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A Flash-in-the-Pan Triennale


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    Since this column has to do with the art scene in the Capital, I may at the very outset for this once plead a bit of truancy. I have been gallivanting, perhaps brushing up my art and life education during the last few months. So that some of all that alien material may willy-nilly creep in over here. My two-and-quarter month binge in California, New York and Boston, plus an afternoon in London, was surely not long or deep enough, and nevertheless so far as the art are concerned, if I felt exhilarated On one plane or another one, at the same time, I was a trifle disenchanted. Colossal are the arty goings on, as say, in New York - the epicentre of world art - and yet where were the pukka, rock-bottom works from among the days' art? Did such art works have only to be in the hallowed past? Of course each moment, which is called 'present' contains chaff - to be weeded out by the remorseless old one of the swishing scythe, but even so there is no question but that the sheer material resources, the instrumentalities, as the relevant information vis-a-vis art from across the continents in the hands of artists is now so superabundant that we expect from these miracles, and so in quantity.  Alack, that seems like chasing a mirage What we have instead are amazing number of bright boy, inventive, mightily brainy innovations, novelties, head turning contraptions and what not, but then an absolutely miniscule amount of perfected artistic forms, or transmutations of human experiences by skillful but unostentatious strategies.

You inevitably are regaled by much of all this crazy fare, but touched only a little. What you are really impressed by is a precise, thought-provoking commentary on the parameters of art, decade by decade, as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is most instructive. The same at the exhibition titled 'A Hundred Years of Californian Art'. All these commentators had done their homework stunningly well, equipped as they seem to be with an intellectual culture that is first rate. But no sooner does one turn to the art objects therein describes, you are crest-fallen. These ostensible art works are often enough out to establish a fresh definition of an art work, indeed at moments, at pain to act as moral teachers, social catalysts or merely to give you a necessary therapeutic rude shock But far too many, as if rejoicing in the ephemeral, cannot bear to dive below the surface. In this way they are variably familiar, reassuring. When art is not really all-involving, it surely has an entirely different meaning. Perhaps only less than one percent of the works being done right now, or during the last few- decades, can be so described. Most of all, the material that these artists seem to quarry is from the surface of the mind, not the unfathomed depths. It is for this reason these works themselves appear so very self-conscious, unself-forgetful. They are playing to the gallery, strutting before the prospective viewer. As a contrast one of the choicest of Jackson Pollock's works shot me squarely between the eyes from among the earlier works, as also did his wife's (Lee Krasner) at the Brooklyn Museum. And barring some other admirable exceptions from across the seas (or one native of US) it was only the works from perished civilizations that kept you breath-bated - Mayan, African, Egyptian, Chinese and above all, some from out own India - all-instinct with a meaning, beauty and sublimity (those are passe words, I well realized) beyond belief!

Not all works from the past have that vertigo inducing rhythm - such as for instance the miles's on mile of the academic, historical or legend-based painting in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square in London and for that matter in some US museums. These works have simply died in our eyes, to cave the undieable minority intact. But still more works from the vanquished civilizations shine bright - and some of these never explicitly setting out to be works of arts in the first place, but either just craft, icons and other objects of such nature. All of them not overly, self-conscious, as art alone.

One is not being dismissive, or cavalier - like vis-a--vis the large body of works in reputed museums, but only to note that a pious attitude to whatever finds place in museums and galleries does not automatically ensure the worth or the degree of sanctity, as accredited to a lot of works of art. This becomes doubly so as we approach our own present moment. One ironically, strange, quite odd manner of the sanctification of really choice works was when we noticed in London's National Gallery, as also in Boston, the works of an electrifying painter like Van Gogh trained in baroque golden frames. Oh dear! But what really took the cake was our presently famous woman painter's work at an Indian gallery in New York - that is Admit One.

To revert back to home ground, I was happily gratified, while judging the AIFACS-sponsored millennial J&K state exhibition in Jammu that the level of some paintings from the valley had risen steeply and this in the hands of the younger practitioners of the medium of easel and canvas. Here it is not a question of techniques, important as those are, but primarily of the vision as was reflected in these particular works. Some from the Jammu region also showed a similar intensity, of course Jammu excels in sculpture, but with those like Gayoor Hasan Vani (also displayed in the Triennale). We have observed the medium showing true maturation as well.

Later, during a Chandigarh Government College of Art lecture, the photography of Vijay Ozo took one's breath away. Here is one rare creative cameraman, who understands the medium, and brings much sensibility to what often ends up as documentation or exercises in maudlin beauty. The canvases of Deepak Tandon at another venue in Chandigarh also showed a fine idiosyncracy - as though he wove their texture from some soft fiber. The understatedness of these compositions signalled the high-water mark of this, rather comparative newcomer on the art scene. But his personality is a lot in need of more patience, bubbling effervescence not being enough in the practice of art craft.

Even as we go over the works in the latest of Lalit Kala Akademi's Triennale, we are perforce obliged to ponder over the connotations of Adwaita Gadanayak: Soul, Installationthe term 'art' afresh. This is unanswerable to the end of time, but of course! And still, so many were mete flashes-in-the-pan order of exhibits like those from France, Britain, Cyprus and elsewhere - that one felt these too slight felicities were either a designer's beat or else high class cracks at the public. Could such 'art', seriously speaking, find place among genuine paintings, prints, and sculptures? I do not mean to be conventional, but then the flimsy points of departures of several of these supposed works, or else their sheer didacticism, heavily ad-message proneness, makes one uneasy.

Is concrete poetry really poetry? However entertaining, it is a visual genre and wherein the drift of words, their meanings and their music has become absolutely of little import. Similarly if one trespasses too far beyond the boundaries of space art, the seemingly bold act only goes to belie the very raison d'etre of the discipline. I felt this happening often in the visited US art galleries, and this same trespass is repeated on our own art scene by dutiful followers of an anarchical cultural ethos. IF all such caprice is hugely amusing on the lackadaisical, in our soberer moments it does not apear to merit the title of art proper.
The installations in this Triennale which observed the norms of art and not flouted them, were those like the ones by the sculptor from Orissa, Adwaitya Gadenayak, in a work titled Soul, a genuine piece where full justice would seem to have been done to a hallowed word. Here potent idea and the created image were finely, very precisely dovetailed, in order to build up a convincing metaphor. Mumbai's Hema Upadhyay's Cockroach Cocktail regaling a lighter version in the same line of work as above.

The Japanese artist, Kiyoshi Nakagemi is among the most authentic painters in the show. So great is the brevity of his artistic statement. Really superb, and quite in line with the Japanese tradition of good sense and understatement. Ravi Shankar whose digital-based (Heal of a Man, and Mask) painting is so cunningly anointed with other elements, that it has come up with a dark human visage of unusual compellingness. This particular work hangs on the left-hand side to Kavita Nayar's suave experiments on the first Floor of Rabindra Bhavan.

Dattatraya Apte is still another one with a fine mixed collage, if one may so dub it. Opposite this are Sukhvinder's large prints that are surely his best. There are a few other inclusions in the exhibitions, which have weight. But, by and large, the standard good works miss out on fresh perceptions. Art is a hard taskmaster indeed.

Out in Purana Qila the brick-based installation by Peter Strauss of Germany is based on an exciting knowledge of ancient sacral architectural as well as geo-physics. Here, it visually we are not straightaway bowled over, the thing grows on us and gradually our imaginative horizon widens no little.  Such Knowledge could be a point of view from which other artists may fan out in meaningful direction. This work is no usual random meandering, doodling, but a purposive exploratory envisioning.

All in all, this latest Triennale is modest in its expressivity. Worse, the lawns of Rabindra Bhavan were nor even swept around the displayed works on the opening day! What to do, but say ugh! To come back to Chandigarh for a minute once more it was hilarious to observe a large show at the University Art Gallery arranged by a group led by Peter Nagy. How could one take such daring liberties as of lumping other's works any which way, one atop another or by fixing curious objects or attachments to individual works (as, for instance, the garland on Swaminathan's painting) Displaying and design are all important, but there are strict boundaries as to flow you may play with other folk's original creations, Thus, this display termed Context as Content   Museum as Metaphor is nothing but smart game playing, an interlude at a moment of time when the substantialness in one's own work is not forthcoming.

Anyhow, in certain of the other Delhi shows that I went to the contrary pulls of abstraction and figuration or realism seem to have come to the fore. And I discuss these questions at some length.  Among our senior-most painters in Rajasthan, PN. Choyal continues to be respectful to normal human appearances. If in some works he paints ponds and sky these are not the true subject of his works, for tight at the back of the waters and below the tinted sky; there will be the ghosts of ruins- Works like this woo you straightaway; define, as they do, the spectre of the dissolution of the past, or rather, its unique creative expressions - the architectural ruins.

Rajasthan has been absorbing to visitors, long before Tod wrote his chronicle. Here, in this arid state there is hardly a hillock, a man-made water reservoir or It's teeming colourful architectural structures which are without myth, legend or anecdote. All these thicken around a visitor's path at every turn. This Rajasthani painter, with a deft brush and with a sure instinct 0£ knowing his state from within, charms the viewer with the mirage that is past lime intruding into a mundane and too self-preoccupied present. With these works we suddenly wake up, and lift our heads to grandeur, which is entirely missing in the squalor of contemporary urban India small and big towns alike. The painter is pictorial but not unimaginative - each offering connects up with the other. In this way nostalgia and sadness come home to us without fail. This hints at the poverty of vision in which we presently subsist, with few beauties of brick stone or stucoo to exhilarate the passing pedestrian. The deep gay colours in which these Rajasthani structures are bathed are, as it were, a shot of life to droopy lacklustre spirits. Here is Indian history, but still not a dead one despite the fact that many of the sites are dilapidated and deeply fissured. In fact it may well be said that time has added its own spell on these intrinsically harmonious, very thoughtfully planned buildings, forts and havelis. These show the intrinsic, authentic face of India, a moment when our creators were in complete accord with their landscape and modes of life. These ruins then serve the Seeing Eye with pleasure - which in itself is a form of knowledge a - knowledge in the life of good forms.

Choyal applies his experience expertly but not woodenly, he is faithful to the spirit of what he espies. At places the colours are runny, being informed with the patina of time, but never do the blackening compounds blemish the original tones of these ruins. They blend with them perfectly to deepen the overall effects, At other places the interiors are as though bathed with son-et-lumiere lights, and the sounds of a ghostly music, The arches invite us into their depths. Lured, we relive the lives of those who once trod these arcades. Some compositions are close-ups, other's distant views; some grilled, others with porticos and niches. The effect of Choyal's works collectively is one of a chameleon that is changing colours miraculously and thereby holding us in suspense. Also, the simulated effect of reflections enhances the resonance of the given composition. The many tiered forts complete with window and apertures intrigue and astonish us with their visual finesse.

Thus does Choyal the realist, evoke memory with careful toning strategies that coax and cajole the viewer by their witchery. Though Choyal's work connects us with the past it is not unevident that other such works may stem from entirely opposed facets of the overall reality. The continuously shifting kaleidoscope of human concerns and the accompanying perceptions helps lend different colouring to particular artistic compositions. There is no telling what will emerge from the womb of the future. In the charmed circle of the arts everything in unpredictable. Once art had shut its eyes to the social world and the extreme among the abstract art works would seem to have abolished every natural distance between the artist and the social environments, quite as surrealism had turned it's back on outward reality altogether to find vistas and distances

Within the expanses of the dreamself alone. But despite all this, a sort of cyclicity would seem to persist. 
Works like Shruti Gupta's recent ones testify to the above stated scheme of things in the art sphere. Her new work, by re-introducing the human subject in an overt way once more emphasizes inter-subjectivity, such as represents the salient contour of being - that is of our involvement in the world with our fellows. Not an easy proposition, surely. Here is theatre of life, par excellence, but perhaps, many of us would like to escape it, at least in our leisure hours. Still, that as it may be, at some moments both artists and viewers will like to lock horns with our own trying human reality in her own individual way, Gupta has done this without whittling down her style to naturalistic simplicities.

However, unlike social workers or scientists, artists do not set our to solve problems. As and when they approach the canvas this way they fill between goals. No, in art the opportunity for intellectual exertion, curiosity, in a word, freedom, depends precisely on the assumption Gayoor Hasan: Shrishti, mixed media, ply board, canvas, wood, metal, oil & acrylic colours, 266 x 133 x 15 cms; 1997that human problems are in some sense insoluble, just as the moral and aesthetic imagination is in some sense inexhaustible. Thus, in art, the artists do not set out to solve social or human problems, but even so the artistic expression may be a form of knowledge, though its expressions provides no answers in a rational or scientific sense. The job, with this painter, is to supply experience, a vital one, so that we may sense and feel the intricacies of our being human - those complexities of self-aware beings, living among other such self-willed, self-aware beings. At least the human story emerges out of this very condition. Even if we are solitaries or misanthropes, our dialectic is with the other. Those are the terms of our very existence. Indeed, we are so immersed in this situation, that we tend to become unaware of it.

Artists try to effect that necessary distancing and so show ourselves in our togetherness, despite all our contrarinesses and rejections. We must learn to know ourselves personally. But this cannot be done unless we know the other, and also in order that the world of hostile strangers is no more. Both love and hate are a sign of union, a kind of bond, even though a crass world refuses recognition, denies the existence of a neighbour. With the coming of vast megacities the world over, has not come the disdain and obliviousness of the other? Thus the sense of being human, of fellowship are in peril. Nihilism, most certainly, has festered under such sociological conditions. The urban is advanced in his skills, his alertness of response and in his curiosities, but with it may have come a new order of the proverbial jungle, with each on his own. Not lack of self-feeling, but the feeling towards the other - and so come the anonymous ciphers, numbers, almost objects, not persons. Now whether the painter intended all this or not we can construe from her concerns: solitariness, confrontations, encounters, challenges, head on collisions, as well as the privacies that humans are heir to.

In the more achieved of these works, the painter is able to suggest the city mind satisfactorily belonging as she too does to the same milieu. The city mind being more mobile, unanchored and able to scatter its attention and interests, is insubstantial and unnaturally rarified. Urban consciousness, unlike die rural, more traditional one, almost becomes a different order of being in the one and same body. This urban being can be a gathering of fugitives and for which the passing events are only passing, but, and also nick, the not-quite-loose ends of many unstated meanings, though minus the rituals and affirmations of the traditional social order.

The moral and emotional favour of our contemporary existence may be witnessed in these works. They work out well the landscape quality of the city, seeing through the eyes of a townsperson, reacting to it with taut nerves. It is likely that whatever has come to be descibred as an abstract painting - that is to say neither representing, interpreting or transposing any reality from the external world - is the expression during the spell of that particular state of mind in the executor when he or she is utterly abstracted, lost to the rational (and therefore mainipulatable) order of whatever meets the outward eye. The said outward eye is normally not to be put at the services of the muse. It has got to pilot us through a rigorous scheme of things. Kiyoshi Nakagami: UntitledIt has to watch and to describe, to name, and divide and rule. In the so-called naturalistic painting you don't set out to rule but still you are entirely faithful to the botanic, zoological, geometric or physical face and facet of whatever meets the eye. Here everything would seem to make 'sense' or you may call it commonsense, even when those works may be deemed artistically pleasing as well.

In the order of art that has come to be termed abstract, the mind of the artist would not appear to merely deify reality, much as scientific procedures seem to prescribe, but to select those of the features of the presented reality as offer the finest, or else deepest of sensuous fulfillment. Fulfillment? In this case it is entirely, or almost so personal, that is experienced by that part in us which has the gift of freeing itself of the hold of necessity, for however brief a spell Only a persona that is through with demanding references, implications, overt meanings, etc. is open to those of the features of reality - the given - as are mute, entirely silent, and that do not serve any creaturely function. In their very being the said features, or contours, of the existent make the partaker of them, in turn. The seeming indefiniteness or whimsicality of this genre may well be the onlookers own limitation, that expectation of security, of a too rounded picture of the moment with no loose ends to perplex one. But what form, as the genuine of the so-called abstract compositions would attain to or reveal, is assymmetric, subtle, or subtler; the permutation and combinations almost infinite. Hues, tints, contrastings of likes with unlike, the amplitude of structurings and shadings, the nuances, etc on the face of it appear make believe, a hopelessly chaotic jumble. You can't seem to make sense of it all, if, that is, the usual bearings and moorings are what you are after. But forms like these may, at best, never be answers to our own socio-cultural compulsions. Their rationale is not narrowly rational. They do not confirm us in our inherited points of view, do not afford any points of vantage. They are not a look alike or replicas of the world we know, or are familiar with. Then, if they illustrate experience, it is of the basic infinitude and the teeming togetherness of the world phenomenon. These works imply that is foolish to dissect and analyze the appalling complexity of all that we see, all that we meet with our eye.

This then may be the eye of innocence, and completely unschooled, totally surrendered to an ocean of experience, one that which it cannot master, but is rather mastered by. Now when you are thus mastered you can only feel, utter, exclaim your vast Surprise in fits and starts. It is pure feeling and not that tutored thought that here takes possession of an artists' brush, fingers, or whatever. It is sheer feeling that dictates the artistic movement. The automatism is however not really mechanistic since it is the living being in you that has registered the truth that lies out there in such super abundance.

How else allow the genre in the hoary canon of art? What are its credentials? Many abstractionists may try to fool, and others in turn be fooled by professing the manner. No doubt of that. On one plane it is simplistic, facile, no apparent draughtsmanship, no artistic hardware. Granting that, and also granting the fact that there are other superior states of being which entail different artistic strategies, the true of the abstracts carry the full frontal charge of the basic reality. It is not by ignoring the form and face of the world that an artist arrives at such a genre, but by admitting his or her awe, by admitting cerebral limitations in summing, or sizing up the root reality as assails the eye. It is this haunting that express abstractionists devote themselves to. If, however, you were a technician you could size down the components of these works, measure the lot, pin down mostly chaos or squalor. But then this apparent chaos is fecund, the mechanic in us tries to deal with it as a dead body as is not functioning or moribund. The man has not readily let himself go, has not dived in to its caverns and caves, its wide spaces, its grottos, its oceanic depths, the abysmal heights, etc. Now I use figurative language to describe what is minus a definite profile, and this is illicit in one way. But what else to do to bring home to doubting thomases that the mystery of being, of being at all is bigger than all our terrestrial and familiar analogues. This mystery is out there, because the truthful organ of perception in us also owns this truth and perhaps bows before it in acknowledgement. The acknowledgement, and then the evocation of that same state of mind.

Artists are said to play, but some in such a play, subscribe to received, set rules. In the case of the abstract genre, though, there is no written constitution to consult the rules if form arrive afresh every moment. Practice and patience tell when to pause, to hold back, not pitch in, the space of the forming the canvas sending out it's own cues to the making hand. There are checkpoints all along this seeming freeway. Since nothing is being taken down literally from outward or inward appearances, the only injunction is to create, improvise, but in accordance with the laws of sensibility. Euphoria and reserve, both injunctions operate in the working out of this order of art. Of course the painters' minds are replete with images of nominal reality, but it is not in servitude to them. It allows them due recognition but then goes on to draw out their inner fragrance. The denotations are whittled down, and connotations raised to rule supreme.

Already, at the beginning of recorded time, it was opined that the overall reality was faceless, and that all we could was to give it forms - now this, now that. The forms perish but are renewed by our applications. Thus the abstractionist engage, with that overall formlessness, never hoping to map it, only to immerse in it in the diurnal round and express that very disparate states of being. Abstractionism however is not the only storey in the mansion of art. But even so it is invaluable.

Artists like Jackson Pollock, down to some of your own, are perceptive practitioners of this very gharana. In some of her present works, Sarab Soni evinces a born understanding of the genre. The life palpitating in her own artistic fingers, should find a still truer expression given a closer understanding of the mystery of existence. That is what it an abstractionist is.
 

 
                       

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