Terry Grimley reviews exhibitions by Shahzia Sikander and Martin Boyce at Ikon Gallery.

Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander is the latest addition to the already lengthy list of international names who have made their UK solo exhibition debuts at Ikon Gallery.

Now based in New York, Sikander’s work is rooted in the traditional style of Indo-Persian miniature painting, which necessarily implies that she has a high level of technical skill.

However, rather than simply adapting the style to contemporary subjects and themes, as some other artists have done, she uses it as a point of departure.

And so she launches into a freewheeling, semi-abstract idiom which retains some figurative elements, such as the silhouettes of animals, and seems to incorporate references to Arabic script. AK47s and footballs, often caught in nets, are other recurring themes.

But though there may be complex cross-references and cultural allusions in these images, they are not easily unravelled – particularly when Sikander moves nearer to the abstract end of the spectrum, as she does in a large-scale wall painting made specifically for this show. So Sikander strikes me in equal measures an intriguing and a frustrating artist.

She is at her most direct in a series of 16 pencil drawings of monks and novices, a souvenir of her visits to Laos, which have a Pre-Raphaelite precision. There is a video of the monks as well, but neither this nor another, more abstract, video of animated flower petals seems very interesting.

My favourite exhibit was a stunning giant diptych, placed so that you see it first at long-distance through an intermediate gallery. Its sharply-defined, screenprinted decorative elements contrast with the more roughly-defined images of leaping deer.

Despite the obscure elements of Sikander’s work there is enough visual magic to be seduced by – something it would be difficult to say about Martin Boyce’s show downstairs.

Reading about his interests in modern urban landscapes made me want to be drawn in, but the sterility of his bleak and unatmospheric constructions kept me remorselessly at bay.

Boyce has taken inspiration from a photograph of four concrete “trees” designed by Joel and Jan Martel for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, which seems pretty arbitrary. He incorporates a replica of one of these pillars so seamlessly into the first gallery that visitors who are not regulars might assume it is needed to keep the ceiling up.

Elements of the structure are echoed in Boyce’s various constructions, but to be honest these are so boring that I found it impossible to care. Perhaps the least uninteresting of them presents what might be the bare frame of a sun-lounger on its side, with a part-unravelled, bright yellow hosepipe threaded through it. Except that the hosepipe turns out to be made of steel.

The unexpected conjunction of form and material provokes a moment’s pause, but only a moment’s. Increasingly I’m finding time is too precious for such impersonal, heartless art.

* Shazia Sikander: Intimate Ambivalence and Martin Boyce: Out of This Sun, Into This Shadow are on view at Ikon Gallery, Brindleyplace, until September 14 (Tue-Sun, 11am-6pm; admission free)