Of materiality and mimicry
If Subodh Gupta's works rest on steely materiality, Surendran Nair's solo offers an alternative visual strategy for commentary.
CRYPTIC CLUES A work by Surendran Nair
Two exhibitions that opened virtually back-to-back charter the arterial flow of two leading streams of Indian art. One refers to the recent exhibitions of Surendran Nair and Subodh Gupta as both highly self-conscious proponents of style and material arrive at their chosen language in art.
Subodh Gupta has demonstrated a willingness to extend a concept into different media, a concept drawn not as with many contemporary artists from mediatic systems, but rather value systems that inform Indian cultural praxis. If in the past this purpose was served by cow dung, his current line of enquiry has been stainless steel utensils, the bartan bazaars that are signifiers of the notions of purity, and prosperity in middle class India. Gupta, who works with the image of stainless steel utensils strung out, displayed as oversized objects that mimic a kitchen rack, finally inverts them into a mammoth cacophony of glinting objects that work up a crescendo of steely materiality.
In this current exhibition, Gupta works with the principles of repetition and formal order, principles well established in the work of sculptors like Donald Judd or Richard Long. A close point of comparison would also be Sonya Clark's 2005 work, Tangle Seven Layers, which introduces metal combs in a large rising pyramid as they grow on one another.
Admittedly, the use of materials that are banal, that evoke only desultory interest in the course of the everyday, is increasingly a subject of art. Rachel Whiteread's huge sugar cube as an installation at the Tate Modern turbine hall would be one example of this. Gupta uses the everyday, the domestic and the familiar now blown up to create its impact through unexpected proportions. He then devastates the notions of order to create the anarchy of the market place. In one work, bristling tongs multiply and expand into a huge floral rush, elsewhere, a massive collage of utensils that appear to cascade, collide and crash into one another to evoke the terrible inversion of order. The safety of domestic certainties has been violated as if with an unseen cataclysm, even as the works themselves appear more and more into the realm of abstraction.
So what language does he arrive at? As with his cow dung works, Gupta acutely uses a culturally endorsed sensibility to vivify and expand on the possibilities of material. To his credit, he works well within self-determined limitations, to implode existing symbols and cultural certainties as it were, although power of the sculptures make the bartan paintings look somewhat trite. The next interjection of the gamchha, the distinctive red and white multipurpose cloth used by men across the cow belt, in a massive sculpture indicates a new line of enquiry. One is not convinced, however, that the video that he uses to demonstrate the uses of the gamchha significantly enhances the work.
Surendran Nair's solo exhibition of paintings has been a long awaited event here. It points essentially to continuities. Writing on his painting, Nair describes the amalgam of references from history, mythology and politics thus: "The images are often like cryptic clues, which assist one to decode the invested meaning that is disguised through oblique and elaborate devices of representation". Nair in this way offers an alternative visual strategy for commentary, one that appears to link with an older visual tradition but uses that evocation like a well-laid red herring.
Nair's Cuckoonebulopolis - a term that mimics classic naming for generic forms, derives from Aristophanes' satiric play, "Birds". It continues to yield his man swan image, and make somewhat covert criticism of the nature of society and politics, human lust and vanity. This is a tapering down from the other cognates that he had shown six years ago such as the centaur or the rhino-man figures. Nair's inspirations draw from different periods and move from the satiric image of the swine with a title Epiphany: Parables of the Swines (2000) with a lotus emerging from its umbilicus to a series of Man-bird configurations such as the uxorious Swan-Friday. He interjects heavily with text moving from the fabular - visual to the textual - polemical. Quotes from Aristophanes stand up against reading from physics that earmark bad singularities that speak of the exclusion of the marginal or the singular. Nevertheless, the element of predictability in his figure is not always relieved by the obscurity of the textual reference.
One work titled ` Et in Ayodhya Ego ... ... if not ... ... , the Stygian oath of abjuration' locates the swan man on a pedestal within an arch that has both Hindu and Muslim elements relieved by comic blurb interjections. Again, in the Garden of Forking Paths, the highly cryptic subtitle is `A poster design for an imaginary vaudeville on a variation of the theme of transactional analysis for Art, Craft, Installation etc'. If there is the popular voice, its quick passions and collective energies and the space it creates for the man on the margins, then it is his painting, Melancholy of the 12th Man (2000). The painting with its superb construction and sense of energy, even in defeat, is probably Surendran's most successful indictment of societal closure of people on the margins.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu