Review | I was sure I would hate Raqib Shaw’s work. Then I saw it in person.

Art is at its most exciting when it breaks down our defenses. These defenses often come under the heading of “taste.”

Partly, of course, it’s a social concept, connected to status anxiety and perhaps to a fear of what disgusts us. But in art, I think of it as a sifting mechanism, a cognitive shortcut rooted in past experience of pleasure. It’s a mechanism built for efficiency: Yes, I like that. No. Absolutely not. Yes again. Taste, in other words, can be brutal. But we use it to recognize the things we reliably respond to (without having to examine the reasons too closely) and to protect the part of our identity that’s wrapped up in our likes. (Who isn’t proud of their music playlists?)

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If you like art, you might have decided, for instance, that you don’t like conceptual art. Or surrealism. Or minimalism. Good for you. Perfectly justifiable. But then one day — perhaps after a glass of wine with lunch, or in the company of a friend with a different perspective — you’re stopped in your tracks by something that seems to fit one of those categories. Your taste — carefully acquired, proudly maintained — should be rejecting it. But it can’t. You’re seeing it from a slightly shifted angle, you can’t deny that it’s amazing, and suddenly, the glass wall you didn’t even know was there lies shattered at your feet.

Raqib Shaw, the subject of an explosively beautiful show at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, has precisely this effect on my sensibility. Born in Kolkata, India, he grew up in Kashmir and is based in London. His studio there is a former sausage factory converted into a horticultural idyll, replete with bonsais, butterflies and beehives, hidden behind high walls.

For much of Shaw’s life (he is 50 years old), Kashmir’s mountainous, fairy-tale beauty has been marred by the bitter dispute between India and Pakistan over the territory, one of the most likely triggers for nuclear war.

Shaw left Kashmir as a teenager in the early 1990s, after sectarian violence flared. He moved with his family to New Delhi, where he found work with his maternal uncle, who sold jewelry, antiques, carpets and fabrics. Shaw traveled to London on business in 1993 and, after seeing Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” at the National Gallery, resolved to become an artist.

In terms of technique, Shaw’s work is nothing if not dazzling. Anyone can see that, even in reproduction. But until I saw a show of his work in Venice two years ago, I assumed his creations were not to my taste. Not having to explain is part of the point of taste, but I’ll try:

I dislike it when I feel an artist is trying to overwhelm me with technical virtuosity. I’m impatient with fussy, frenetically teeming detail. I don’t like going to a gallery only to feel trapped in a kind of “where’s Waldo?” universe. And I don’t much like contemporary art that’s rife with symbols, grotesquerie, and hybrid creatures such as centaurs and devils.

Glancing at Shaw’s work in reproduction, I felt buffeted by winds carrying all these lamentable traits, like toxic pollens. His images can resemble high-end children’s book illustrations, or riotously overladen Christmas trees. Eek!

But see these paintings in person, linger over them, and things quickly feel different. It’s only in their presence, where you register their three-dimensionality, that you see how simply astonishing Shaw’s technique is. He makes these fastidiously planned, wildly ambitious works by drawing thin outlines in gold acrylic. The outlines are like lead lines in stained glass. Slightly raised, they create small wells, into which Shaw deposits liquid enamel, moving it around with porcupine quills or fine needles to create textures, tonal shifts and other effects.

The elaborate technique is no gimmick. Rather, it’s the expression of a sensibility which, in its combination of sadness and wit, camp and sincerity, self-aggrandizement and self-mockery, is so obsessive and unusual as to be totally original.

The paintings in “Ballads of East and West,” as the Gardner show is titled, were all made in the past decade, a period Shaw describes as “the beginning of my maturity.” Most feature self-portraits, often accompanied by Shaw’s late Jack Russell terrier, Mr. C, or by an alter ego (a wolf-man wearing a blue kimono).

Besides being an attempt by Shaw to reverse the colonial perspective of Rudyard Kipling (whose “The Ballad of East and West” inspired the title), the exhibition is really a series of songs about exile. What’s confounding is that the works express the anxiety and longing of exile not through poetic distillation but through an almost comically unstoppable geyser of cascading symbols, modes, allusions and whims. It’s the difference between expecting, say, a Bach cello suite, charged with the unsayable, and encountering instead a prog rock band’s emotionally incontinent concept album, executed by a cold-eyed evil genius.

Shaw’s paintings constitute a very modern form of horror vacui. That Latin term, meaning “fear of emptiness,” is often used to describe the hypnotically proliferating patterns of certain kinds of Islamic or Catholic architecture, where no surface is left undecorated. So it’s interesting that Shaw was raised in a Muslim family, went to Catholic school, and had both Hindu and Buddhist tutors.

His paintings often depict Kashmir or London. Their decorations are sometimes Islamic, sometimes Hindu or Buddhist. Fighter planes and riots allude to conflict in the Himalayas. Hellish fires evoke not only political violence, but also, in one case, a disastrous conflagration in the artist’s own studio. Glass orbs in corners of his works contain hermetically sealed alternate worlds. Architectural settings and landscapes serve as quotations from Old Master paintings by Antonello da Messina, Caspar David Friedrich and Ludovico Mazzolino.

One extraordinary large-scale painting, “The Retrospective,” is modeled on an 18th-century picture gallery as painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini. It contains miniature reproductions of at least 60 Shaw works, many of them hanging on nearby walls. A tour de force, it’s as show-offy and self-referential as anything Matthew Barney has ever created.

In his homage to Jan Gossaert’s “The Adoration of the Kings,” Shaw replaces Mary’s tender embrace of baby Jesus with an image of himself cradling Mr. C. Into this holy Christian scene he also paints green parakeets and a shrine to the Sufi saint Makhdoom Sahib, both remembered from his Kashmiri childhood. You could interpret this imagery, following the wall label, as a sign of Shaw’s determination to hold “tightly to his own identity, even as he is courted by the system of the Euro-American art establishment.” But I’m not convinced. Shaw’s pictures are too clever, too camp, too multitudinous and phantasmagorical for a limiting concept like “identity” to get much traction.

To me, his paintings suggest a deep compulsion to find enriched pictorial forms for what cannot be retrieved — his Himalayan childhood, pre-conflict Kashmir, perhaps even paradise itself. So there’s a pathos built into it. Shaw recognizes the pathos, and appears constantly willing to laugh at himself. Rife with self-mockery, his work dares to register the brilliant, kaleidoscopic puzzle of selfhood.

At times, I felt a terrible loneliness coming off these crowded works. But I also felt that Shaw might be simultaneously laughing at his good fortune — at the exile’s opportunity to be more than one thing, to wear masks, to sprinkle his garden with fertilizer and glitter, and to be unbeholden to anyone’s expectations of what he should do.

Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West Through May 12 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and then The Huntington in San Marino, Calif.

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