desire. It’s a tale told with sly wit and a talent for the estrangement that refreshes vision—characteristics everywhere in evidence in Sikander’s work.

Barry Schwabsky