Everything is always shifting in Rana Begum’s work: shapes shatter, colours throb and perceptions deceive. Entering Space Light Colour—her survey exhibition at the Djanogly Gallery at Nottingham—one is enveloped by a sense of stillness and restraint, which soon turns out to be just an illusion. Because of her use of geometrical abstraction, the London-based artist is often labelled a ‘minimalist’; it’s true that her artworks, with their echoes of the pastel palette of Agnes Martin or Donald Judd’s serialism, may sit comfortably next to those of the great masters of the school. But there’s also a playfulness and a sense of movement to her oeuvre that propel it past the usual comparisons to Minimalism and other movements of the modernist canon, including Constructivism and Op-art.
This subtle mischievousness comes to the fore in the very first gallery, where the wall-based sculptures No. 529 (2014), No. 149 (2008) and No. 480 (2013)—all three formed by long, thin pieces of aluminium—boast shifting colour schemes depending on the viewpoint. Each side of these pieces have been powder-coated in different hues; look at them frontally, and then from the right and left and they tell a completely different story.
Begum was born in Bangladesh in 1977; though she relocated to the UK in her late teens and absorbed the tenets of contemporary Western culture, the legacy of traditional Islamic art and architecture remains a strong presence in her work. One can see its influence in her use of repetition and in her fascination for the qualities of light refracted through transparent and lattice-like architectural elements.
“My work is not necessarily about standing in front of it and taking it all in,” she said in an interview last year. “It’s about the experience of walking past it and seeing something get activated by the way the light falls on the piece, or how the colour might change.”
Her interest in viewers’ sensorial reactions is most evident in her large-scale commissions: vast sculptural installations in public spaces that transcend the spatial limitations of traditional galleries. Her 2017 contribution to Art Dubai as that year’s winner of the Abraaj Group Art Prize is a good example: a mesmerising field of brightly coloured panes of glass in triangular shapes presented on a floating platform.
Space Light Colour dedicates a room to these architectural projects, presented through photographic documentation and models. The selection includes two of her most celebrated commissions: her project for the Surbiton Health Centre in London, where she created huge wall reliefs with Lego bricks in eye-catching primary colours, and her installation for the Dhaka Art Summit in 2014.
But the show - which has travelled to the Djanogly Gallery from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich where it debuted last year as the artist’s first-ever museum show - also offers the opportunity to experience one of her immersive large-scale installations in the flesh.
That’s the case of the piece titled No. 670 Mesh (2016), a huge maze of coloured mesh panels that takes over the whole second gallery, and that elevates this otherwise pedestrian material to sublime heights, as is typical of Begum’s practice. Inside the room, these precarious architectural elements piled on top of each other up to the high ceiling seem to tower over viewers almost ominously.
Looking at them from the door, though, the jangle of thin mesh lines suddenly appears flattened and dense, as if these three-dimensional sculptures had morphed into drawings, suspended mid-air. I walked away from the room thinking that Begum, who is deeply invested in teasing the boundaries between architecture, sculpture and painting, would enjoy my confused perceptual response.
But Begum is able to create those perplexing reactions at a much more reduced scale too. The last room at the Djanogly Gallery gathers a beguiling selection of pieces that include small fold sculptures on plinths and stunning mirror wall pieces that shine and glisten under the natural light that bathes the gallery.
I felt more drawn to a more humble-looking work: a grid of 54 small geometrical paintings titled No. 704 (2017). Flat and dull at first glance, the colours of the tiny acrylic on MDF paintings - featuring several shades of grey, purple, blue and pink -suddenly appeared to be throbbing as I approached them. Applied in X shapes, their contours are fuzzy and gestural, evidencing both the fallible hand behind the application of colour and the textural qualities of the inexpensive support material.
The pleasure afforded by Begum’s oeuvre clearly resides in the realm of the senses. It offers a type of introspective absorption that will tickle viewers phenomenologically, which is why, like many of her minimalist peers, her art could be deemed as “formalistic”—that which prioritises compositional aspects, including colour, line and texture, over content. In that sense, one could say that in Begum’s work, what you see really is what you get. Or is it?