It was perhaps Francis Picabia who first recognized the erotic potential of machines. His paintings and prints from the 1920s often substituted pistons, gears, engines and propellers for human anatomy, fetishising the intimacy of their forms as if they might be genitalia. Picabia's project was ironically romantic, caught up in the glamour of industrialization that was a hallmark of his time, his paintings often classically beautiful while deeply sardonic.
Jump cut to the end of the century and a place far from Paris. A young painter in search of a subject matter to claim as his own focuses on the changes taking place in the landscape around him - fields and lots full of the hulking machinery used to carve roadways and build structures. He recognizes something anthropomorphic but also emotional in these machines, often abandoned to decay or arranged into what could be mistaken as social groupings. Both still life and landscape, these arrangements of machines prove to be opportune for displaying the painter's skills of composition and rendering his adroit perceptions of the play of light and his deft sense of color.
Such was the manner in which Nataraj Sharma worked himself away from a figurative tradition in painting during the 1990s. The city of Baroda, where he studied and continues to live, had fostered at its college of art a school of painting that re-introduced historical reference, narrative and allegory into the figurative idiom. Simultaneously, painters in Bombay and New Delhi focused on painting the masses of India, often amid the country's picturesque architecture, or else took to an entirely abstract path. Nataraj's tact led him to find a surrogate for the human figure, distancing his art from that of his peers while still facilitating an engagement with social issues.
The arrangements of machines could imply the repetitive cycles of industrial production, in turn implying the repetitions of tasks to be found in people's daily lives. At the same time, the building site or the mechanical structure could become a framing device, incorporating figures but also landscapes, narrative vignettes (often auto-biographical) and decorative motifs. Through the use of a manipulated realism, Nataraj successfully formulated a recognizable painterly style while keeping his options open to a wide variety of imagery. No mean feat, indeed.
The present body of work finds Nataraj hitting new strides. Many of the works are among the largest paintings he has made to date yet there seems to have been not a trace of anxiety when approaching such scale. We can recognize a number of themes and compositions that have been researched through earlier experiments with smaller formats. Consistencies remain, with paintings such as "Studio (Karkhana)" and "Standing Man (Wired Up)" exploiting his signature motifs of man and machine towards extremes of bravura. A suite of works-on-paper (etchings actually that have been surreptitiously amended by hand) hone his proclivities for architectural forms into almost archetypal symbols or lure landscapes into purely philosophical paradigms. Two paintings, namely "Spy in the House of Love" and "Hierarchical Arselickers," have existed previously in more cursory renditions, their imagery now extrapolated into extravaganzas of detailing couched in heaping portions of wit. Nataraj flirts with both sarcasm and sentimentality his approach both mercurial and committed, as if to say that this is the way life is so why should painting be any different.
Three pairs of new works veer off into new terrain, tethered to each other and the artist's more "classical" works by the guideline of landscape. Nataraj has painted two of his most literal landscapes to date. Where one exploits the long-distance aerial view for ethereal effect, the other presents the outskirts of the urban space littered with the detritus of human production. An unblemished purity as in "Mandu (Evening)," is painted photo-realistically complete with the overlaid grid of scientific observation, while degradation is rendered in a neo-pointilist style in "Wasteland (Gurgaon)," seemingly built from feces and scrap itself. Together the works function as Yin and Yang, presenting the oscillating doppelgangers that make up the experience of contemporary India. Should one dare to read critiques of Orientalism, globalization, development and environmental concerns into images so seemingly forthright and even banal?
Both the technical finesse and the almost epic subjects of these two works are taken further in the diptychs titled "Vapi Horse" and "Kannuru Storm." A visit to the remote points of the Gujarat peninsula seems to have instigated Nataraj's most optical capabilities. Saturated colors have been orchestrated into resounding compositions that startle with both their simplicity and charged effects. Atmosphere itself seems to be the subject of these works, the tricks that light and water play on the eyes and the brain as they combine in space and change over time. Yet just as one may fear that the artist is sliding into the rather naive abyss of an old-fashioned Impressionism, Nataraj pulls the viewer into the highly synthetic spaces of the paintings "Playground" and "Air Show." With these works he experiments with photography and digitization, repetition and geometric structures, again alluding to the collisions of nature with science or man with machine. We are held suspended within the space of computers and video games, submerged into constructions that mock both verisimilitude and illusion.
I began my study with the rather superficial coincidence of machines to be found in both Nataraj's paintings and those by Francis Picabia. Through analysis it would seem that our contemporary from India holds more than a passing resemblance with the Frenchman who lived to transgress the majority of painterly styles of the twentieth century. Picabia's lead has been advanced by a number of artists since his death, his astonishing appetite for painterly novelty often eclipsing a more protracted engagement with the aesthetic issues of his days. Nataraj Sharma has perhaps benefited from a certain isolation from the cacophony of voices found in the big cities' art scenes. His program has come to cloak an impassioned investigation into existential and perceptual dilemmas with the buoyancy of eclecticism. Tainting is both philosophy and entertainment, akin to an opera that tackles profound meaning with a catchy tune. The exigencies of the marketplace often demand a surfeit of repetition from an artist and resistance can often be agonizing or even paralyzing. With apparent aplomb, Nataraj Sharma has avoided both the suffocation of sameness and the confusion of rampant experimentation. His paintings have retained a stylistic similarity by exploring multiple paths while his concerns have remained constant by allowing for the slight shifts of breeze.
First published in an exhibiiton catalogue by Bose Pacia in 2005.