“It’s not what you call me, but what I answer to.”
— African proverb
This show is important for two reasons. Both of them mark two important returns in the art world. One of a gallery, Chaitanya, that was at one time one of the most active galleries in Kochi and the other the return of artist Rajan Krishnan after a year-long confinement to bed following a stroke. Rajan lik Chaitanya was one of the active artists in Kochi till he decided to extricate himself from the vagaries of social life and began distancing himself from those he had been spending most of his time with. And then fate conspired to deliver to him more of the isolation he sought.
This show, however, rejoiced the return of Chaitanya in its new avatar, Gallery 27, and Rajan Krishnan as the artist known to everyone: My Friend, the Artist. The group show brought together artists from different generations. It was an invitation to listen to the lines that these artists have used to express themselves because there is an unheard song in all of their works. Once you have heard the combination of harmony and rhythm you could see the hidden signs in these visuals – tempered tunes from the minstrels in the gallery.
Art in a group allows for the emphasis of the non-verbal. And that is where the signs are to be seen among the lines that one can listen to—between the frames and on top of a pedestal. The artists in the show are not reinventing anything. They are recollecting from their past and reflecting on the future. This show itself, therefore, was more inventive than many melodies before. Among it all Rajan’s two watercolours reflected a strange calm intermingling with a deep and sad symbolism. After all the works were two subjects very dear to him: a pine apple and the chimney of a brick kiln. There isn’t anything in the two small works that will severely shock you, no extreme plot twists, or loud actions like in his large canvases as before. Instead, it’s rather calm. Just like any true painting, they hold deep meaning. Not just what meets the eye. There are lessons simply on life, about grief, friendship, love and death.
A few days into the exhibition that hint of death in his work arrived like a twist in the tale. Rajan’s return flattered to deceive. The painter who was yearning to come back with his inimitable interpretations of colors: their meaning, certain magic, and emotions chose instead to withhold it all within himself and left without any warning. He left the audience with only those two works–something to think about: lost love, sadness and time. Perhaps, a reminder, that we are all the ‘painter’ and imagine with a calm eye all that Rajan gave us: the intriguing philosophical musings with riveting dream sequences and touching, realistic narrative passages. The lines have to be heard and the signs have to be read. The two works here are prompts to recall all the colours Rajan, the artist, gave us in the past.
Listen to the Lines
In one of his treatises Wassily Kandisky recalls how “a certain Dresden doctor tells how one of his patients, whom he describes as ‘spiritually, unusually highly developed’, invariably found that a certain sauce had a ‘blue’ taste”. It was this idea of a spiritually superior person reckoning the importance of colour that led the Russian artist to his magniloquent musical metaphor. In the Spiritual in Art, Kandisky wrote: “Our hearing of colours is so precise. Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.
This is when you begin to listen to the lines as you stand in front of a work of art, particularly, a painting. It is the state of synaesthesia, the condition in which the senses are confused with one another. So when you see the colours in a painting or follows the contours of a sculpture you hear a kind of music.
Playing with the boundaries between the visual and the musical is an old game. The Pythagoreans were probably the first westerners at it when they declared: “The eyes are made for astronomy, the ears for harmony, and these are sister sciences. It has continued till present times. In fact, this visualization has moved beyond colours and two-dimensional triangles, circles and squares, but has also become a sort of three-dimensionalism where colour and shape get transformed according to the angle of perception. Therefore, the need to listen to the lines. From the works of Jalaja P.S., Reji K.P., Sanam C.N., Sujith S.N., Madhu Das and Alex Mathew to the minimal etchings of Snehal Goyal and the drawing of Valsan Koorma Kollery that looks down upon you, lines and colour compel you to be alert to the sound that resonates in the space that they share between themselves. Here images and the lines and colour in them become music, and music become them.
How these works have fitted into a sequence of art works that aspire to be, in musical terms, a cycle of ‘symphonies’. The improvisations that are so evident here in most of the works, on the whole, even if less monumental, are quite dramatic. We could see, rather listen to them as a compendium of ‘concertos’.
Look for the Signs
When we talk about looking for the signs in the works on display in this exhibition we could bring to light the genealogical argument, implicit in The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss, that presents art as one among several ‘descendants’ of a ‘wild’mode of thought whose origins may be traced to the Neolithic and beyond. We can argue that in theorising the mode of symbolisation specific to this wild mode of thought- rooted in what he calls ‘concrete logic’ or ‘logic of sensible qualities’–Levi-Strauss provides an original solution to a question that lies at the core of philosophical aesthetics, that of the relation between conceptual-abstract thinking and sensory perception. Levi-Strauss unites the subjective and objective dimensions of experience in a logic of sensory qualities and places this logic at the heart of what makes us, as social animals, producers of symbolic systems. It is through this logic of sensible qualities that we search for the aesthetic signs here in this show. In these artworks, contrary to linguistics, there is no objective method for identifying so-called minimal units of signification.
Take for example Jalaja’s two works. Look at the central figures in Untitled which she has borrowed from the cancer hospital she visited as part of a project. In this group photograph-like painting of patients, Jalaja gives us face, whose sight, despite their vibrancy, is unsetting, solemn-as though the artist has taken the chalk outline where each face is turning death away concealing the darker story beneath the surface. they are lively, celebratory, and seem to posses a divine palpable life force. Though sitting in stiff uncomfortably straight positions they seem to be swaying to a rhapsody of colours.
In Boat People, you see all the people that can fit into a boat fleeting their country. It could be Syria of today or it could be Vietnam of 1979. The Boat People tells refugee stories, past and present, and make us wonder how they can find the strength and how they can find hope. They signs in this work recreates the sound of the ocean that travels through the journey of the refuges into the unknown.
Sanam C.N.’s and Sujith S.N.’s works are study contrast. Yet in these works, different in their subject matter, style and import, we clearly see the implications of the connection that can be made between art and the production of the aesthetic sign and what this connection tells us about some of art’s modes of signification. Apart from the denotative or referential function, the aesthetic sign in these works mediate between the mind and world. The aesthetic sign is not-or is not only-that which figures or more generally ‘points’ to the world; it is constitutive of a particular experience of it.
The world is not apprehended in a work of art, but through it. While Sanam’s world is one that exists in imagined landscapes or the ones that appear to him in his dreams, Sijith’s are the ones that he counters everyday through real estate advertisements and billboards that threaten to usurp his space in a city, a looming hazard of displacement by rampant and mindless urbanisation.
Both Alex Mathew and Madhu Das reaffirm that the work of art is a system of signs. Along with Reji K.P.’s they prove that the work of art as disembodied sign becomes the image as embodied mark, imbued with the spirit of a gesture and located in a particular place and time.
When John Dewey writes that art “intercepts every shade of expressiveness found in objects and orders them to a new experience of life”‘this ‘interception’ is first and foremost a continuously creative and novel “drawing the line” through an affective plenum, which ‘differentiates’ it. In this sense all aesthetic reception and production are ‘abductions,’ that is, discoveries, in which the perceptual, the hermeneutical, and the semiotic are factors in, but not types of, abductive processes.
And we almost get kidnapped by Valsan’s use of air, wind and light as material for his work. And then we ask ourselves: What is the set of particular signs that confers the works of this group of artists its character of urgency, its distinctive mark. its eccentricities, its vocabularies and its magic and makes them both a source of introspection, astonishment, and hilarity at once?
A Nigel Wentworth, in his The Phenomenology of Painting, has illustrated in a particularly rewarding way, there is a fusion and mutual reinforcing of the dimensions from both the productive and the receptive side. The viewer of any of the works here needs to live the experience involved in it, and this can be achieved through learning to look at them in certain ways, ways that reveal something of how these work of art came into being.
Art is present, says Hans-Georg Gadamer, whenever a work succeeds in elevating what it is or represents to a new configuration, a new world of its own in miniature, a new order of unity in tension. This can occur whether the work presents us with specific cultural content and familiar features of the world around us, or whether we are confronted by the mute, yet profoundly familiar, Pythagorean harmonies of form and colour. One could add melody and rhythm and their signifiers to these harmonies.
The universe works through people, and signs can come in many forms. These days a video that a friend forwards with an underlying message often sparks a sense of knowing in one’s soul. A series of status updates, shares or tweets that one is able to sense a common thread between. An article, billboard or random string of conversations that make you crane your head looking for signs. Or in this case the works of the nine artists in this show at Gallery 27.
English painter Alexander Wallace Rimington once described what he had in mind when he was planning a particular painting:”Imagine a darkened concert-room. At one end there is a large screen of white drapery in folds surrounded with black and framed by two bands of pure white light. There appears the faintest possible flush of rose colour which very gradually fades away. Then, with an interval, it is repeated in three successive phases, the last of which is stronger and more prolonged. While it is still lingering upon the screen a rapid series of pale lavender noted begin to flit across it, gradually strengthening into deep violet. This again becomes shot with amethyst. A delicate primrose now appears, and with little runs and flushes of pulsation leads through several passages of indescribable cinnamon colour to deep topaz…” With that in mind we could perhaps close this catalogue, shut out any guided voice(noise), listen with our eyes and look for the signs.
Alex studied at the College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum (1975-81), Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University of Baroda (1982-84) and Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste (1986-87), He is currently working as an Associate Professor in S.N. School of PA, FA & Communication, Central University of Hyderabad. He lives and works in Hyderabad.
Jalaja studied at Government RLV College, Thripunithura, Kochi from 2003 to 2007 (BFA) and 2007 to 2009 (M FA). She lives and works in Kochi.
Das received his Masters of Arts from S.N. School of Fine Arts and Communication, Central University of Hyderabad. He graduated from College of Fine Art, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, Bangalore. The artist lives and works in Mumbai.
Rajan completed B.A. Economics from Calicut University, Kerala in 1989. He then completed BFA in painting from the Government College of Fine Arts (1994) and MFA painting from Faculty of Fine Arts, M. S. University Baroda (19%). Unfortunately Rajan met with an untimely death in February 2016.
Reji studied BFA (1998 – 2002) and MFA (2002 – 2004) in painting at the M.S. University Baroda. He lives and works in Baroda.
Sanam studied BFA in sculpture from RLV College, Thripunithura, Kochi from 2000 to 2004 and MFA, again in sculpture, from 2004 to 2006. He lives and works in Kochi.
Snehal completed her BFA in 2010 from Bharati Vidhyapeeths’ College of Fine Arts, Pune University, Pune: MVA – from Faculty of Fine Art, M.S. University Baroda, Gujarat; and MFA from The Advanced Print Making Intensive, Columbia School of Art, New York. She lives and works in Baroda.
Sujith completed his BFA from the Fine Arts College, Thrissur and went on to pursue an MFA in painting at the SN School of Fine Arts, Performing Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad in 2007. Sujith lives and works in Mumbai.