Treading a new path on canvas
Jitish Kallat's paintings on display at Bodhi Art Gallery mark a shift from his earlier works.
COSMIC INSPIRATION Glimpses of Jitesh Kallat's work on display at Bodhi Art Gallery in New Delhi.
A cow in the city. A subject so banal that you unthinkingly dodge it in your moving car, until a vivid recollection transfixes the cow into a sculpture or painting that spins out from the studios of the photorealist school of artists that have dominated art production in India over the past three years. In a sense, the Bombay Boys syndrome of fixing the city as subject and celebrant, one that conveys the sour spice of the Bombay sandwich, the stench of collective 5 p.m. sweat in the moving train and the still reeking memorial of fear to the Bombay blast have become a distinct body of work within the larger phenomenon of contemporary Indian painting. The discursive engagements for such work ally strongly with the global emphasis on the city as location/site/map, of the structures of urbanism that carry within them an openness. As Derrida writes in The City of Asylum, "walking through cities one finds that the city is indeed an open, non-totalizable set of idioms, singularities, styles: a place to welcome the other within the self, a place open to what is coming, the very coming of what is to come, open to imminence." In this sense, the city as subject is fraught with uncertainty: the subject can never be whole or just, and in this, tends to create paintings like snapshots of individual sensory experience.
Auteur and witness
Standing somewhat apart and away is Jitish Kallat, whose engagements were first identified by the obvious presence and now by a critically suggested absence of Bombay, the city. Kallat's new work (Bodhi Art Gallery, Nirlac Building) called Panic Acid (a suggestive mix of Panic Attack and Acid Rain?) marks a shift in his obvious billboard effects of his earlier work, of the staged presence of the artist as actor/voyeur within the city, both as auteur and witness. In his more recent exhibition in Chicago titled Humiliation Tax, two bodies of work presage what we see in Panic Acid. One of these is a set of paintings that overtly upfront the national shame of child labour and the associative distortions of malnutrition, illiteracy, paedophilia.
The other body of large paintings - The Lie of the Land - uses puns, and the distortions of caricature to establish precedence for the 75 small works titled Stations of a Pause, now on view at Bodhi Art Gallery. They comprise a parade of unconnected images, some that pop out with a manic energy of comic excess and at the same time, a tragic insufficiency. In the small format, the artist achieves an intensity and compression. The cartoon, as a model, has moved from the 1950's cute rounded lines of Walt Disney characters that bounced through happy lands of irreverence to distorted animal and child forms that spit, fight and barf their way through a world in which only losers are permanent. Kallat draws from the spiky forms and gross features of politicians in political cartoons in the world media. He also mixes in the exaggerations of sex comics with caricature to create a sense of cheap lusts that informs the glut of the received, hyper textual image. In a sense, these images are like notes to himself, especially where the artist appears to address other works of art, inherited in the serious corpus of art history, now rendered irreverent. Bhupen Khakar, Sigmar Polke, Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings bounce off the retina to make place for George Bush and L K Advani. The procession of twisted forms has become a deluge in which value has gone askew.
In the large body of paintings titled Herbarium (Annual - Perennial), this wayward, unpredictable line aspires and grows into dried, dark flowers embellished with clusters of heads. Even in their dried deadness, these flowers appear to horripilate with a venous thickening malignity. Cradled within these flowers are the heads, un-individuated, grinning, apparently dismembered from their bodies.
The ready - almost too ready - wit of Kallat's earlier paintings and his reliance on text appears to have slipped away. Equally, the readings of the city now elide into a broad humanistic statement, but one which is rendered with a quality of flat repetitiveness. Kallat injects an element of difference in the large work photographic work RSVP. Here, he appears facing the camera in a trial room typical of the large shopping malls, apparently caught in a silent conversation with himself through endless multiples of the same image. Critical to the context is a small notice on the wall of the cubicle that reads `It Doesn't Fit'. This large photograph is the sign of the positive engagements that artists are now bringing to photography. It also marks an important shift in Kallat's own oeuvre of moving out of the structures of evocation in painting, to the communication enabled by the manipulation of representation in photography.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu