Friday, August 31, 2012

Putting Indian modernism in a proper context

Most of the artists who feature in the new international group show, entitled ‘Approaching Abstraction’ at Rubin Museum are renowned for uniqueness of their subject matter and form. Let us take a quick look at their oeuvres and what are the factors that have influenced them:

A few of these artists have been known to been spend time outside their home country. They are attached to some of the more popular Western art movements, something which is quite understandable. Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi are renowned Minimalists. The former studied in London in the 1950s, whereas the latter has settled in New York since the late ’70s. 

Nasreen Mohamedi’s drawings on graph paper deftly work against the grid, with slanted lines of differing weights and lengths. White-on-white relief prints by her, threaded with silk cord, are perhaps not as abstract in overall approach. Yet they create a sort of loop wherein both paper and string get endlessly self-referential. Another work seems like a spool, whereas one more much like an envelope.

Few of the artists in this show seem to quietly engage Indian culture or spirituality at least on the surface. The paintings done by G. R. Santosh and Biren might be one exception to this. Both are mostly termed ‘neo-tantra’: there’re luminous, interlocked forms, which signify the union of female and male form, whether in embryonic cells’ clusters or some barely abstracted images of coitus.

Meanwhile, ‘Radical Terrain’, the third installment in the series is to focus on the post-independence landscape and is due in November. Unlike the first two shows it is going to include some contemporary artists not of Indian descent.

The show definitely argues for a holistic view of Indian modernism (as opposed to mere superficial surveys of contemporary Indian art that seem to have spread along with discussion of emerging markets). Such kind of undertaking might well include more film and more bits of history, and perhaps a little less of Western art jargon. To judge from this show, modernism here seems most ‘modern’ in form and content when it takes the form of film, especially those in the 1960s when a few private foundations in India along with the National Films Division (NFD) gave grants to some talented painters.

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