Thursday, September 14, 2017

When you judge art What you judge: On Abir Experience

Don't judge, they say. But when you are called to judge you could do nothing but judge, here in our case judge art. I was invited to judge the art entries that came to the Ahmedabad based art charitable trust, Abir Foundation which had given out an open call for entries. Around 1000+ works of art came and we were supposed to choose 107 works. Out of the hundred and seven works, we were expected to select two paintings, two sculptures, one print and one ceramic work for the cash award, certificate and plaque. The judging panel had Manu and Madhvi Parekh and Walter D'Souza besides me.

Though they all had their views, in this short piece what I want to talk is about my views on the way I judged the works and also a little detail about the award winning works and artists. All the awards have a limitation, means the award worthy works should be selected from a given number of entries/works considered for the process. Selecting from the given number of works reduces the possibility of considering a vast array of works that have been simultaneously produced in the given context of work creation only because they are not presented for the selection process. Hence the award winners are not the best but the best of the given. After announcing the awards officially, I told each award winners about this reality; you are not the best of the country but you are the best among the competed artists. 

Perhaps this selection is not the ultimate selection. Had it been a different set of judges with different approaches not only to art but also to the very process of judging the results would have been different. That also means that those works of art which haven't won the awards still stand a chance of winning awards elsewhere. It tells us the fact that in art the ultimate competition and winning are not possible. You could come as the best badminton champion till another one comes and defeat you. So there is a mere possibility of remaining best for a given period of time. But in the case of art which does not obey or observe any particular rule of making art the chance of judging an ultimate best is almost impossible. So the art awards are only decided on technical grounds, means under a given set of terms and conditions.

At the Abir platform we were to pick and choose two artists each from three given categories namely painting, sculpture and printmaking. If you look at carefully that categorisation itself is invalid these days for artists prefer to transgress boundaries and experiment with a multiple array of mediums. However when the trust that has constituted the awards prefers to stick to this purist idea of strict categories, as judges we have to go by the given rules. That's the only justification to look at art within those purist categories. We chose a best painter and the second best painter from among the painters; best sculptor and second best sculptor from among the sculptors; best printmaker from among the printmakers. Suddenly we found a problem: most of the young printmakers had strictly gone by the conventions. They were simply exploring what the printmaking mediums could do to them not what could do to those mediums. So we thought it is better not to find a second position for that. We had a set of interesting ceramic works were before us and pushing them into the sculpture category would not have done justice to the devotees of this medium. So we put our negotiating powers together to prop up a category for the ceramic works and one best Ceramist was chose for the award.

Looking at the works that had come for competition I found out that the young artists in this country too were suffering from the same issues that the established mid career artists had been going through. For the painters it is still an effort to create a language which is contemporary, modern and yet not imitative. For almost a decade Indian art scene had seen the flooding of photo-realism or mediatic realism. Those gallerists who had once competed and fought each other for getting the photorealists to their repertoire of artists by the end of that decade that started almost with 2013 started disowning the same language and where looking elsewhere for merchandise. This careless and callous attitude of the galleries had created a huge confusion among the artists for all of a sudden they found nowhere to go with their well practiced photo realist visual language. It was a huge task for them to change tracks which perhaps the mid career artist's were successful in doing with their two decades of work experience. But for the youngsters it was a clueless cross road and they were confused about the direction that they would take. That confusion was reflected in the Abir entries for the painting section also.
However I voted for Bhartti Verma who is a staunch photo realist without any trace of confusion in her works. She had already got a solo show in Delhi and photo realism was still in vogue them. What makes Bharti's works interesting is her grit to continue with a language that she had fine tuned. The ability of the artist to remain and experiment with her language shows her artistic determination; whether there is market for her kind of works or not she believes that she could continue till she finds herself in the next level where this language could take her. The experiment is already on as one could see the minute incorporation of materials and stitches in her paintings. Bhartti gives value to concept and skill alike. The second place holder Nayana Melinamani is painter with precise ideas about space, form, colour and rhythm. Her paintings deal with the spatial distribution within the contemporary society where hierarchies are created as well as sanitised from the upper to lower rungs. Nayana brings a magic carpet kind of form rich in intricate embroidering and indicates a surreal time travel. She is obviously concerned about the growing crisis between the 'traditional' and the 'contemporary'.

My observations on the sculptors is rather sympathetic for most of the artists, I found, facing severe resource crunch at various levels. There was time when each young artist was scaling up his or her works through modelling as well as fabrications. But those were the days of financial opulence and hope. I could see sculptors taking a step slower than before yet never submitting their experimental verve to the materialistic conditions. Hence we had quiet a lot of sculptures in a variety of mediums often pitching their formal philosophy on the arguments of art povera. They had extensively used found objects and 'poor' materials. Some of them had attempted in traditional materials like marble and bronze and what I found in them was a struggle between the prescribed roles of such materials and the artists' desire to transcend and transgress them for contemporary purposes. Hence though moderate in scale the sculptors had come up with interesting works. The first prize winner, Krunal Kahar made a sculptural installation carefully carved wood and sand casted miniature elephant figurines. What I saw in Krunal's work was a deep concern for nature and environment. He inverses the proportions of leaf and elephant so that the viewers' relationship with them also could be reversed. Also he emphasised the need for handcrafting and seemed to have taken a position against 'fabricating' as a sculptural mode. However, I would let myself think that in future even if he would use fabricated forms in his works, that shouldn't stand in the way of his philosophical concerns vis a vis the works. The second place winner, Abhijit Nigade used scrap wood to create a wild pregnant woman. He put it in such manner that I felt that when he said that women were trashed in our society but they make geniuses out of scrap, I could just see that idea getting reflected in the work. I had seen other works created out of scrapped wood, I thought Abhijit deserved a prize for his ability to bring the concept and skill into one precise form.

As I mentioned before in the article, the printmakers were too struggling with the die hard nature of the medium itself. They hadn't yet come to terms with newer printing technologies hence most of the entries remained in the conventional printmaking mediums and techniques. As the organisers had given a size specification most of them had sent small works and we could select Srinivas Pulagam as the winner. I would like to add once again that he is the best among the applicants not 'the' best printmaker in our country. Srinivas had worked on imaginary topographies; autonomous and self sufficient habitats going with nature these places are fortified by the Palm impressions of the artist himself. Hence there I found an artist transferring his identity in to his work and claiming a space of his own. The idealism of a never never land appeared as an anti-thesis to the idea of development prevailing in our society. Anju Paliwal took away the prize for ceramic art. As there were many entries in ceramics and had come as entries for the sculpture category considering the peculiarity of the medium they wouldn't have stood a chance so it was pertinent to make a category for the ceramic art. Anju's works did not make any tall claims. In their simplicity and joviality they reminded me of East European or Russian dolls. The complexion that she had given to the figures explained her stance on races and also I could see a very skilled ceramist's focus on form, colour, glaze and rhythm in the works. 

I decided to write this article to tell you why some artists are selected in an open call and some are not. One could be making imbalanced art with no sense of rhythm. But I always look for methodical madness as I know even the apparent unevenness of a work of art could contain explosive aesthetical novelty. I could see that experimental urgency in most of the works in Abir. Also they were the tell tale stories of the present state of young and upcoming artists within the contemporary art scene in India. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Art Ink: Santosh Kumar Das

Artist Santosh Kumar Das
'The artist himself is a creation of the mysteries of ink', says the Madhubani based 'Mithila' artist Santosh Kumar Das. I am yet to hear a better definition of an artist. He also says that artist is the world that he creates by ink. Das believes in the power of black on paper. I hold the 779th edition of 2000 screen-printed books created by Das assisted by his students Mahalaxmi and Shantanu Das besides the help of range of serigraphy experts. 

The book is valuable because you possess it like an illumined manuscript. There is something intimate about it; including the smell of the oil used for printing. The handmade paper on which the works are printed tells the story of mediation, a bit distant from the original creator yet carrying his touch in a strange way. In the days of graphic novels when anything that moves or has moved is made into a subject of graphic novel, the book of Das titled 'Black' stands out because it is not a set of illustrated narratives to form a comprehensive text but a book of independent drawings that could tell the story of the author in disjointed sequences.

The title of the book, Black has a subtitle that goes like this: An Artist's Tribute. Then I am disturbed by a series of questions: Is it a tribute to his mother who used to inspire him? Is it a tribute to the art itself? Is it a tribute to the style? Is it a tribute to its ethnicity? Is it a tribute to the ink? Is it a tribute to his teachers as well as students? Is it a tribute to his artistic life? Is it a tribute to the universe that has conspired with all the forces in order to make him an artist? 

By the time you finish reading/seeing the book, you come to a conclusion that this book is a tribute to all what have been numbered above. Das says how his mother who used to wheeze and cough during the night, kept a lamp lit with a lid on in order to collect the soot which in day time would become the colour to make a visual world. She, Savitri Devi was not only a painter but also a story teller. In her story telling sessions done on the terrace during the moonlit nights there came hundred and one characters alive that had inspired Das capture them in his works. 

Mithila painting with its own aesthetic logic and world view has been a domain of traditional women artists who imparted the skill and knowledge from generation to generation. Santosh Kumar Das took to this feminine visual language and explored his own self through its idioms. He created a repertoire of images and narrative patterns without breaking radically away from the norms of traditional renderings gave it a further edge capable of revealing his own world view as a contemporary artist.

In a way the book is a pictorial autobiography. Das says how he trained himself visually by looking at calendars and posters besides closely observing the women folk doing the paintings on various surfaces including the earth. He watched them demonstrating their skills for the visiting national and international enthusiasts who recorded their paintings. Das loved the lessons from the epics; he didn't initially know why Arjun had to shoot an arrow at a fish' reflection instead of the fish sculpture itself in order to gain the hand of Draupadi. Slowly he realised that it  was all about concentration and meditation, two essential qualities of an artist. This concentration sometimes had adverse effects also; while looking at people and their faces he used to miss his trains and buses!

Santosh Kumar Das has a wonderful visual repertoire. His narratives move in and out of conventions. At times he maintains symmetry and at times he puts all the weight to the left or right side of the painting to make itself balance on its internal rhythms. This book is a pleasure not only for eyes but also for the intellect. The book is produced by Tara Books.