An unfettered imagination
In the art world, by an unwritten rule of viewerly indolence, an artist becomes a prisoner of his own reputation. RANJIT HOSKOTE looks at one such `victim' an abstractionist who recently held his first solo exhibition in nine years.
"Painting 13-10-2000", oil on canvas, 2000.
THE artistic formula is often the result of complacent art-making; equally often, however, it is the outcome of lazy, reflex viewing. By an unwritten rule of viewerly indolence, every artist becomes a prisoner of his own reputation; and the more successful the artist, the more susceptible he is to the facile categorisation of viewers who, once they have labelled and pigeonholed him in a particular way, see no reason to register the transitions and changes of direction in his work. The manner in which Laxman Shreshtha's paintings have been received, during the last two decades, offers a pertinent example of this tendency. Shreshtha has been regarded, at least since the early 1980s, as the archetype of the successful artist: the viewing public gauges his success by his seemingly effortless production of exquisite paintings that transport us into a realm of emotion and insight beyond the ordinary range of perceptions. The pigeonhole that he occupies is that of the landscapist-turned-abstractionist, and many viewers seem unwilling to grant him more than this description affords. In his own mind, however, Shreshtha remains a restless artist struggling towards the consummation of form. Human enough to be gratified by public adulation, he remains intensely aware of the danger of the "masterpiece" formula; he knows that his duty towards his art lies, rather, in the opposite direction, in addressing, repeatedly and in refreshingly new ways, the formal problems that inhabit the core of his artistic exploration.
Shreshtha has acted on this imperative, in his recent suite of oils and watercolours, executed between 1999 and the present, and shown at the Jehangir Art Gallery last month. In this, his first solo exhibition in nine years, the distinguished abstractionist has chosen to sacrifice a body of images sanctified by popularity, and to risk the incomprehension and even irritation of his viewers. In these works, he meets a series of stimulating challenges, thrown up by the task of re-assessing the claims of abstraction in the light of recent aesthetic and historical experience. While maintaining his commitment to the style he has evolved over the last three decades, he has extended himself through fresh expressive possibilities.
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The 1939-born Shreshtha's art is based on the interplay between an idealised topography of floating forms, and an actual landscape of mountain and river valley, which he alludes to, and invokes by fragmentary reference, but never fully reveals. From this interplay emerge the abstractionist departures that have occupied his painted surfaces for three decades, cradled within the space of a canvas that often assumes monumental dimensions. But the vista of his imagination is wider than the canvas: you realise, on looking at and being drawn into the painting, that Shreshtha intends his images to fill the sky of the viewer's mind. Resonant with the hope of transcendence, they stake their claim to embody a contemporary sublime.
In his recent paintings, Shreshtha elects to mute these transcendent resonances. Marking a break with the established pattern of his oeuvre, he places rectilinear signs of inquiry over the suggestions of mountain, river, deep sky and occasional cloud. In the context of Shreshtha's development, these are conceptually intriguing works, defining problems that the artist has set himself in a resolute act of self-questioning. Here, he breaks up the elegant surfaces and accomplished structures of his paintings, subjecting his predilection for the sublime to interrogation even as he probes and dismantles the elements of his style.
"Painting 30-08-2000", oil on canvas, 2000.
Lowering his guard somewhat, Shreshtha seems to have returned, in these paintings, to that expressive freedom of sensation which belongs to a world innocent of abstraction. This brings him close to the mood of his works of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Traces of the actual come through and are mediated, at the last minute as it were, through the abstractionist's screen. The painting becomes, for instance, an attempt to render the experience of seeing the earth through clouds, or stones through pellucid water; details nearly resolve themselves into trees reflected in a lake, or way-markers. But these are outcomes of a sleight of eye: the artist is preoccupied, not with the viewed objects themselves, but with the special visual sensation they stir up, the nameless, magical rustle of associations that certain stimuli provoke, so redeeming us momentarily from the flux of quotidian experience.
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To have allowed the actual, the almost-representational and the referential, into his frames is already a considerable move for Shreshtha. He goes a step further, by invoking, in these works, that which he has never so far done: the interior. These paintings bear recurrent notational references, vestigial but unequivocal, to the ceiling, to skylights, to stacked paintings: in a word, to the studio, the site where Shreshtha's celebrated visions of infinitude are actually constructed. It is as though the artist were making a long overdue acknowledgement: there is, here, a sense of place, enclosure, location and gravity, as against the admittedly elegant and mysterious placelessness and weightlessness of his previous work. Shreshtha's paintings have certainly encoded a meta-narrative about their own framing, in the past, but in an understated fashion; this time, crucially, his paintings record an emphatic self-reflexive audit regarding the claims of abstraction, unprecedented in his work.
We see the abstractionist painting, here, not as a wholly autonomous and parallel reality of the mind, but as a construction rendered as such. This disclosure is strengthened by such signs of inquiry as the implied horizon, the calibrated sight-lines of perspective; and by such devices as the formal dialectic between whole and part, compositional totality and errant detail. In these paintings, we often come upon the shadow cast upon the real by the dark presence of an idea: the black "open book" device, darkening mountains that have been held down by cross-grids.
By a familiar paradox, the obliteration of an image causes a persistence of that image. Shreshtha's signs of inquiry serve to emphasise the fact that his canvases are visual minefields: we step back in the face of surprise explosions of buried colour, claret showing beneath blue, or a burnished ochre beneath a lowering black. The artist mixes water with oil sometimes, so that, as the two liquids separate out on the canvas, a speckled effect of marbling is achieved. As ever, the artist cannot resist orchestrating the sensuous delight of colour that is jewel-like in its intensity: his surfaces flash with amethyst, topaz and sapphire.
In one particular work, especially significant to my reading in this essay, the emotional exaltation of the onrush of suitably transmuted mountains, wind and sky, is coolly held in counterpoint by the insetting, into the frame, of a four-panel image that inescapably signals the satellite photograph. To the surprise of this viewer, at least, Shreshtha essays visual irony here: a playful and engaging tone that has never before been admitted into his repertoire of effects, which have been in the major key of the sublime. Shreshtha also plays off competing definitions of a space of belonging (interior and landscape), and rival mediating images of nature (the sublime landscape and the satellite photograph).
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These works offer vivid testimony to the manner in which an abstractionist, who has worked his way towards finessing a hard-won vocabulary of images, has now re-invented his pictorial space so as to incorporate elements of contemporary experience, and so renew, to some degree, his image-making practice. Shreshtha's recent paintings constitute an attempt to resolve the major crisis of contemporary abstraction: the crisis of revitalising the abstractionist picture surface, so that it can evolve beyond the mandates of capturing that floating territory of conception which lies between the symbolic and the numinous, while also demonstrating receptiveness towards the impulses of the present and the ambient.
I would hazard the view that Shreshtha's recent oil paintings are among the most important works he has produced in his career. For, as I will argue, they act as an unfolding exploration of an idea of truth one begun in his drawings and watercolours of the late 1990s but only now affecting his oils, which have so far functioned as timeless pauses precipitated by grand alchemies of the image. This idea of truth has to do, generally, with a bearing of witness to the present, and specifically, with the contestation of the classical abstractionist's belief in painting's absolute and transcendent position with regard to history. It commits the artist to a descent into time, into the processes of mutation, decay and dissolution. At the same time, Shreshtha pursues his ongoing project: the recovery of beauty as a sensuous source of affirmation, in a world where the category of beauty is treated as suspect, cosmetic, deceitful, ersatz.
The tension between these two imperatives imparts a vibrant transitional feel to Shreshtha's recent paintings, which bridge the gap between the sensuous as a source of pleasure, and intellection as an instrument of truth. In these paintings, Shreshtha attains that difficult measure, the sensuous apprehension of truth. So that, in preferring to extend his artistic investigations instead of resting on the masterly attainments that have brought him eminence, Laxman Shreshtha has registered a bold attempt to break out of the conventional mould of artistic success: given his stature, it is an attempt deserving of praise.
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