Mughal miniature painting, popular in India’s Mughal Empire from the 16th century to the 19th century, is an exacting practice. When the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, began training artists in the techniques, aspiring miniaturists were taught how to grind pigments from minerals, how to make brushes that are sometimes whisper thin, how to make paper, and how to shape narrative with meticulous detail and jewel tones.
“Illuminated Geographies: Pakistani Miniaturist Practice in the Wake of the Global Turn” at Tufts University Art Gallery spotlights four artists who learned Mughal miniature painting at the National College of Arts, and who have since settled outside of Pakistan and expanded upon the form to make nervy, contemporary work.
Saira Wasim is the clearest descendant of the Mughal miniaturists, making crisp narrative paintings with figures in elaborate costumes. Wasim’s paintings comment on consumer culture and art history, and sometimes intriguingly equate them. In “Blue Blood (Cavalli, Lanvin, Tom Ford, Versace, Giorgio Armani),” the models in a fashion show — Frida Kahlo, Princess Diana, and Mona Lisa, among others — pose in fancy duds on stage as the men in the audience, also familiar from life and art history, gawk and gesture.
Faiza Butt’s gorgeous light boxes, which pump up the color like the bejeweled tones in miniatures, feature text in Urdu. “One,” a triptych, revolves around photographic images of a red mouth holding a glitzy pendant that spells out “Allah” in Urdu, surrounded by intricate floral patterns. It ties up religiosity, sexuality, and bling in an electrically charged package. (Butt is scheduled to give a lecture at the gallery at 4 p.m. on Feb. 28.) Murad Khan Mumtaz mixes his own pigments for his small, pungent, slightly abstracted landscapes of the American Southwest.
Boston-based Ambreen Butt (no relation to Faiza) has in the past used the flattened figures of miniature painting in her layered, elaborate drawings. Now, the figures are gone. The installation “I am my lost diamond (2),” a variation of work in her recent show at Carroll and Sons, uses hundreds of tiny casts of fingers in shades of red, suggesting the remains of a bomb blast — and the stippling technique used in miniature painting. Here, she arranges them in the pattern of a Persian carpet.
Bringing centuries-old techniques to 21st-century themes, these artists move the artistic DNA forward, even as they blow away the courtly, deferential mood of the paintings of yesteryear.
Three great practitioners of drawing have works up in “StrokeTraceBlow” at Steven Zevitas Gallery. Each has been at it for years. Their drawings, though small, are sharp and fully realized.
Jacob El Hanani was at the forefront of the trend of obsessive, tiny mark-making. The elegant and vexing “Not Line” comprises thousands of tiny ink lines thinner and shorter than an eyelash. He creates form, shadow, light, and movement through the density with which he applies the lines. This one sports a sense of landscape, airy up top and dark at the bottom, with a thicket of rods intersecting in the foreground.
Roland Flexner draws with liquid graphite, which he moves across the paper in the short period of time before it dries with gravity and by blowing. His moonlit chiaroscuro straddles abstraction and landscape, with curvaceous horizontal forms striated like tiger fur.
Joshua Neustein folds, rips, and punctures carbon paper and tissue paper into elegant abstractions that ever so delicately creep toward sculpture. “Gendered” has us peering through a trapezoidal window in the carbon paper, past what might be black curtains opening in a slightly bent vertical to triangular folds in pink tissue paper inside. Succinct, witty, completely abstract, it synthesizes masculine and feminine into one form.
“Boxers & Ballerinas,” Michael Costello’s jaunty drawing show at Gold Gallery, features lovingly rendered figure drawings that are anything but precious. His ballerinas — red-cheeked fellows wearing nothing but tutus — stand at the bar, not the barre, and get progressively more drunk.
“Dancers at the Bar 5” shows three of them, arms outstretched, each with a drink in hand, looking like tenors on a bender. There’s no evidence of the bar itself in this drawing, so you might be deceived at first that these guys are actually performers. “Dancers at the Bar 3” does show the bar, with bottles. The four dancers are much less in synch than in “Dancers at the Bar 5.” Indeed, one appears to have passed out.
Some of Costello’s figures are clowns — literally. In one drawing a clown peers beneath a dancer’s tutu. But truly, all his figures are clowns, slapstick and out of bounds. They’d be cads if they were in street clothes, but in their tutus or boxer shorts, they’re sweet.
Also on view, a terrific painting, “Mr. & Mrs. Arnolfini,” after Jan van Ecyk’s 1434 wedding painting, “Arnolfini Portrait,” with this laconic couple clad only in their underwear. It’s not often we see such a skilled painter work with such broad humor — as with the tutus, that blending of high and low makes it work.
For more information:
At: Steven Zevitas Gallery,
450 Harrison Ave., through March 9. 617-778-5265, http://www.stevenzevitasgallery.com
Boxers & Ballerinas
At: Gold Gallery, 655 Tremont St., through March 17. 857-239-8972, http://www.au-gallery.com