On a grubby stretch of Peckham Road, just down from a replica of Del Boy’s van from Only Fools and Horses, stands an old sausage factory. Inside are gardens, beehives , bonsai trees, tables covered in fresh rose petals and a room full of Japanese flower arrangements. Here, assistants labour painstakingly over some of the most eye-popping paintings being produced today. This is the home and studio of Raqib Shaw, a 45-year-old Indian artist, whose hyperreal and crazily detailed visions of gods, fairytales, impossible architecture and paradises lost and found, emerge in paintings and sculptures that can take up to three years to produce – even with the help of an eight-strong team (more if there’s an exhibition in the offing).
It’s my second visit to Shaw’s decadent London domain. Five years ago I spent a Sunday afternoon having enormous glasses of pink champagne thrust into my hand while Shaw declared that he spent £20,000 a month on flowers, and said that it was a point of honour for him to be heavily in debt at all times (“in the red, darling – red is the colour of fashion”). He showed me works he was making: visions of exploding buildings and fantastical beasts disporting themselves in temples and gardens.
One work was commissioned by a collector: writhing naked male monsters sculpted in stone, topped off with a glass plinth at chest height. I finally reeled out with a pot of pink hydrangeas as a parting gift – which, happily, still bloom today. “Put fertiliser in them and they’ll turn a vibrant blue,” Shaw advises me when I tell him. Improving nature is one of his favourite activities.
On a Friday afternoon in January, things are calmer. Tea is offered rather than booze, and the garden, which was a riot of butterflies before, has a midwinter dormancy. Shaw says that part of the reason for the hysteria of my last visit was that he had felt he had become too caught up in the need to feed the art market.
“I was an absolute mess and there was great turmoil – I felt betrayed,” Shaw declares (he says everything with a declamatory flourish, punctuated by machine-gun howls of laughter). “The holiest thing in the whole world is your dedication towards art and then you realise that there’s the market and they’re just fucking trade, everyone’s a fucking prostitute. It’s the blight, the cancer of the art world and creativity, this making mediocre work to feed the market. Art has to be a bit more serious than that, I think.”
This new seriousness is reflected in his latest paintings, which go on show at Pace gallery in New York this week. The exhibition is called Landscapes and consists of 18 enormous, insanely intricate works, many to be displayed one per room, but some of which I view standing on a ladder, as they’re lying flat, the paint still wet. They are inspired by old masters ranging from Constable and Gainsborough to Caspar David Friedrich and Bruegel the Elder, yet are as hyperreal as a CGI-driven Hollywood blockbuster. One set depicts a life cycle from childhood to death. First, there is a luscious valley bedecked with cherry blossoms (Spring), then a scene of “champagne and indulgence” set against a ravine, with a rabbit as a nod to Alice in Wonderland (Summer).
Autumn depicts Shaw in a hermit’s hut in a spectacular valley, while in the winter painting Allegory of Memories through Monozukuri, the artist desolately ponders the previous scenes in a snowy courtyard, his dogs Minty and Mr C at his feet, a portrait of “absolute psychological isolation”. He adds: “I think they are the most honest paintings I’ve made. I’m trying to deal with the many masks I’ve been used to wearing all my life and trying to find out who I am. These paintings are my experiences in life – a diary of myself.”
With its extravagance and excess, Shaw’s work will not be to everyone’s taste, yet demands to be taken seriously for its sincerity, its technique and its singular point of view. Or as he puts it: “I exist because these paintings need to be created.” As well as their old-master inspiration, the works are influenced by art from India, Japan, Germany, the Persian empire and myriad other places. They are made on birch wood with enamel and Hammerite paint – the stuff you use on cars – pushing it far beyond pastiche.
After a photoshoot, Shaw makes drawings that are translated on to acetates, which are then projected on to the painting surface, then drawn in stained glass liner, lines that are then painstakingly filled in with paint applied with porcupine quills or, in the most recent paintings, needles. “If this painting was painted in oil it would be absolutely ridiculous – it would make no sense whatsoever,” says Shaw. “It goes back to the seminar I had at Saint Martins where it was all about finding your material and your personal language. Let’s not forget, Hammerite enamel is not supposed to be blended. To make it sing like a proper painting is, I think, quite interesting.”
Then there’s the paradise lost to which Shaw keeps returning – the hugely disputed territory of Kashmir in northern India, which he describes as “paradise on earth”, long a site of conflict between India, Pakistan and China. Shaw was born there in 1974 to a family of Muslim merchants; in 1989, there was a civil war, in which the Hindu and Pandit population were forced to leave by Muslim fundamentalists. Shaw’s family cleared out, too – “it was too dangerous” – and relocated to New Delhi. Shaw has not been back for 21 years, and considers himself exiled from his home: “I’ve always felt like a refugee everywhere.”
In 1993, having been inspired to become an artist after seeing Holbein’s The Ambassadors on a trip to London, Shaw enrolled at Central Saint Martins art school, much to his family’s displeasure. Instead of selling carpets and jewels as they had hoped, Shaw spent much of his time in London squatting in a derelict school in a then-ungentrified Islington (at one point he came upon human remains – “Sweets, I saw a foot!”), washing in a kids’ paddling pool and developing his work.
Shortly after graduating, he was talent-spotted by the art dealer Victoria Miro, and since then has shown at Tate Britain in London, the Met in New York and, last year, the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, in an exhibition called Reinventing the Old Masters. His work is possibly too bonkers to have enjoyed unalloyed critical acclaim (his big champion is Norman Rosenthal, formerly exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy). Not that Shaw cares about art critics – in his view, it will only be in 100 years that we’ll know whether or not his art was worthwhile, and by then, he’ll be long dead.
On my previous visit he showed me his collection of bonsai trees, each the value of a modest car. Today, they are somewhat depleted. “This is my shame – because of my lack of experience I killed them. This one had a big infestation which I wasn’t able to treat in time. This one died because I went to Paris and there was a heatwave.” Now he’s taken up the Japanese art of ikebana, an extremely minimal form of flower arranging which takes 20 years to master, and perhaps the antithesis of the maximalist aesthetic of his own paintings. “The whole idea is the negative space, which doesn’t really exist in my work, but I want to see what happens.”
At 45, Shaw has decided to devote his life to art. “Alex, what does an ageing, good-for-nothing homosexual have to do, my dear? I have to fucking give meaning to something because I’ve never had a partner. I’ve never been in love! I’m not sure that I have great confidence in human relationships. I think one has to be extremely lucky to find the right one, and I don’t think I’m going to spend my time looking for things and pining after them – I would rather make some creative use of my wretched life!” He howls with laughter.
Why not just go on Grindr? “I don’t know my dear, I think I’m too much of a romantic. I think it’s all the damned Victorian literature I read when I was growing up – the Wuthering Heights mentality.” And indeed Shaw’s work is suffused with longing – for love, for Kashmir, for an idyll to which he can never return. The crazy extravagance of the work aestheticises emotions that would otherwise be too painful to bear. Shaw has survived cancer and periods of depression: “But Alex, I’m not being romantic about it, my dear. I think the paintings wouldn’t be the way they are if I did not have a generally miserable life.”
In person, Shaw doesn’t seem miserable – in fact, he’s a hoot. He and his team seem very fond of one another, and a table in one room is thickly covered with rose petals for a friend’s birthday dinner he hosted the night before. Nonetheless, Shaw says he is a loner. He says he had the perfect Christmas – 21 days on his own with nothing to do but read Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.
“You have to come to terms with loneliness one way or the other,” he says, “so I’m trying to cram it all up with things to do and the challenges of beauty and it seems to work. There’s always this unconscious desire to be fashionable or accepted, and I really don’t care any more because I’m on this very solitary journey.”
His little oasis is a bulwark against reality, filled, some evenings, with opera singers, artists and other like-minded souls. Two years ago, however, one of these evenings ended in disaster when a candle set alight a wall of dried hydrangeas, and the lower studio burned down, taking a painting with it (“the whole thing was gone, absolutely cleared”). There was, however, a silver lining. “Oh God, it’s not a myth about firemen,” says Shaw. “These gods! I told them I’d sprained my foot and they carried me out – three of them! Oh, what a desperate bitch. They said, ‘Are you OK there?’ And I said ‘No, the other foot has gone as well!’” He screams with laughter.
No losses, he says, can compare to his exile from Kashmir. The final work in the Pace show is a drawing of a man in a tower, engrossed in his work, while a bomber strikes the landscape outside. “So you have natural disasters, the planet being fucked, humans killing other humans and calling ourselves very civilised, and then there is me, privileged to be able to make a work in peace, in this golden cage which is basically a glorified prison.”
Though it’s said with his usual flamboyance, it’s plain that Shaw is sincere. “I do believe that art can still be sincere, art can still be holy, art can still be sacred.” Then he brays with laughter once more – and turns the conversation to Love Island.