For his third exhibition with White Cube Raqib Shaw presented ‘Paradise Lost’ a series of work that part inspired by John Milton’s epic poem of the same name. The departure point for this series of work was Shaw’s painting ‘The Mild-Eyed Melancholy of the Lotus Eaters’ (2009-2010) which refers to Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and more directly, the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson who described the narcotic effects of the lotus flower when eaten by a group of mariners. Shaw depicts a pond carpeted with lotus flowers that appear to have intoxicated the various creatures and figures, languishing in a state of carnal inertia. This insouciant aquatic vista is then carried over in the rampant pond life and lotus flowers that reappear in the two pools of ‘Narcissus’ (2011) based, in principle, on those found in the gardens of Versailles. Presented in the ground floor gallery, these exquisitely painted bronze sculptures mirror each other as a swan lurches over and pecks the innards of a hybrid man, whose vampire features scream as blood streams from his brutally gouged out eye-sockets. Shaw revises Ovid’s account of ‘Narcissus’, the moment when a lone youth first admires his reflection while drinking from a pond to this endangered moment of self-discovery, where in union these blinded figures are castrated from seeing their own agony and demise.
In the basement gallery Shaw stages his ‘Paradise Lost’ paintings according to a specific time, climate and season. On one side of the gallery, three paintings depict a wintry mountainous nightscape, centrally lit by a full moon while on the opposite wall, spring blossoms as the sun creeps over the horizon. The culmination of this imagery pours into the first chapter of the trilogy ‘Paradise Lost’ (2011), Shaw’s largest painting to date. Here the viewer embarks on a journey from the aspirations of the lone figure who alongside a wolf howls before the bitter moon to the natural carnage as the dawn breaks. Shaw heralds all this by depicting the release of a single nightingale from its cage, a bird favored by the poets as creative with a spontaneous song. Then, as seasons pass, a flight of swallows migrate south symbolizing an inherent free spirit and desire to return to a place of origin. This notion is at the heart of Shaw’s paradise – a romantic yearning for a bygone era, where innocence and beauty prevailed – a personal mythology that embodies hope, disillusionment and the underlying entropy of life.
Installation photographed by Ben Westoby, courtesy White Cube, London
Artworks photographed by Ellen Broughton and Ben Westoby.