Art review

Uday Shanbhag, work from Challenge and empathy

It is natural and necessary for most serious art to engage with actual issues and enter reality, whether that comes as an evocation of experiences and sensations or as a statement on the artist’s position, more often than not a verge place between both these options being located on the line from concept to expressiveness. Shankar Natarajan in his “Photographs” (Bar1, May 21 to 25) adopted a maximally conceptual approach, which may be natural for someone who studied art criticism. His installation comprised hundreds of small pictures shot by him of important art works. Arranged into a few quietly aesthetic groups, at first glance they seemed to be indifferent, in fact, hard to understand in their aim without reading Natarajan’s verbal explanation that they had been shot by him for galleries and kept as an archive of what was offered for sale during the boom period. Only after a while one realised that the postcard-size uniformity, together with certain sleekness imparted by photography, created an effect of commercial pleasantness. An intentionally objective and neutral, emotion-less display, it wished to trigger a subjective reaction from and probably shake the conscience of those familiar with the broader scene, this turning into the space where the piece happened. Its happening, however, was possible only to insiders – artists, dealers and their writers, not to normal spectators without an investment in the much hyped phenomenon. For the former it would be difficult to remain comfortable in front of the equalising proximity of different styles, eras, of very expensive but powerful pieces and dear but merely elegant ones, of ones that evidenced impassioned engagement and politely nice others. A bold challenge, though somewhat incestuous.

   Uday Shanbhag’s concern about the world is as strong but channelled from the opposite direction of personal engrossment, empathy and helpless anger, which are nonetheless restrained by a tinge of conceptually guided distance, generalisation and analytical sarcasm. The title of his exhibition “Back to the Roots” (Alliance Francaise, May 24 to 31) referred to both his return to India after seven years in Europe and his preoccupation with the fate of farmers in his ancestral village. Although without knowing it beforehand, one would not have guessed the farmer address, the show indeed generated a feel of passively endured deprivation at the bottom of society. Introduced by the pieces with tilted scales of justice and a child running after his mother, the images suggest rough bundles of humanity uncomfortably asleep, gathered around a table with empty plates or an exploding object, otherwise rising the flame of freedom only to ostrich-like  bury the head in sand. The figures, simultaneously angular and pliant, coarse and tender, sketchily abstracted and immediate, are fiercely dry-brushed until the black pigment breaks up to touch on the raw. They appear to almost slide over the background smooth rectangles cut from synthetic flooring whose cheap elegance imitates wood panelling and marble, thus conjuring a sense of two realities not quite amicably coexisting together and enhancing the hypocrisy behind it which is also furthered by the transparent mounts, by the element of interior perspective on the even field too.

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