Rana Begum, No. 670, L installation, 2016, powder-coated galvanized steel. Installation view. Photo: Jack Hems.

Rana Begum, No. 670, L installation, 2016, powder-coated galvanized steel. Installation view. Photo: Jack Hems.

Rana Begum

Parasol unit

Rana Begum, No. 670, L installation, 2016, powder-coated galvanized steel. Installation view. Photo: Jack Hems.

London is a city best encountered on the move. As the to-and-fro of commuters and the rhythmic waves of visitors synchronize into one homogenous beat, we tend to overlook the colorful moments that can punctuate the dull monotony and give this city its eclectic character, from neon-yellow underground railings against charcoal-gray business suits to steel-drum street music accompanied by the drilling sounds of construction, or a graffiti-covered parking lot at the foot of a sharp, shiny skyscraper. Tuning in to these varying pulses and contrasting facades, however, is the perfect way to prepare to consider Rana Begum’s work, which regularly draws on and refreshes our perception of a city in flux.

Begum’s latest solo show,“The Space Between,” was laid out like a miniretrospective, showcasing more than fifteen years of her commitment to light, color, and material. The exhibition linked the Bangladeshi-British artist’s early manipulation of linear shadows and form in installations such as No. 18, 2000–2001, made when she was an MFA student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, to ongoing explorations such as her recent multipanel painting of overlapping soft-hued shapes, No. 680, 2016, which took the artist several years to complete. About halfway between these two moments, Begum hit her stride when she began to pair colors—mostly neon yellow, fire-hydrant red, or safety-jacket orange with jet black, stark white, or concrete gray—to generate subtle interactions of shade and shape in space.

She does this by spraying powder-coated industrial materials with bright layers of paint and positioning the resultant blocks of color in successive linear planes, as in the skewed vertical columns of No. 161, 2008, or the mounted metallic folds of No. 394, L Fold, 2013. As one walked past such works, unexpected hues and luminosities reflected off their surfaces and onto surrounding walls, giving rise to additional patterns—imbuing otherwise heavy-duty materials with a light and spectral quality. The artist’s use of repetition, both as a visual and methodological tool, combined with the fluidity and ease of her style, enables seemingly infinite combinations of ever-varying visual units, or “notes.”

The exhibition offered surprising perspectives on Begum’s work. For example, this was the first time the wondrous installation No. 207, 2010, a room of fluorescent, angular shapes, made with connected drinking straws, was partially suspended from a ceiling. In this form, its evocation of an incongruous city skyline—in this case Beirut’s, where it was originally conceived—and its connection to other abstractions of urban landscapes, such as the reduced linear sculpture No. 623, M Drawing, 2015, was made more evident. The show also revealed the progression of her early drafts of linear prototypes, such as No. 647, L Mesh, 2009, into large-scale works such as the interknitted and multidimensional No. 670, L Mesh Installation, 2016, which resembles an airy, enigmatic cityscape.

Begum’s romantic relationship with form is balanced by a skeptical approach to representation. Her works are not gestures toward meaning as much as pointers to the plausible; they evoke a possible mystery in the mundane. One could equally place Begum in the lineage of the British constructivist Mary Martin, with her use of patterns to explore ideas of music and movement, or in that of Pakistani activist and abstractionist Lala Rukh, with her meditative take on repetition, reduction, and transcendentalism. Begum, however, is closer to artists of her own generation, such as Seher Shah or Ayesha Sultana, who are technically adept, globally attuned, and involved in the pursuit of delicate and distinct approaches to abstraction.

Jyoti Dhar