Friday, August 31, 2018

Women Seen and Remembered: the KG Subramanyan Erotica

K.G.Subramanyan painted women but never exuded sanguine personality a la Pablo Picasso. The latter’s paintings and drawings were filled images of women who were either sleeping or astonished by the presence of a ‘real’ minotaur (a surrogate of the artist himself) or the artist’s mesmerising gaze. They are more or less like animals caught in the headlights of a huge vehicle; troubled, frozen, immobile and dazed. But KGS’ women are not like those of Picasso’s. KGS in comparison with Picasso is more benevolent and less aggressive in his approach to women but I should add that is not less in his erotic verve compared to the 20th century prolific genius. These initial thoughts came to me when I was standing before the works of KGS presented by the Art Heritage, New Delhi in collaboration with the Seagull Foundation, Kolkata. The show is titled ‘Women as Seen and Remembered’. The present ensemble consists of drawings by KGS done between 1953 and 2016. Before going further, let me say that it is a commendable show with curatorial precision though a curator’s name is not particularly mentioned and has a pleasant display strategy in place. Spread out in three spaces this show is a must watch one and is expected to run throughout the month of September 2018.

This show tells the viewer one thing; as believed by many, behind the scholastic veil and a sagacious appearance, hidden by the philosopher’s detachment and hoodwinked by the Spartan sartorial choices, there used to be a man who had been passionately at the opposite sex/the fairer sex/stronger sex and was depicting them in all the possible permutations and combinations. The first oil portrait of a woman is in the display and there more than capturing the cold posture of the sitter, KGS’ focus is more on the distribution of the subdued flesh brown and pink and the steady but hesitant brush strokes. From there KGS becomes a mature artist who could conjure up women in many moods through his lines and brush strokes. The initial hesitation or a sort of calculated approach towards the female form should be attributed to the political ideology that KGS was pursuing in those formative years. It is a well known fact that KGS was a leftist to begin with and ended up as a Gandhian. During his leftist days, I assume that KGS might have been restraining himself from looking at women as objects and viewing them as comrades in arms. That explains why KGS draws them with some sort of precision though characteristic details are more or less schematized so that the particularity of an individual is consumed by the generality of independent women.

Gandhian thoughts that came naturally through the educational ethos that was dominated by the doyens like Nandlal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij must have confused KGS initially for the schematic representation of women the works of Bose and Mukherjee, especially their later works and the full bodied expressions of Baij both in his sculptures and paintings. The resolution in KGS came in such way that he could move away from schematic nature of representation and at the same time keep the sympathetic approach Baij always had for women, which in fact was devoid of male gaze, which I would say remains exceptionally unchallenged by any other Indian male modernist, especially we see Baij’s works against the expressionist and erotic orgy that the Progressives who came to the scene after the heydays of Baij. KGS did not fall into the Progressive rut (they remained there for long till they found their own visual styles that even turned into pure abstractions) but could maintain the sympathy for women and a kind of scientific sense pervaded those drawings done in 1960s and early 70s. R.Sivakumar, art historian who has studied KGS in depth observes that at this stage KGS approached the female body clinically and he knew where the joints were and where the sinews and muscles where. From the joints KGS let the rest of the limbs move like ‘puppets’ adding to stylisation and movement.

It was KGS’ forays into the studies of Indian folk and traditional art that helped him to liberate his notions about female form. The interim abstract period by late 1970s and 1980s which oscillated between schematic abstraction and schematic figuration, seemed to be the launching pad for KGS to go dynamically into the firmament of no bars hold sort of eroticism. In 1980s KGS achieves tremendous sense of freedom both in form and content. His graphic skills become fluid and he reaches to a stage where he could turn anything into a female form. Sivakumar once again observes that KGS has drawn more female forms than male forms when it comes to taking a curious census of it but he has counterbalanced it by drawing and painting male figures and so many male animal and monkey figures. With a tongue in cheek fashion but keeping his characteristic calm Sivakumar says that ‘thus he compensates the absence of male figures’ in his other works.

A ‘closet erotician’, if I could call KGS taking a lot of liberty with English language, KGS like Bhupen Khakar made it explicit that the official eroticism is a thing of suspension; there is nothing apprehensive or ambivalent about it. “I am an erotically driven artist,” KGS could have said but he never said so because he wanted his viewers to find some ambivalence in their own understanding and reading of his art rather than creating an apprehension about his own works. In that sense KGS was standing half of his body out of the closet and half of the body inside it. From the threshold and the liminal space of sagacity he could almost lampoon the middle class that looked at his works. In fact when he comes to flourish with his reverse paintings and later on his canvas paintings, this middle class space becomes all the more important in his works where he places all his women characters who are in various stages of auto-eroticism, enticing the absent, letting their body to be gazed at, involving in scandalous gestures almost imitating the terrific joy of fallacio. KGS scandalized the whole middle class existence and liberated its women from the clutches of the social mores. One may wonder then why KGS was never ostracised or censored for his works. I would say he could camouflage himself with his sagacity in appearance exactly the way Gandhi had managed his sexual experiments without getting into trouble with the public. The later revelations almost sixty years after his death must have tarnished the saintly side of Gandhi but as there wouldn’t be many who could come forward to play witness against KGS regarding his erotic endeavours.

When I say this readers may be slightly scandalized as they could think whether I am trying to implicate KGS of any sexual misconduct. Let me clear the air once and for all the time to come. I do not have any such aims and I do not have anything to hold against KGS’ art. KGS mercilessly looked at the hypocrisy of the middle class society and opened up the desires in an expressionist fashion. People needed to stay back and look at the works of KGS to understand the scathing critique that he had forwarded. He was a non-narrativist among the narrative artists of Baroda. The Baroda Narrative artists transcended the space but kept the narrative more or less ‘realistic’ (remember not naturalistic). Their approach to the space was unconventional but KGS’ approach to both space and narrative was absolutely unconventional. Following his tryst with the abstract expressionism of the 1950s and 60s and the encounters with artists like David Hockney KGS flattened his pictorial space and spread his characters out there almost treating them like cotton puppets, devoid of three dimensionality. As he progresses in age we could see how he gives more defined existence to the feminine characters and their extremely voluptuous and provocative postures.

There is a fair amount of emblematic approach in KGS’ rendition of women characters in his works. It is not always necessary that he narrates something within the pictorial format. There are many places where one image gives birth to another one and thereby creating an intrinsic logic of existence and there are times when KGS starts a mythological character and develops additional sub-deities around it. Dominated by the Devi cult of Bengal, many of his imageries have the Goddess Durga and her spoil, the Mahishasura. But in several of them they are in an erotic encounter, or in a playful banter. The Devi becomes quite an ordinary woman in a very normal space and an ordinary woman becomes a very special devi in a reified space; both could be seen in his works. KGS takes off from quotidian life and goes into the realm of mythology which could be remotely connected to the canonical but often remains a personal one. At other times KGS takes image references from the Kalighat paintings, Pata Chitras, murals, Ganjifas, playing cards, ivory medallions, colonial souvenirs and so on. It is not necessary for KGS to be always stuck to the folk and tribal art. A closer would reveal that KGS had gone through all the said sources and visual resources, which has earned him the qualification of being an eclectic. Interestingly, eclecticism is one word that KGS refers many times in his collection of essays and speeches titled ‘Creative Circuits’.

KGS has an Iyer’s laughter; the smirk of a cynic, the understatement of a black humorist, the overstatement of a satirist and also the godliness of a creator for he never makes any self lampooning efforts. The male figure which could be a surrogate of the artist is often seen as the one male who gazes from some part of the pictorial plane but hardly one finds even remotest self portrait in his works. KGS is not a chameleon, which many artists are in their works, but he becomes the  singular voyeur and commentator of the narratives as well as non-narratives in his works. Coming back to the male gaze part of his works; in these works where women are seen and remembered, he employs tremendous amount of male gaze and this gaze is not that of a sagacious person at all. KGS has dissected the human activities with a satirist’s eyes and one cannot say that he made fun of women rather he liberated them from their social clutches. From Christian mythologies to the Hindu ones, from the world folklores to the middle class stories, KGS surfed through many scenes and could get away without hurting too many sentiments. Lucky that he was not a Muslim and he had his pedigree to back him up so that his fallen angels and goddesses and middle class house wives in heat could stay and stare back as they do now. I do not think any woman however would like to be remembered the way KGS would make them up but definitely it is an exhibition that shows ‘women seen and drawn’ by a trickster eroticist.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Delhi Contemporary Art Week: Art is the Last thing in their Minds

(Begum Tyeba Lipi work presented at the DCAW)

Delhi Contemporary Art Week (DCAW) is in its second edition. Held at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre Visual Arts Gallery, this four day affair is a mini-fair with tall claims that include ‘art education’ and a resistance to the ‘sidelining’ of contemporary art in the bigger art platforms and with a declared aim of promoting the young artists and their works. One of the senior art gallerists in Delhi says, ‘people buy art for art’s sake.’

Let me put this into perspective: nobody cares for contemporary art and it is our last ditch attempt to salvage the situation.  The high sounding claims are simply euphemisms that hide the quotidian nature of soliciting clients in the art market. India has an art market driven mostly by three or four names starting with Souza and ending with Raza. The lone contemporary warrior in this gladiators’ ring is Subodh Gupta. That does not mean that those other well known contemporary artists are already out of the race. They are there but they are not really minting gold for the art market. Solution: find new and fresh talents who could be sold for smaller amounts. That is where I would tie these two claims of ‘education’ and ‘buying art for art’s sake’.

(from DCAW)

If you just look back to our art scene, it was not too far that the galleries in India (the elephants among the ants, if you permit me to reverse Sujata Gidla’s title) that said they did not want the public to walk in but they want the buyers to knock. The cultural responsibility of the art sellers (which a seller of any product would show in the market) had even gone on vacation in those days. These galleries wanted only the buyers to walk in thereby almost turning the gallery spaces into exclusive viewing rooms. If you compare the experience of catching up with glamorous openings in the suburban museums and corporate houses of the steel companies that lay far away from the city centres you would know why and how art has become an exclusive affair. But I should say they have not completely turned misanthropes; they arrange one bus for the plebeian artists and art lovers to be ferried to and fro, who basically make the viewers and the rest is guests.

So the statement, ‘at least buy art for art sake’ is not a statement that is for helping the art scene in any manner. It is a plea before the final rolling down of the shutters of the small scale art establishments which are already feeling the heat of the auction houses, private museums and the big time dealers. The interesting thing is that the biggest art dealers in India (as they deal with the biggest contemporary artists), Nature Morte also take part in this exercise called ‘DCAW’. By making art an exclusive and highly sophisticated property these are the same agencies now joining hands with the low end galleries to create this ‘cultural’ plea that the young and rich should come forward to buy the young and talented ‘new’ contemporaries.

(work by Mahibur Rahiman? from DCAW)

When we talk about art for art sake, we should also ask, where was this art for art’s sake argument till last season where art was all about social responsibility (socially responsive art) and being political. So today we have DCAW presenting that kind of art that is sold for the sake of selling. Am I wrong here? What happens in this? In the process, the artists who are supposedly politically inclined are either completely removed from the scene or are wrongly represented. You may not see a Riyas Komu; and the reason is clear. They don’t need political art. But you see an Atul Dodiya; that means they present him after removing the political fangs and claws. I am not going to argue with the people who come forward to ask me whether Atul Dodiya is political or not at all. Same is the case with Shilpa Gupta, Anju Dodiya, Zarina Hashmi, Nalini Malani, Begum Tyeba Lipi, Mahbur Rahiman, oh yes, Raques Media Collective and so on. Till the last season they were political artists but in DCAW we see them as devoid of any political edge; or at least they are presented so.

Coming to the educational claim; how do you educate the society through such expositions? So the pertinent question is this: Who are you trying to educate about art? Anyway it is not the public because the public is not going to be buy art. Nor does the public really keen on what these artists are trying to say as our country is currently going through a very tough situation. So they are trying to reach out to a section of the public that is affluent and care less about the socio-political on goings in the country. But to make them invest in the newbies they have to have some interest in the presented artists. That means, they are either going to buy the already known ones from the exhibits or they are going to pick up a few fresh ones in a dirt cheap price. There would be so many lucrative offers from the galleries including a buy back policy, part payment mode or even EMIs.

(from DCAW)

This experience is not new at all. During the end of the 1990s when the Indian economy was showing positive signs of growth and the global players were investing in the Indian market, a new generation of rich middle class came up who had some dispensable money which they wanted to invest positively. Art was projected as an investment area and many were coaxed and cajoled in investing in the art market, which responding to the international art market trends showed the signs of surging. This prevailed for around five years and by 2004 a huge haul was there in the art market where the investors started feeling high confidence and hopes. So the low end works were put away and big scale, big bucks works were brought into the scene. That explains the spectacular works done by even the crappiest of artists in the past decade. Today we are back to square one.

We are back to square one because we (means the galleries) are telling the world that ‘please buy art for the sake of art.’ Forget the politics, culture and all what you attach with art. And what is unsaid is simply this: you buy now and get the profit in the coming years. The elections are coming and I am sure that there will not be many who would pump in money to buy art at this precarious market situation. Besides, the art that the DCAW shows in the whole affair (a majority of them by the new artists) do not have anything to do with the present Indian realities or socio-political climate. They are all custom made products that look like sharing an international sensibility. And international sensibility is the sensibility that irons out all the differences and the ability for political dissent. Perhaps the gallerist is right, they are all art for art’s sake, not for anything else.

One of the gallerists says that the contemporary art gets sidelined in the large scale expos. I think that was a self delusional statement for the India Art Fair is all about contemporary art and all those world famous art fairs and biennales are all about contemporary art. Only in the auction houses the contemporary art gets sidelined. What you see in the DCAW is a replica of the India Art Fair. I could read that IAF is a strategic partner to this affair. I am sure that IAF is not self delusional. This is an effort to see whether these galleries could undercut the dominance of the IAF which is no longer an Indian affair. I would say this is the last ditch effort of the metro galleries to stay afloat against the onslaught of the private museums, auction houses and dealers and the ideologically misguiding government art establishments. Art is the last thing in their minds.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Da Vinci/Davinchi Suresh: Limitations and Possibilities of a Populist Sculptor

(Davinchi Suresh with his popular sculpture on Flood)

Flood affected Kerala has finally brought its artists out there in the city centres to do some affordable art so that people could buy it for Rs.1000/- to Rs.1500/-, and the money thus raised could go to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Sensing the enthusiasm and the people’s participation in creating affordable art for the ‘flood victims’, the Kerala Lalitha Kala Academy has come forward to conduct similar exercise in all the district headquarters. How such enthusiasm translates into financial aid is yet to be known. But there is one artist in Kerala who responds to social issues immediately than any other artists could even think of it. With quick wit and sharp design sense artist Da Vinci Suresh makes art that often finds headlines and eyeballs, footfalls, viral exchange and of course some money.

Da Vinci Suresh is spelt as Davinchi Suresh, which is typical Malayali spelling and most of those Malayalis who incorporate international names are unapologetic about the spellings that they follow or employ. Media too pick it up with the same flair and verve and it sticks. Malayalis in general, may be because of their high literacy, know who Leonardo Da Vinci was. Hence, the prefix, Davinchi comes as a natural qualification for anyone who is too good at art. Malayalis love superlatives though some hopeless chap in the so called national media call them ‘shameless’. From the safety of the newsrooms anybody could call any ethnicity certain derogatory names. Ignore that ignoramus journalist for the time being. This superlative qualification fits well on the sleeves of Suresh, who hails from Kodungalloor in Thrissur, Kerala.

(the sculpture by Davinchi Suresh dedicated to the flood victims)

Davinchi Suresh was the first artist in Kerala to respond to the flood situation. Perhaps, many would have done it in their private studios; or rather they were too shocked to do some art at the harrowing moments of a deluge that levelled the castes, religions and creeds for a few days in the relief camps and shared whatsapp videos. (I should say Avdhesh Bajpai and Avinash Karn were two artists from North India to have responded visually and quickly to the South Indian flood situation). Davinchi Suresh did a sculpture in golden colour with a hemisphere as a base with an inscription August 2018. We are more tuned to hearing 9/11, 23/11 and so on. Hence it should have been 8/18. But Suresh is no Krishnamachari Bose who would fancifully time the KMB 12/12/12. The sculpture is dedicated to the flood victims and the soldiers of all kinds (including the civilian ones) who went into the rescue operation and salvaged a Kerala mauled by the furious claws of water.

The sculpture depicts a boat, a few people in it, the topographical shape of Kerala being propped up on it like rudder and sails, a man giving his back as a footboard for the weaker sex to climb into the boat and up above in the sky an Airforce/Navy Helicopter hovering while rescuing people. It is primarily a symbolic sculpture therefore all what we see are not realistic rendition of events but the rendition of events happened in reality but extracted and made into emblematic of the flood events by the artists. When everything failed the fishermen in Kerala came like Ocean’s Many in their motorboats and rescued thousands of people from the all consuming muddy waters. The Chief Minister of Kerala hailed them as the ‘Army of Kerala’. Some woman was bleeding and a fisherman named Jaison genuflected inside the water exposing his broad back to climb on and it was not just she who did it but many able bodied women too. Jaison came under trolls as well as laurels but for Davinchi Suresh it was something that people of Kerala would never forget therefore an image worth translatable into sculpture.

(late Kalabhavan Mani by Davinchi Suresh)

This sculpture by Davinchi Suresh should be called a mediatised sculpture. It is mediatised on two counts. First of all, the images that are sculpturally strewn in the ensemble are already mediatised therefore extremely familiar to the people in Kerala. Secondly, the sculpture itself went viral/mediatised the very moment it was posted in the facebook by the artist himself, which is his usual practice. Davinchi Suresh plays with the obvious and the obvious symbolism that he often chooses for his sculpture makes him a populist sculptor. Populism is a way of playing for the gallery. There are many poets who use familiar imageries in their poetry. There are poets who create an image out of the familiar but a few shades hiding it from over-familiarity. Davinchi Suresh is like the former poets. He has a niche audience that is comprised of the people who watch news for entertainment and take news as entertainment.

Beyond the obvious realism that we see in this sculpture and the kind of popularity that the artist has amassed not only by this sculpture but by his earlier ventures, this work perhaps wouldn’t stay for its artistic merit but it would definitely stay as a populist emblem of the historical flood in the state. One may never know that at some point the Government of Kerala would commission Davinchi Suresh to do a larger sculpture in the same vein at some city square or circle as a permanent artistic reminder of the deluge. But such a government is yet to come in the state; one can always hope for some philosopher-artist-king wielding the reigns of the state government. Davinchi Suresh in a way squanders his genius in things which are obvious. Populist sculptures are like Mickey Mouse sculptures. Everyone knows it and everyone understands it. But it does not worth more than a selfie. But creative sculptures make people delve deep into the nuances of a work of art. Work of art needs some enigma; otherwise it becomes illustration.

(Madhu by Davinchi Suresh)

Davinchi Suresh has done it before also. In February 2018, a Adivasi young man was lynched by a literate mob in Kerala. The victim’s name was Madhu and the crime that he did was this; he stole food and the post-mortem reports said that he had only a piece of banana in his intestines. Davinchi Suresh registered his protest by making a one and half feet clay sculpture capturing the fear, anxiety, surprise, perplexity felt by that young man who was dazed by hunger, thrashing and aggressive interrogation by the young men who while beating him up kept taking selfies. This sculpture was not realistic nor was it emblematic. It had a wry realism; no embellishments, no symbolism just that confused expression. That became the enigma and it pushed the sculpture to the realm of art. Perhaps, this was one sculpture that gave rise to many similar sculptures and paintings than the photograph that had been used for modelling the sculpture. Had Kerala had any perceptive museum it would have made the sculpture into museum souvenirs of pain and the state’s high level civility and literacy!

(sculpture and the model by Davinchi Suresh)

This artist has a lot of possibility. What Davinchi Suresh needs is proper direction. He calls his works socially relevant and socially protesting art. In fact, all over the world, these two phrases are in vogue these days. But Suresh wouldn’t find his name in the hall of fame there because what he makes are some populist sculptures. One may see the statue of Kalabhavan Mani, an actor died prematurely, the mobile sculptures of Mohan Lal and a portrait of Mohanlal made out of utensils. Davinchi needs curatorial direction for he has tremendous skill and the power to execute. But his imagination is like that of a calendar artist; one who plays with the sentiments of the people, but not with the real emotions and intellect. Davinchi Suresh is famous but his fame dies with the death of the events that cause his works. Hope he would heed to the views expressed in this article. There may be many to oppose my views for they think that the fame itself is a proof of his artistic genius. But fame is never a proof of artistic genius. Many artists are ‘discovered’ posthumously. Today’s heroes could be tomorrow’s embarrassment. An artist can choose to become a hero but he should be taking very special care NOT to become tomorrow’s embarrassment.  

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Three Questions by Artists and Three Unpalatable Answers

(Ram Kinkar Baij)

In Baroda, during my month long sojourn as a Guest Faculty I came face to face with three pertinent questions: one, should an artist be vocal about his work? Why the senior artists are not experimenting? Why curatorial note and the works of art exhibited against its context look so disparate?

The first two questions came from a young practicing artist and the third question came from a couple of Art History students who did Curatorial Module under my guidance. To be very frank, the first two questions amused me a lot for the simple reason that these had been ‘the’ pressing and irritating questions that the artists of the yester years too faced/raised. And they still remain. I was rather sad after listening to the third question because from the students and also from my personal experience I knew that many artists are still clueless about the curator’s role in their profession.

Let me try to answer these questions one by one:
An artist need not necessarily be vocal about his works. Having said that I should add that there is no harm if an artist could talk about his work intelligently. There are many artists who still feel that they are born to create and not to talk and they falsely believe that talking is not a creative act. Talking could be a creative act and at times it could move people more than a work of art would. There are several artists even today who are very good story tellers and myth makers (about themselves) who would eventually bring all those stories to their works, which are apparently less narrative but more emblematic.

(Nandlal Bose)

So there are two strong opinions about an artist vocalising (about) his/her works. One, one could elaborate upon the visual using verbal means. Two, you could be sparse in words but could be eloquent in your silence. There are sub-categories in these two too: one, some elaborates a lot because there is nothing other than those words in their works. Two, some remain silent because there is nothing to talk about those works. These two are negative categories. Now let us think about two positive categories. One, artists talk about their works because they work with certain concepts and ideas and such verbal elucidations are prerequisite to put across the meaning of the visuals and vice versa. Two, some artists remain silent because they know that they are lucid enough in their works because their notions and actions do not differ much in their works.

There are artists who talk a lot about their works because they think that talking about the works makes them look intelligent and their works intellectual kind. There are artists who remain silent because of exactly the same reason! During 1990s, when post-modernism became fashionable thing in Indian art scene, artists started working with ephemeral objects and non-tangible ideas. Hence, they needed to speak out about the reasons behind such works of art. Then there came this scenario when idea overtook the visual expressions; there too the artists were expected to talk more about the visual side of the works than the visuals could talk about themselves. Then slowly, with anything as visuals, if you were capable enough to talk intelligently and convincingly, you could pass it off as intelligent works of art. Those people didn’t understand either the visuals or the artists talk remained the exclusive discursive realm of such art and felt a lot inadequate. This resulted into a lot of fakery and shallow talk on anything. There came to have a scenario when you need to go back to a library after visiting an exhibition.

(Benode Behari Mukherjee)

In the other extreme case scenario, artists remain silent or talk about other things but their art, most do so mainly because they do their art out of impulse and out of ‘divine’ inspiration. This was a modernist notion that artists created works because they were divinely inspired. Ram Kinkar Baij was an artist like that but at the same time he had Nandlal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee as his predecessors and contemporaries who in fact had done a lot of talking and ideating both verbally and visually. This had not denied them of their share of divine inspiration and also did not exclude Baij from having a share in the intellectual pie. We can see that the artists who followed the Santiniketan tradition became more like the talkers and ideologues of that school than the exceptional one like Baij even when they vouch in his name. Look at K.G.Subramanyan, A.Ramachandran and many others who all follow this philosopher-combo pack as established by the doyens like Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandlal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee. One could see that none became ‘like’ Baij though they all idolized him because to be Baij-like was the most difficult proposition for any artist. Baij’s silence on his works came from the fact that the works were self explanatory whereas all the other doyens needed a premise to establish their visual language. Sometimes silence is golden but to have golden silence you need to excise all the brass and copper from your existence.

Hence, I would say one could talk if the works demand talking. One could remain silent if one’s personality is inclined to silence and also he/she feels that there is nothing much to talk about. But as far as a critic is concerned (in that case a historian and a curator too), whether there is verbal text or visual text or a text with no words, it all functions more or less alike.  For the critic (an intelligent and perceptive one), visual as well as verbal texts coming from an artist is the primary text which is liable to be deconstructed and reconstructed, analysed, appreciated or discarded against the historical knowledge/s. So is the silent text; silence is also a text which could be dissected with the circumstantial texts, accidental texts, peripheral texts and so on. Hence, it is not necessary for an artist to talk; talk only when he/she has an intelligent and sensitive statement to make. Even if an artist talks a lot, even if he/she brings a whole lot of knowledge system to substantiate the visual side of a work of art, then too, one need not be impressed by that because the verbal texts could really overtake the visual text, nullifying the latter in the process. Chances are less to happen the other way round. Whenever there is a powerful image that stands closer to the mediatised knowledge visually or verbally, this becomes self referential and is passed across easily. Today’s artists, in that case, find the biggest challenge from a knowledgeable society that just does not wan to take artists statements just because it is said by an artist.

(KG Subramanyan)

The second question is whether the senior artists are to do experiments with their visual franca or not. I do not think that the senior artists are ‘expected’ to make any visual experiments. And if someone makes none can stop them also. Artists like Christian Boltansky, Aneesh Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Ai Wei Wei and so on are not young. They still make experiments with their art because they are dealing with the mediatised concepts, ideas and philosophies. They are the kind of artists who constantly respond to the society, the changing socio-economic and political systems, cultural making and so on. So their art cannot remain stagnant. That does not mean that an artist like Krishen Khanna or A.Ramachandran has grown stagnant only because they have been painting in a certain way for quite some time. There are artists who have experimented enough to reach a ‘formal style’ and they find their formalism is capable enough to express their personal responses to the society or any other aspect. For many, art is like a form of living; just like gardening or growing vegetables in the backyard. They do the same thing but get pleasure out of it. There are some artists who have the attitude of the trekkers; some trekkers go to the same terrain to do trekking and some other each time find a new and more difficult terrain. Age is not a limit there. So I would say that any artist who is continuing with a particular style for long time, we should be lenient enough to see his/her work as a sort of gardening and a lively process that gives him/her enough pleasure and life sustenance. Young artists are like young dogs and monkeys; very intelligent and inquisitive. They could dare climates and opinions and come up with elegance and atrocities as well. Let them, that’s all I could say.

(A Ramachandran)

Regarding the question about the curatorial disparities: Curators are generally well meaning people who want to ideate through works of art and through a project. I am not talking about those curators who by virtue of having no editors or no censorship in the country on this front call themselves curators. I am talking about the people who are curators, trained academically and have a considerable number of years of experience in the field to back them up.

My students told me that when they talked to a couple of senior artists in the said show (which they went to see and found the discrepancies in what was shown and what was said), they talked very disparagingly about the curator (the curator who is appointed by the gallery to which the artists have pledged their lives, dignity and works) and said that curator or no curator they are not going to respond to any curatorial ideas. Their job is to make art and whatever be the curatorial point they are going to present only what they want to. I know these two artists; they are senior ones and one of them calls himself a scientist and a philosopher.

In fact, those artists who agree to participate in a curated project and then overthrow the curatorial ideas and present whatever they want are to be called as ‘beings sired by many’. I say ‘sired by many’ because when you agree to participate in a curatorial project you are making a social and cultural pact with the curator whoever he or she is. That pact is more valuable that the art that one does in the studio. The moment an artist agrees to be a part of a curatorial project, he makes a commitment with the curator in the joined ideation, which does not allow an artist have his whims and fancies. Curatorial projects are controlled fissions and fusions. To understand this, artists should grow brains. The arrogant artists are to be called self serving creatures and should be treated as enemies of culture and people.

(all images are for representational purpose only. image courtesy internet)

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Artist/s who Predicted the Kerala Deluge: KT Mathai, Rajan Krishnan and Sukesan Kanka

(KT Mathai with Climacterics. 2008 pic courtesy The Hindu)

Do you remember an exhibition titled ‘Fairy Tales from a Lost Land’ by artist KT Mathai? This exhibition was held exactly ten years back at a private gallery in Kochi. During the last ten years Mathai’s style has changed but his concerns remain the same; his perennial love and reverence for the mother earth. The people and locale that come in his paintings repetitively have transformed to take some ethereal and beyond the real forms; but they all hover around, play, worship, dance, whirl and mourn in and over the same land; his land, his village, the village that he loves, the village that he refuses to move away, the village where he was born, brought and has now set up his life. He has been the chronicler of the village Arakkunnam, near Eranakulam which has taken the shape of another Macondo in his visual narratives.

I pick out Mathai out of the whole lot of artists in Kerala today not because others are irrelevant but Mathai is more relevant than anybody that I could think of. When none was listening he was sending his silent yet loud visual warnings to his state; his works captured the scars created by the earth movers, JCBs as they are fondly called, all over the places. His works apparently looked so appealing in their reds, greens and blues. While the green stood for the overpowering but slowly diminishing green cover of the state the blues represented the fluid nature; the rivers. What made the paintings move beyond the romantic renderings of a recluse artist and made them starkly political (a word which was not in vogue perhaps a decade back) were the red patches that added visual rhythm to the paintings. They were in fact the gnawed portion of rich earth by the avarice of the human kind; the land mafia protected by local lords and political overlords.

(Another Climacterics by KT Mathai)

Mathai did not say that a landslide was in the offing. Nor did he predict any flood and deluge. But what he did in his paintings was the depiction of the damage that the human beings were inflicting upon the very earth which in fact providing home even to her tormentors. Mathai’s was not an aggressive artistic stance. He knew that he could not fight the land mafia. But he kept his guard as high as possible and upped his antennas always. Like a concerned citizen, whenever he got an opportunity he exhibited the works that framed the scars of earth. They were overtly beautiful so that even the blood of the earth looked like piece of visual treat. His work ‘Climacterics’ says it all. One of his works had an image of his young son playing with a JCB Plastic Toy while at a distance the real JCBs were performing their vandalism.

Ten years down the line, we see the landslides, exactly at the places where Mathai would have painted. But we know that none heeds the warning signals sent by an artist in his works. They may buy it and finish its critical journey and confine it into some drawing rooms. Journalists may breast beat in their reports covering the exhibitions. Eventually nothing happens. But Mathai has been relentless. In 2012 April he did a performance titled ‘Transparent Pact’ in collaboration with his village Arakkunnam and the parish there. He brought a blessed sapling from the church and took it out in a village procession as it were the crucifix icon and planted at a clearing opened up by the JCBs over a period of land mining. I had given a cover story to Mathai in the Art and Deal magazine which I was editing then. And I attach my blog link on the same performance and my views on it ( At times people should heed to what artists are trying to say. They need not be overtly political or social activists-kind of artists. They could be as simple as an artist like Mathai. Often prophets look very ordinary.

(works by Rajan Krishnan)

When I write about KT Mathai’s works, I have to mention the works of Rajan Krishnan, who while living, tirelessly depicted the receding line of Kandal forests, which were the repositories of rain water and rare fauna. Kandal forests were taken over by high rises and bungalows. And today you see rich and the powerful, just like the ordinary mortals, standing on the second floor terraces and balconies folding hands and pleading to be evacuated from their waterlogged homes. Rajan painted the scenes after the apocalypse has already happened. He had envisioned such a scenario, while Mathai knew the silence before the storm. 

(Kara by Sukesan Kanka)

We have another mad prophet among us in the guise of Sukesan Kanka who has recently painted a work titled ‘Kara’(Shore) and has been fighting a local fight back in Thrissur to save environment. The fight might have looked like a tussle between egoistic neighbors. But Sukesan has a point to say. If you make boundary walls everywhere what you make are future floods. He said it in early this year when he presented the work ‘Kara’ in a solo exhibition titled ‘Min(d)rive’ in February 2018. In Kara you see a sort of breaking away of land masses and in each piece you see a human/saintly being gesticulating each other, perhaps underlining the absurdity of the human acts that create ruptures all over. On the right side of the painting one could see a visionary pointing out to the horizon as if to show the impending doom. But we need a deluge to realize that the earth under our feet is being washed away.