Remarkable vitality – Salwat Ali. Dawn Gallery, Nov.08

Assertive in approach with a strong intuitive feel for the content she portrays, Belinda Eaton negotiates risky balances between strong hues, pronounced forms and vigorous stroke play with considerable relish, writes Salwat Ali.

Exhibiting again in Karachi after almost a decade, Belinda Eaton, showing her recent works at VM Gallery, is still mixing a powerful cocktail of vibrant chromatics, exotic patterns, intense figuration and emphatic brushwork.

While it is the artists kaleidoscopic world pulsing with energy within the frame which first impacts the mind, the work is compelling on other accounts as well. Resourcing photo references and resorting to re-contextualization and innovation of characters, elements, occasions and symbols, encountered during her nomadic existence, she redefines the figure, head or face and supportive narrative in her compositions. And this exercise runs in tandem with her gutsy engagement in the painterly process. The outcome is a painting that articulates at several levels, pictorially, technically and subjectively.

In a broader context however, people centered works are also manifestations of the status of portraiture today and this exhibition gains larger meaning when seen as a celebration of the remarkable vitality of the Contemporary Portrait.

In the century and a half since the birth of photography, the representation of the visible world has changed fundamentally. Nowhere is this change more evident than in Portraiture. Having freed itself first from photography, and then from academicism, the Contemporary Portrait has gained a new lease of life. Disengaged from physical representation and likeness, artists have begun using the genre to investigate issues beyond the surface of their subjects.

Eaton’s interpretation of the portrait demonstrates the new use of the genre as a vehicle for the artist’s own aesthetic concerns and characterization of the subject, rather than a descriptive rendering of physical appearance. The success of her picture becomes dependent not on the qualities of the subject but on the transformative power of the artist. Untypical to conventional portraiture her provocative interpretations of the human face come forth as candid images that are real as opposed to realistic.

Formerly focusing mainly on figurative compositions with attention to body language and atmospherics, created with a lavish interweave of pattern, striking cultural symbols and icons, she has now gravitated towards a primary thrust on facial language revealed mainly through her strong grasp of anatomy and body features and forceful, spontaneous application of paint. In this exhibition she is not concerned with the head as such, but rather with the face itself, a subject that is more particular and potentially more personal.

Whether the portraits included are three-quarter length or head and shoulders, it is the face that draws our attention. A series of intensely cropped portraits placed edge to edge in tight frames in opposing scales of extra large canvases or very small acrylics on paper are just countenances and they speak of the artists ability to endow distinctive personas to the individuals she paints.

Often genre details are dispensed with to give prominence to the subject and a frontal pose and close-up approach add to the directness. Presenting unknown subjects — or rather subjects who are known to the artist but not the viewer — encourages one to view the portrait as symbolic. As a result of this freedom, it can also be assumed that the subject need not even be real. Her characters, generally European or Caucasian, flaunt an attitude or have distinctive appearances and this mixed with the design elements she puts in the frame are the cues she is issuing to her viewers on which to build a storyline.

An integral part of her signature, a passionate embrace of motif and pattern, organic, geometric, floral or arabesque, is culled from Africana, Oriental cultural iconography and Art Deco/Nouveau stylistic references relevant to her near gypsy existence in various cities like Mombasa in Kenya, London, New York, France, Karachi, Barcelona and Andalusia in Spain. Surprisingly, in the current show, as she eliminates the background and closes in on the face she forgoes the decorative elements only momentarily. They reappear as filigreed embellishment on the face that can be variously read as tribal markings, scarring, tattooing or just face painting — an extension of her earlier manifestation of body painting in her works.

Modified or reconfigured pattern is still creeping into her faces and its current manifestation is as inexplicable as the swollen pomegranates, airborne lobsters and swirling fishes that populate her imaginary world. Defying the laws of gravity she paints skewed images with total abandon. Creating fiction from reality her snapshots of the impossible, rendered literally remind one of Magritte’s claim that the real world is merely a construction of the mind.