During the last year London finally began to notice the breadth and depth of subcontinental visual art. A form of catching up across loosely defined generations has been going on, symbolised in October 09 by Nasreen Mohamedi‘s ongoing retrospective at MKG, Subodh Gupta getting a showcase at Hauser & Wirth, NS Harsha with an installation at inIVA and a solo show at Victoria Miro, as well as another intriguing group show at Green Cardamom. As crude a notion as ‘catching up’ in this way is, it seems that London’s tokenistic effort to do this with the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway in December 08 just might also be the last of its kind.
Veil [detail] 2005 Aisha Khalid
In contrast to the Now That’s What I Call Music approach of group surveys, Tommaso Corvi-Mora has shown Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi, two of the best artists from an established generation in Lahore, Pakistan, since 2001. A similarly smart curator could yet put together a show of Bhupen Khakhar’s pop art from the 1970s for example. Another could put together a retrospective of the influential late Lahori Ustad Zahoor ul Akhlaq. Perhaps ‘West End’ gallerists ought to be showcasing artists from the next wave, like Naeem Mohaiemen, Khadim Ali, or Mohammed Ali Talpur for example. That is; as well as rewinding and catching-up why not just press play?
I don’t mean to exaggerate London’s importance -it probably needs the subcontinent more than the subcontinent needs it- but it reveals an approach predicated on the take-out or the M&S spicey snack; diluted convenience over actual cuisine or anything else. The same is true in the world of books, where the UK prizes writing prepared in English at the same time as translating very nearly nothing.
Gupta and Harsha are Indian artists with global reputations, about whom London had very little to say, at least critically. I came across the former in Delhi in 2002 and had too much to say about the recent work to post my notes here, but in summary:
Subodh Gupta Common Man Hauser & Wirth 1-31 October 09
The proportions of Gupta’s first major exhibition in London were peculiar. Its occasion was part introduction, part retrospective, its character declarative and incantatory. It spilled across two sites in Mayfair, imploding with a self-consciously wide range of forms, tongues and bases with pointless talismans [Wall] and point-scoring appropriations [Et Tu, Duchamp?]. The solid core were subtle variations on now familiar stainless steel sculptures [Everyday, I Believe You, A Penny for Belief II] here on marble plinths; offerings and monuments both quotidian and sincere. The most interesting work [Spooning, Black and White] showed a further refining and abstracting of his own sculptural language which augurs well. Gupta is an artist unafraid of thinking big in the best sense, making art that is powerfully symbolic of everyday life experience. Art from nothing and everything, for the ‘common man’ of lore and life itself.
Here are my abridged notes on Harsha’s show at Victoria Miro 10th October-14th November 09.
NS Harsha Picking Through the Rubble
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
NS Harsha has been here on his way around the world before now but this exhibition at Victoria Miro is his formal introduction in the UK. Harsha is primarily an artist of paint. A painter who uses various vernacular mediums of Indian life and art to adorn almost anything, anywhere. His works have been miniatures ‘quoting’ from Company paintings to comment on colonial legacies with great wit. They’ve been murals painted on to walls, deriving from the village arts and crafts found across India, and bringing the everyday to life in site specific works across the world. Victoria Miro is showing large mural-inspired paintings of his delicate kind which are, incidentally, his most saleable work yet.
The ground floor gallery shows off a set of five large canvases with thinly applied acrylic in soft hues. All are 5 feet high and 12 feet long; the Imperial measurements somehow appropriate and one of few unselfconscious markers present. Harsha has lifted his art off the walls to join in on an art market that requires it to hang independently. As his international reputation has grown, his site specific works have magnified too. The upstairs gallery here contains one such pointlessly scaled installation; a made-for-Museum piece called Either Side of the Path of Enlightenment. Hidden away nearby is Eclips; a modestly sized canvas of Harsha at his best; elliptical, mysterious, warmly human, wittily questioning.
Harsha’s large scale murals share qualities of pattern and looseness from the wall-mural tradition, overlaid with his trademark specificity of person, face, moment. Spot an innocent civilian and Thought pickers especially, but also In musth, could pass as wall paper with their repeated motifs. Harsha wants us to look more closely at things we think we know or recognise. At his best this process is a witty but also sharp political commentary, veering on the philosophical. This is the quality that distinguishes Thought pickers, an Untitled canvas as well as Eclips but it’s precisely this that amplification for the market’s sake threatens.
Harsha’s ‘innocent civilians’ are rendered with a halo like effect around individuated heads. To the right of the canvas and in its midst is an exploding suicide bomber taking out those nearest her in an acrobatic display of painterly gesture. Her halo is less crisply rendered but I think it’s still there; Harsha is no reducer of sense. A decade ago he painted a series of miniature sized pictures which played with the same ambiguities of language to similar effect. One of those, Native Intrigue, also took a phrase from the dominant ideological lexicon and inverted it to reveal and softly ridicule its limits.
In the War On Terror we’re all innocent civilians as well as all-knowing and complicit. Harsha is reminding us that if we perceived ourselves as global citizens, we could no longer stand by while crimes against humanity, war crimes, murderous sieges and mass murder in the guise of democracy are perpetrated in the ‘defence’ of our ‘values’. So we’re the opposite of innocent. Perhaps the least invested in our shared guilt is the suicide bomber in this mural who is at least protesting. Whose guilt is confined to small-scale, handmade outrages.
Untitled 2009 [detail] N.S. Harsha
Untitled is Harsha at his best; a broad philosophical insistence rendered as gently as possible and more characteristic of his body of work. This huge mural on canvas divides in half; on the left are a mass of painterly gestures, scraps of colourful fabric, unordered or unformed, individual, intensely vibrant. On the right they’ve been woven together into something strong, useful, evidence of human presence. Rendered at many angles in the muddied middle are busy human beings turning the scraps into thread. Collecting, gathering, weaving, moulding, working up the disparate into something with collective strength. Something formed. This is enough; there’s no manifesto delimiting what that collectivity, strength, humanity or purpose ought to be but no baulking at the absolute necessity for it.
A couple of canvases –In musth and Absurd blossoms– feel forced to me in exactly the way that Harsha’s best work is not. Thought pickers makes the point; being typical of this set of new works but as natural and easy as the witty precision of layered intent it contains. Again we have repeated motifs; individual bent backed figures regularly placed on the canvas. Each has a collection of brightly coloured rags, paint strokes, petals on their backs. The colours are the thoughts, the figures are pickers, collectors, bringers-in of the thoughts used to sustain life.
Harsha’s figures are modelled on urban rag pickers and rural twig and stick pickers; gracers of subcontinental back streets and rural tracks, gatherers of subsistence. This should give us thought, not least about the way this apparently impoverished existence is also sustainable. Thought pickers renders a kind of inhuman abjection and yet it comments on our thoughtless acquisitive purgatory in ways that are unique in their lightness of touch and softness of voice.
Upstairs, Eclips is more of this; a beautiful puzzle of an image, easily missed in the corner and set apart from the rather cumbersome ‘Path’ installation. Eclips is a divine droplet of Indian thought, containing a press of distinct human beings, falling through time and space, going nowhere, but underpinned with a mystifying carrot. Mysterious but not pointless; the carrot here might as well stand for the rewards of focusing on our shared humanity; those vulnerably massed group of people who share a single fate as they come in to splash down and begin life on earth. It’s a carrot in a world of sticks.
Harsha is an interesting artist who works political wit and philosophical incisiveness into a highly refined practice that is also essentially vernacular. As his reputation has grown, as London has finally realised the health and vigorous breadths of subcontinental art, his work has expanded in scale to meet the curatorial market. Thus size becomes a key demand, alongside concern about portentousness.
Harsha’s best work is the obverse of this; an irritant of the portentous, able to stimulate large and productive thoughts in us with the slightest of means and on the smallest of scales. These modesties are bound up tightly with the source, inspirations and languages of his art practice. The global artworld -certainly as manifest in London- struggles to understand or even recognise the modest scale of these subtleties and so forces even an artist of the wit and precision of NS Harsha into its mould.
Picking through the rubble here, there’s enough left to remind us of the real value in Harsha’s work. It’s also a happy day when someone of his particular set of skills breaks through to International recognition. The moment must be celebrated even if attended with sadness and regret when it reduces the singularity of the work in question. Hasten along to Victoria Miro and catch NS Harsha while he is still making his own work and while that work is still Harsha’s to make.