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Object lessons

Subodh Gupta greets New Yorkers with A Glass of Water

waterSubodh Gupta’s stainless steel glass, filled to the brim with water, created quite a splash in New York. This isn’t surprising for an artist who is often referred to as the ‘Indian Damien Hirst’ in international circles. What is surprising, however, is that Gupta’s show, titled A Glass of Water, at Hauser & Wirth from the 5th of May to the 18th of June, was most notable for its subtle, quiet tone. While Gupta’s sculptures and paintings show attention to detail, rarely are his exhibitions completely devoid of shock value. Rather than hitting the viewer over the head with the proverbial saucepan, this time, Gupta let the meanings in his work emerge more slowly. 

Take, for example, the show’s title work. The ubiquitous stainless steel glass was placed on a wooden table and filled with water each morning till it almost overflowed, creating a convex meniscus. In its simplicity, this one glass, compared to Gupta’s earlier towering sculptures of pots and pans, spoke volumes. The tension between abundance and waste elevated this installation – a common marker of Indian hospitality was transformed into a work of art.

This show had several examples of huge sculptures that were basically enlargements and embellishments of quotidian objects. “Mark off”, a large, looped measuring tape in bronze, and a giant untitled bronze button were imports from the tailor’s shop. Two other sculptures resembled found objects – “Repose”, a blown-up, stainless steel sieve and an untitled, over-sized oil lamp in steel and copper. 

These sculptures were imbued with Gupta’s sense of humour – again, it was more subtle here than in his previous works. In particular, “Mark off” poked fun at itself – a giant measuring tape, its precisely etched centimetric increments were scale-wise completely inaccurate. Its gently folded, burnished surface, punched with holes, mimicked an actual measuring tape.

The mottled bronze button was 1.4 metres in diameter and slightly squashed. It had a strong tactile appeal and the style of its casting was closer to a corpulent Rodin nude than a giant Oldenburg object. The broken oil lamp too invited the viewer to touch it or climb onto it; its dented surface and damaged parts suggested a long, eventful history. 

tapeGupta’s gift of breathing life into inanimate objects was evident in “Repose”, a battered sieve, which despite its well-worn state, was balanced in a position that approximated the recline of a lounge chair. Gone were the shiny milk pails and tiffin boxes that populated Gupta’s earlier shows, which had coincided with the glory days of the India Shining campaign. One can’t help but wonder whether the artist believes that the optimism of Brand India now seems a bit tarnished.

Grime and use were also evident in the oil painting “Full moon”. Consisting of a white dinner-plate-like orb with assorted dirty forks set against a smoky black background, the painting was an ambiguous play on words; it suggested a pun albeit not a literal one.

The exhibition’s other large oil painting, an untitled work, was a close-up of a couple of balls of dough (“Atta”), one of which was stretched out to reveal its bubbly innards. The detailed painting, which looked like an example of a foodie’s macro-lens photography, tied in nicely with Gupta’s “Atta” sculpture. The work seemed like the bread complement to “A Glass of Water”; on a wooden table, flour covered a lump of what looked like dough. On closer inspection, however, it was revealed to be a lump of bronze. 

Fake reproductions, trompe l’oeil and visual puns are Gupta’s stock-in-trade. As with Hirst, part of the uneasy appeal of his work is the realisation that the viewer may not quite be in on the whole joke. As before, Gupta’s elevation of objects of daily use to the status of art seems to speak to the widely disparate levels of consumption in society – from the consumption of a glass of water to that of dough. Gupta’s A Glass of Water proved to be very refreshing, especially, since it offered the viewer the subtle pleasure of teasing out these meanings.

Originally published in Art India, 2011.

Published: June 7, 2011

Looking back at you

While Gieve Patel’s Clouds and Skulls come across as simple studio sketches, his Wells offer a meditative exploration of the natural world ♦

WellsOver the last four decades, Gieve Patel’s work has turned inward. Wells Clouds Skulls, his solo at Bose Pacia Gallery, Brooklyn, from the 5th of May to the 25th of June, displayed this shift from narrative works (street scenes inflected with social comment, among others) to more reflective and layered works.

The three 8’ x 8’ canvases captured Patel’s impressions of looking into wells. These paintings were the latest from an ongoing series that spans over twenty years. The restricted space of Bose Pacia made for an intimate encounter with these large canvases, forcing the viewer to see them in close proximity, thereby mimicking the feeling of peeping down into a well.

Among the paintings, “Looking into a Well: A Spray of Blossoms” (2010) has lighter hues as compared to the other paintings. The exterior of the well, done in muted dove-grays mottled with green, is dull compared to the circular reflection of the sky at the centre-right of the picture space: it has a playful composition in robin’s egg blue with floating pink and mulberry shapes that suggest flowers. However, a hanging creeper with red and orange flowers at the left catches your attention. The ambiguous boundary between the exterior and the interior is crucial to the draw of Patel’s wells. In this painting, balance is achieved through the relationship between colours: a black border creates a sharp division but doesn’t entirely block the space outside the well. The eye goes back and forth between the flowers on the left of the painting and their reflection inside the well.

wells2Looking into a Well: Bougainvilleae” (2010) is a dark green canvas with a slightly unbalanced, upside-down composition consisting of clearly demarcated concentric circles with a blue-white, moon-like reflection of the sky in the centre. Pale, almost translucent roots, creep around the stone edges, which fade into a textured patchwork of dots and crosses. During a gallery walk-through, Patel mentioned that he enjoys the freedom that acrylic provides, and his pleasure in layering the work is evident here.

In “Looking into a Well: The Green Bush” (2008), the topsy-turvy composition creates an instant feeling of vertigo. Chromatically, this is the simplest painting (blue, green, gray and brown). An ochre seam in the shale-like layers of rock diagonally bisects the canvas. This particular well’s reflection is the brightest and it looks almost mirror-like with crisp, sharp borders. The ocular sky gives it a strong presence. With the dark reflection of the overhead foliage creeping into the blue, the viewer expects to see her own face looking back up.

During a conversation with poet Ruth Padel at the gallery walk-through, Patel said that he had once painted the reflection of his own face. But finding it intrusive, he wiped it out. While the well paintings invite conclusions about inner versus outer spaces, reflectivity and meditation, Patel seems to shy away from too much interpretation.

The series of drawings in charcoal, ink, pencil and pen titled Cloud similarly evades meaning. Executed with scratched lines that coalesce and dissipate on the page, the 17 works seem to avoid recognizable forms. The more pleasant of these look like mountainous landscapes while others look like iron filings scattered across the paper. Apparently, Patel works on a few of these pieces at a time, marking lines on each page every day. He mentioned that this way of working gave him an “immense sense of freedom”.

As an accomplished artist, poet and playwright (and a physician), Patel has certainly earned the right to his artistic freedom. However, one hopes he recognizes this freedom as a by-product of his earlier success. Displayed in simple wooden frames, these line drawings seemed included in this show by grace of Patel’s more effortful and relevant work.

Similarly, the Skulls would, in any other context, have been considered simple studio sketches. Against the white of the page, each skull is executed in a mix of gestural lines, shadowing and detail – too loose to be the anatomical drawings of a medically trained hand and too generic to bear the stamp of Patel’s style. At the gallery, a jumble of cloud drawings was bookended by one skull with a slight grin: a full stop punctuating the frivolity of the scribbles before it. Patel is a sincere rather than a sarcastic artist, and it is doubtful that this skull mocks the earnestness of his viewers. Unfortunately, an alternate explanation for displaying these works – other than as fillers for the otherwise excellent show – remained elusive.

Originally published in Art India, 2011

Published: June 7, 2011

Music of the spheres

Ranjani Shettar’s fluttering installations at a New York gallery reveal their secrets ♦

articleLargeRanjani Shettar’s skeletal sculptures hung festooned from the ceiling of Talwar Art Gallery from October the 2nd to January the 30th 2010. The filigreed shapes – loops, curlicues and disk-like embellishments – seemed to be suspended in mid-air. From their spare beauty, it would be difficult to guess the arduous, earthy process involved in creating these ethereal works.

“It stinks,” Shettar said, speaking from her home in Sagara, Karnataka. She was describing the smell of fermenting iron and jaggery used to make kasimi, a black dye required for the installations. Shettar used kasimi and colours prepared from pomegranates and areca nuts to dye muslin cloth, which she then swaddled around stainless steel ‘armatures’. “It takes three weeks. There’s a whole process for the cloth: using myrobalam, soaking it in cow’s milk and then dying it,” she revealed. These latest sculptures were inspired by the way Kalamkari artisans use dyes “made in their own backyards” – as was “Sun-sneezers blow light bubbles” (2007-2008), a simultaneously spindly and frothy sculpture displayed at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas in February 2009.

Shettar, who is from Bangalore and studied at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, has been busy showing at various notable venues in the U.S.A. The 32-year-old’s sculptural installations fuse abstract minimalist motifs with the processes of traditional craft. For her well-travelled piece “Me, no, not me, buy me, eat me, wear me, have me, me, no, not me” (2006-2007), which was on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Rooftop Garden from March to July in 2009, she wove strips of metal, re-cycled from used car parts, into cornucopias – as if effecting a reclamation of the man-made world of waste by a more natural crafting process.

The works in Shettar’s recent solo show were subtler and smaller. The Bird Song series echoed Shettar’s own lush ‘habitat’. “I live in an area where I am surrounded by birds and I hear their chirps all day. It’s the joy that I derive from them that I am trying to express,” she said of the four sculptures that composed Bird Song. They looked like line drawings that had gone three-dimensional: some of their loops were filled with stretched muslin, while others outlined negative space. “Bird Song I” contained two trumpet-shaped and two sphere-like pieces, dyed golden-beige and evenly spaced. One of these resembled a deconstructed flower. In areca nut-dyed “Bird Song III”, a disk and a trumpet-like object faced each other: a jaunty conversation ensued between the two suspended shapes. The coal black “Bird Song IV” was a swan-shaped structure hanging under another ‘petalled’ flourish. Its welded steel frames were like stretched ligaments or the bony wings of a bird, while the shadows it cast were light and feathery.

Another room held a collection of tinier installations. “I’ve been doing large projects for two or three years now and this time I wanted to make something more intimate,” Shettar confessed. The show’s smallest work, “Waiting for June”, was as evanescent as a fleeting thought. Several small pieces of cracked dry terracotta were arranged in a cluster on the wall, reminiscent of parched earth, thirsting for the monsoon. In “Harp and Drumbeats”, antique teak dowels were used to stretch lengths of muslin, so that their taut structures evoked the catgut used in musical instruments. “They are not direct references to a particular type of music,” Shettar said, “I am trying to capture the progression of notes, like in a raga.” The five structures that composed “Drumbeats” were placed at careful intervals – suggesting the beats in a musical measure. The carved teak dowels also recalled the handles of hand-made tools, such as trowels and rakes.

The show’s least successful piece, “Leap”, consisted of four muslin ovals of varying sizes. Two of them had holes cut out, one of which contained a smaller oval shape inside it. An exploration of material per se – “Leap” was more like a preparatory sketch for the other pieces than a work in itself.

Shettar said that her show possessed a ‘human scale,’ and this came through successfully thanks to her incorporation of low-tech, craft processes. At their strongest, her installations reminded this viewer of the importance of the natural world, signifying the possibility of a harmonious co-existence with it. For instance, Bird Song’s shadows and shapes looked like artful reconfigurations of the tangled branches of trees. In fact, Shettar confided that she had considered using bamboo frames for the work, but chose steel instead because of its flexibility and durability. Yet the delicate installations concealed their industrial core well: softened by skin-like muslin, natural dye and tamarind kernel glue, they suggested the very rustling, chirping and burgeoning of life in nature that inspired their maker.

Originally published in Art India, 2009.

Published: December 7, 2009

Kaghaz Ke Ghar

Zarina Hashmi at Gallery Espace ♦

hashmi_roofsNew York-based Zarina Hashmi has lived in homes all over the world and it is fitting that her retrospective is titled Kaghaz ke Ghar/Paper Houses. Spanning two decades (1979-99), the exhibition showcases Hashmi’s innovative use of paper in three dimensions, although it includes etchings as well. Made by pouring paper pulp into moulds and then shaping or adding elements, the sculptures are architectural and elegant, pushing the medium of paper to new forms.

Fragile and yet malleable, paper is a good medium for an artist whose work deals with themes of creating personal space that can be easily moved, shifted or destroyed. “Displaced People/Displaced Homes” most directly makes the connection between flimsy paper dwellings and the narratives people tell themselves to create a sense of home. The sculpture is made up of several prints – each cut and stacked separately in the shape of a house – that are bundled together and to each other with cord. Here, the cord could represent narrative – the thread that actually holds people together when permanent structure is missing.

Other works are less political and more personal. “Flight Log”, an early piece, alludes to Hashmi’s experience learning to fly a glider. Other works – such as the “Pool” series – are more contemplative, drawing in the viewer as a Zen garden might. As Hashmi says, “Home is the centre of my universe; I make a home wherever I am. My home is my hiding place, a house with four walls, sometimes with four wheels.”

In a recent interview, Hashmi stated that she also finds a home in her art, and this exhibition is an open invitation into that sometimes peaceful, sometimes provoking place.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi.

Published: December 18, 2008

Child Speak/Woman Song

Vasundhara Tewari Broota at Shridharani Gallery ♦

barootaMuch like her paintings, the title of Vasundhara Tewari Broota’s current show at Triveni suggests more than it says outright. However, as is evidenced from the catalogue essay by Gayatri Sinha, Broota has a lot to say – this time about childhood, and the woman as a mother and an artist. While her work still carries a lot of intellectual weight, these paintings are a little more relaxed than her previous work – allowing her painterly abilities to shine through with more spontaneity.

The oil and acrylic on canvas paintings in this show appear simpler, bolder and more organised than some of Broota’s earlier work; yet, under blocks of bright colour lurk multiple tones and hues. The surfaces of her paintings are reticulated to lend the paintings a plastic texture and a feeling of depth despite their smoothness; in Rope Song, the blue background surges with aquatic intensity.

Abstract backgrounds merge and overwhelm narrative figures. The paintings make use of symbols in an iconic fashion – almost like a child’s first alphabet book. Letters and numbers suggest the imposition of meanings upon the female figures. With numbers appearing in blocks over a dreamlike landscape, Structure and Play suggests the potential years of life proceeding from childhood. A progression of female nudes in A Journey in Time recalls the tension of the identities of mother and child, with the linking metaphor of crescent and full moons.

Broota’s paintings range from being carefully chaotic (Running) to having a vibrant equilibrium (Shining Through). Her paintings invite analysis while coquettishly escaping from it. Perhaps Broota’s relationship to her paintings is best seen in the self-reflexive diptych Flight in Turbulence. In the right-hand panel, the gun-sight mirrors the viewer’s eye, trained on the centre of the canvas. One bird from the abstracted flock is in high naturalistic detail – it just slips out of the central range. It’s a reminder that whatever you look at becomes frozen with meaning, while what you ignores flies off into the background. Broota lets her subjects flirt with such tension in “Child Speak/Woman Song”, creating works with a complex life of their own.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, 2008.

Published: December 18, 2008

Fragments of beauty

Attiya Shaukat at Anant Art Gallery ♦

Bits & Pieces II

Bits & Pieces II

Lahore-based Attiya Shaukat’s miniature-style paintings on view at Anant Art Gallery are sensitive and intelligent works. Like several Pakistani artists nowadays, Shaukat draws on contemporary themes and symbols in her miniature paintings. Her work stands out, though, for its experimental montaging of symbols and compositions and for her inspired themes.

Shaukat was admitted to the Lahore College of Arts for textile design, but once she saw the miniature paintings done by senior students, she said, “I decided to switch to that medium within my first year.” According to her, the number of students concentrating on this subject is on the rise, as is the interest in modern miniatures both in Pakistan and India.

The paintings in this exhibition roughly correspond to two themes. The bulk of the works are expositions of the show’s title In the Flick of a Second. These paintings stem from a spinal injury that Shaukat suffered in 2003, which left her legs paralysed. Like Frida Kahlo before her, Shaukat turned her physical pain into fragmented visual beauty, and these paintings are a record of the various aspects of her injury, surgery and recovery.

Recurring images tie these paintings together. Bones, nerves, steel, feet and flower petals create a personal symbolic language that nevertheless communicates her pain and recovery with visceral clarity. A series of paintings titled “First Steps” are extremely simple – in one, there are just four feet foraying onto the corners of a page. Yet, the simplicity also reflects Shaukat’s struggle to return to painting. “I had to learn to hold a brush all over again,” she said.

The motif of a five-petalled flower with one discoloured or blackened petal becomes a symbol of deformity, useless limbs, and a youth cut short by fate. In other paintings, Shaukat uses petals to symbolise the unacknowledged “delicacy of the spine” and the restrictions of the human body. “Chained” is a self-portrait in which the figure’s torso is held immobile by a Kangra-school flower that looks like an unravelling spine. A ghosted chain roots the waist to a finely rendered blue petal, which anchors the elements of the composition.

Other paintings in this series foreground the process of surgery and recovery. In “Within Brackets”, steel girders frame a straight rod in the bottom two-thirds of the painting, while two backwards pointing feet peek out of a panel on the top third. Thick-yarn stitching adds to the composition, and a painted crimson petal stretches from a thread with a smattering of red drops around it. In other paintings, an arm of a fan, seen as if from a bed, turns into a curved knife. In “Don’t You Dare Open It”, two panels are stitched together down the centre, recreating the tension of taut pain and the uncertainty of surgery.

There is no doubt that these works convey strong emotions with a mature subtlety and delicacy. But it is the few works that are not related to the title theme that really showcase Shaukat’s artistic capabilities and breadth of thought. In these paintings, Shaukat explores political and societal themes, as well as stories taken from illustrated manuscripts of the Mughal era, such as the Akbarnama. Collectively titled “Bits and Pieces”, a few of these works depict the Iraq War. The strength of these works is the cubist fragmenting that Shaukat introduces into her miniature figurative paintings, which create puzzle-like compositions. In one painting, George Bush’s face peers over shard-like vignettes of chained men in traditional miniature style; in another, bones and knives fade into upturned bowls and cuts of cloth.

A series of paintings inspired by red-light districts show that, besides personal and universal suffering, Shaukat has an eye for depicting the various pleasures of life as well. A lusciously red street scene with electric lights and the sign “Broadway” is suspended over a miniature-style female figure reclining on a couch, which is sliding away in sections. In another work, dancing girls are painted with a tender delicacy to highlight their beauty and grace; at the same time, the composition is unsettled by the jigsaw sections and disconnected limbs.

These varied paintings are the real indication of Shaukat’s resilience and ability to move on. But more than that, they demonstrate a rich imagination and a sense of curiosity, which have influenced both her choice of subjects and her style and, we hope, will continue to do so.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2007.

Published: May 1, 2007