Raqib Shaw: Inside the Garden of Earthly Delights

In the dreamlike private universe he has painstakingly created, the London-based artist finds all the inspiration he needs.

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Raqib Shaw in his “soirée” room with his dog, Mr. C. Photograph by James Mollison

Raqib Shaw: Inside the Garden of Earthly Delights

In the dreamlike private universe he has painstakingly created, the London-based artist finds all the inspiration he needs.

A former sausage factory is the last place you’d expect to find ­Shangri-la. Yet behind the high wooden boards that shield the spartan building from South London’s grungy Peckham Road is a bower of bliss to overwhelm the senses. Mountains of flowers and trees—magnolias, azaleas, ferns, begonias—are piled up in pots, attracting a considerable number of butterflies and bees. There’s a waterfall, in which a small Jack Russell called Mr. C is gingerly dabbing his paws. Down the path through the flowers is a swinging sofa with a canopy. If you ask for tea, an assistant will instead bring a glass of pink champagne the size of a man’s forearm, despite the fact that it’s early in the afternoon.

This is the home, studio, and empire of the artist Raqib Shaw. Born in Calcutta, India, and brought up in Kashmir until the long-standing conflict in the area forced his family to flee, Shaw moved to London in 1998. “I love Kashmir—oh, you have no idea how much I love Kashmir,” he says with a sigh, dressed in his customary uniform of flat striped cap, apron, and pointy blue suede Patrick Cox shoes. “Why do you think everything here is a pathetic metaphor for the Himalayan mountains?”

Shaw’s overwhelming paintings, in which mythological creatures disport themselves with ribald abandon in hyper-real landscapes, have turned the 39-year-old into an art world favorite, adored by fashionable collectors and heavyweight institutions alike. Right from the start, Shaw made large-scale works, some as big as 15 feet by 8 feet. To create his series Garden of Earthly Delights (2002–2006), which depicts hybrid creatures conjoined in sexual acts in a dazzling underwater world, he used a porcupine quill and car paint. The Hieronymus Bosch–inspired paintings put Shaw on the map. Having seen his 2002 MA postgraduate exhibition at London’s Central Saint Martins, Glenn Scott Wright, a codirector of the Victoria Miro gallery, brought one work from the Earthly Delights series to the 2003 Art Basel fair, where it was spotted by the gallerist Jeffrey ­Deitch. Deitch gave Shaw a solo show in New York, and Victoria Miro offered him his first show in London, which sold out before it even opened, in February 2004. Garden of Earthly Delights X, meanwhile, is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“He goes against all the norms of art,” says the curator Norman Rosenthal, an early champion of Shaw’s. “His work has this air of private excess—incredibly beautiful, very cultivated, knowledgeable—and he combines the cultures of East and West in an extraordinary way. Underneath all the hysteria there’s incredible pain and a sense of loss, both personal and political, for Kashmir. It makes his art authentic and real. It’s on the edge of kitsch but never falls into it.”

In November, Shaw takes over three of the Pace gallery’s New York spaces­—the first artist to do so—with the first and second chapter of his Paradise Lost series that he began in 2001. “The variety of the work and the intensity of this series demanded it,” says Pace founder Arne Glimcher. One gallery will feature huge sculptures, including Renaissance-style wrestling figures; in another will be circular paintings of charging horses; and a third will showcase just one piece, which Shaw is still finishing when I visit. It’s an eye-popping panorama featuring exploding Western architecture—“bits of Piranesi, a bit of Versailles, a bit of St. Paul’s,” Shaw says—overrun with creatures that have monkey heads and human bodies.

Shaw’s London headquarters is at once an installation, an atelier (his word), and a metaphor. The bathroom—previously the sausage factory’s abattoir—is tiled and painted deep red, with blood-spattered statues inset in the wall behind the bath, and enormous scarlet Acqua di Parma candles, which sit on a shelf above the toilet. There’s another room with flower arrangements so gigantic that they look fake, an impression belied by their scent. A long lean-to down one wall of the studio’s ground floor is filled with bonsai trees, one of which is 300 years old and cost about the same as a really good car, one of Shaw’s numerous assistants tells me quietly. (Her task is to water all the bonsai, a four-hour job.) On a balcony upstairs there are two beehives, which are ruled by a pair of queens whimsically named Meredith and Josephine.

A small and highly theatrical man, Shaw is fantastic company. When discussing the art world, his conversation is a conspiratorial, sibilant whisper, rising to loud hilarity when he alights on something that tickles him. Expensive habits—one friend says he once spent more than $30,000 on cut flowers in one go—have left Shaw drastically in debt. Not that he cares. “I intend to die in the red,” he announces flamboyantly. “I always tell the accountant, ‘Black is not a color—red is the color of fashion.’ ” Though he comes from a rich family of carpet merchants and jewelry makers, Shaw has not always lived luxuriously. While at art school, he camped out in a studio that had no heat or washing facilities; Shaw had to bathe in a baby’s wading pool. “I know it’s romantic; I know it’s nonsensical, but I absolutely loved it,” Shaw insists. He wasn’t even put off by the fact that on more than one occasion, dismembered murder victims were dumped outside. “Sweets, I saw a foot!” he tells me with a flourish. “I called the police, went to an opening at the Victoria Miro gallery, and when I got back, it was dogs and helicopters.” The East London badlands where he used to work have since been gentrified. Still, few outsiders visit the studio. Rosenthal drops by now and again, and Shaw occasionally hosts parties where a soprano will sing—opera is one of his passions. In fact, it’s only the Royal Opera House that lures him regularly beyond his bubble. (A rare exception was a recent studio outing to a Beyoncé concert, after which Shaw and his assistants ended up dancing at the gay party Trannyshack.) He has no interest in going to art world parties and dinners, claims to have no friends, and as for a partner, Shaw declares, “I haven’t had sex in the past 15 years.”

As Shaw tells it, however, his more pressing problem is that the work for his New York show is behind schedule, and, he says, “the begonias are not as bright as they were last year, and one of the fish is being cannibalized in the pond. Now that’s a crisis!” He screams with laughter, an astonishing noise akin to a hyena being throttled. In 2016, he plans to finish his Paradise Lost series with a 130-foot painting, likely to be shown at Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery in London. Jopling will have to tear down walls to accommodate it, Shaw says. “Jay’s such a seducer. He said, ‘Raqib, I made this gallery so you could fit the painting in the space.’”

Maybe it’s the assistant continually topping off my glass of pink champagne, but time seems to stand still in this sybarite’s domain. “People judge time by years,” Shaw tells me. “I judge time only by panels.” Inevitably, it dawns on you that you must reel out of the garden and go back to the real world. “It’s very difficult for anyone to separate me from the surface, from the studio, from my assistant, from my tree, or from my desk,” Shaw says, carefully pruning the pink hydrangea he hands to me as a parting gift. “It’s all one.”

Raqib Shaw: Paradise Lost is on view at the Pace Gallery through January 11, 2014.