Breathing city

Different strokes
Last Updated 24 September 2016, 18:38 IST

The city, a phenomenon located at the intersection of gaze and experience, is a driving force and a cradle of post-modernism. It is a labyrinth of meanings, the beating heart of contemporary civilisation and a grand theatre of visuality... It is an ever-renewable source of themes because it is life itself — life that constantly pushes ahead, rushes forward and forms a yet indeterminate future.  

— Dagmara Domagala,
(City exposure: Traces and the Open City)

Schon Mendes loves the rhythms of the city. Donning the role of an observer as well as a visual chronicler of the urban landscape, the Vadodara-based artist deftly fills up his canvas with a pulsating bustle of real, surreal and historical narratives.

His elaborately constructed and meticulously rendered paintings unite fragments culled out of memory as well as anecdotes of a lived experience in the city. Characters from history sneak in rather curiously but fluently, adding further twists to the unfolding tale. In the end, it is the vitality of people with their joyous presence, varied obsessions, quirky deeds and simmering anxieties which remain at the core of Mendes’s work.

‘Cameos of a City’, (Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai / September 8-October 9) features a selection of paintings executed by Mendes over the last four years. In a freewheeling interaction with Sunday Herald, the 29-year-old artist shares impressions of his life and art. Here are excerpts from the interaction:

On growing up in Goa:

I come from a devout Catholic family in Goa. Religious rituals and ceremonies have been a large part of my childhood. Drawing and painting were always something I enjoyed as a child but I did not pursue art as a career initially. I graduated in Mass Communication and video production from St Xavier’s College, Goa.

On his move to Baroda:

After my graduation, I moved to Bombay and worked in a production house. Being a visual person, this job was an exciting one, but after eight months of working, I decided to quit and study art instead. I moved to Baroda on the invitation of my sister Sonatina Mendes who is an artist. I studied under the tutelage of Rekha Rodwittiya and Surendran Nair at the Collective Studio, in a structured yet flexible art programme. It included all aspects of an institutional education such as art history, life drawing and regular discourses on art; the stress was, however, on all-round development that covered every area of one’s life in keeping with the philosophy of the Collective Studio.

On how the city inspires his art:

People fascinate me; and it is they who direct the energy and rhythm of the city. My fascination has always been in portraying people and narratives centered around them. It is through the people that I talk of this whole called the city that they comprise. It is the energy of people and layering/interconnected narratives that form the basis of my work.

I love to explore various aspects of life in a city, be it in the interior of intimate spaces of human interaction or that in a public space. I enjoy bringing in characters from art history, fiction as well as my everyday life and engaging them in a conversation. The anxiety, chaos and uncertainty come from my observations of people and the life one sees in a city. It is the manner in which the lives of people in a city affect each other and are interconnected that I really wish to talk about, more than a reference to any particular city.

On his all-time favourite artists:

I am fascinated by the sense of detail in early Netherlandish portraiture and the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Breughel as well as Mughal miniatures; and the normalising of the bizarre in the works of Rene Magritte. Structurally, I enjoy works from artistic traditions such as Russian Novgorod paintings; and colouristically early Renaissance and Sienese paintings.

I admire the work of Atul Dodiya for the manner in which he blends elements from his life in Mumbai with references from cinema, literature, art history and fiction. I also have a high regard for (American photo-artist) Gregory Crewdson as each and every minute detail in his work is controlled and modulated.

On the process of painting cityscapes:

I carry a sketchbook with me at all times. Whenever possible, I draw whatever I see around me. These drawings serve as visual documentations that freeze a memory or moment in time. This I later bring into my studio; they serve as references for ideas. I also use photographs as references and many a time they are reinterpreted in a manner that is far removed from the original. I always work on a single painting at a time as I like to focus my entire energy on developing ideas for one work before moving into the next.

On structuring of paintings:

I often use structures in my paintings that are borrowed from miniatures as well as Russian icon paintings. These structures are like receptacles within which I place my various narratives, stories that are integrated and follow a certain visual flow, something that I borrow from painters such as Bosch and Breughel.

The theatrical plays a large role in my work, which may be partly because of my interest in cinema and video production. Indian miniatures are my favourite art historical influence from which I borrow elements such as the use of scale and multiple perspectives.

On his memorable painting:

As a young man living in an Indian metropolitan city, there are many popular activities that I encounter on a daily basis. One such activity is that of bodybuilding and in one painting, I have portrayed a young man working out. He is attended to by a camera crew comprising famous characters from art history. In this work, I have attempted to focus the limelight on someone who would least expect it; thereby placing a tale of interchanging roles.

(Published 24 September 2016, 15:45 IST)

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