Artists

These recent works by BV Suresh offer a nuanced exploration of some of the key issues that confront us today. A suite of large works on canvas constitute a part of this show. The other section comprises of three somewhat disparate groups - a set of 41 digital prints painted over with acrylic, a video film Retakes of Shadow and an installation with bread - all these are brought into play, within a frame of shifting lights.

The canvases appears thematically distinct, yet the commonly shared syntax and motifs that circulate there draw them into an oddly suggestive series. Gesturing to impossible spaces where public and the private seem to fold into each other, the paintings are organized through narrative strategies that stage diverse violence. At another level, the show is a take on the issues posed by realism; and through its engagement with multiple realisms, on the question of history and its modes of narration, and also, with the circulation of images engendered by mass media.

This is all the more apparent when one views the video installation. Drawing its key images from newspaper cuttings as well as historical film, Retakes of the Shadow puts in place a fractured, ambiguous narrative that works to disrupt the stability of the real. The play of light and shadow that sweep over the film appears to be reproduced quite simply in the Shiftings series. But on close viewing, this relation is far more complex. Composed through the layering and the reformulation of the images in the film, their stillness contrasts sharply with the incessant flicker of these forms in video. Yet, the grotesquerie worked onto the digital prints talks to the savagery of the video. Mimicking both the stillness of the prints and the motion of the film is the slow, amorphous light moving across the installation space; as the light shifts the eye picks out stacks of bread. It is perhaps this bread, so incongruously positioned in the play of light and dark, so every day, so solid; that may offer a possible understanding of the show.

Public Works

Standing in metonymic relation with the Best Bakery ‘case’ that has now become the public face of the 2002 violence in Gujarat, the bread refracts the undisguised political critique of the film to allow the circulation of meanings that have been buried under sensationalist media coverage - the idea of bread as common food, as the outcome of labouring bodies, as bread broken and shared. Media focus on the legalities of the ‘case’ seem to have in some sense erased the brutality of those deaths at the bakery, the burnt crust returns us to that moment.

This show certainly positions itself in the post 2002 Gujarat. The violence has left several questions in its wake, questions that have acquired a particular force for those who live and work in Gujarat. Not least, questions about the processes by which communities are marked away from others, about the multiple forms and levels of violence and the strategies and tactics that this engenders, about the manner in which everyday life and living come to be organized in these terms. These are the issues that the artworks resolutely take on.

Retakes of the Shadow is a powerful critique of the 2002, violence; the gradual yet systematic way in which saffron comes to dominate the landscape, the lotus that disappears and reappears in the subtle shifts of light are but clues to the overall thrust of the film. Though the links that are traced between tropes of hyper-masculinity, sadism and the Hindu Right are fairly straightforward, the startling image is the one which grows to become visible, of a man setting fire to a train clearly labelled ‘Sabarmati Express’. The codes of photographic realism which structure the image confer on it a truth value till one grasps the caricatural quality of the representation: it is, in fact, drawn from a newspaper photograph of a float taken out in Rajkot at a Janmashtami procession several months after the Godhra episode (Indian Express, 13 August 2002, 5). The manner that Suresh invokes this cynical re-presentation of the event allows a sharp visibility to the centrality of the visual representation that has gone into the making of 2002. The multiplicity and range of image in the Shiftings series also point to “the complex representational labor of (and in) everyday lives” [1] that characterize right wing interventions.

The motifs that circulate in the canvases in conjunction with allusions to fire and to people shrouded in smoke sets up continuities with the installation in its violence. However, it appears that the political charge of Suresh’s paintings come less from an overt referencing of political violence as much as it emerges from the way the artwork undertakes to intervene in the current public debate around communalism.

These works clearly propose a nuanced understanding of the visual in contexts of violence. They offer a glimpse into the way the circulation of visual imagery is structural to the ideological project of nation itself. They gesture towards the processes, indeed of visual labor, which naturalize loaded images in ways that allow them to pass as national common sense. The insistent deployment of the lotus or the choice of saffron is indicative; but equally significant is the function of the cow that makes a shadowy appearance in Wall and which is portrayed more vividly in Enquiry: the gentle cow, worshipped by the nation and protected by its Constitution. One has been shown heaped on a hand cart in Wall and another, tenderly portrayed in Enquiry, is posed ironically against an ominously darkened boar. The sinister undertone of these canvases marked by the edgy menace and brooding quality of the shadow figures lurking in the background catch up the cow in unnamed sites of violence. Signaling its implicit role in brutality (against communities? against castes? Jhajjar is not too far away), the works lever open the ideological fit between the cow and the pastoral idyll that lies at the heart of the nationalist reverence of the cow. The peacock too is part of the menagerie that Suresh has used consistently in these works: portrayed against the dead man’s outline sprawling on a (national?) highway in Facilitating the Beast, the stunningly beautiful national bird, posed tantalizingly across his crotch, transformed into a phallus, becomes a sign that articulates the conflation of the national and the masculine via a detour through the beautiful.

One can see how Suresh’s artwork is demonstrably located within the arena of public debate. Its interventional status allows the material composition of his artworks to be located in a complex field of arguments that sets up and deploys its ideologically loaded significance in a manner that modulates and inflects competing meanings. In such a situation, the work cannot be construed as the mere expression of anartist’s meanings, nor can the intentions of the artist be the final arbiter of its meaning. Insofar as the artist professes or claims the work, he gets positioned as a public intellectual intervening through and across the unstable meanings proposed by the artwork. The artist who offers commentary from within a given context, however, must be distinguished from the modernist conception of the vanguard where the artist is positioned before and ahead of a society mired in convention.

You are only Copying, Appa

This exclamation by Suresh’s young daughter when she visited his studio is illuminative: clearly it suggests that he has drawn on a repertoire of personal imagery that she could recognize from a shared life. But what is the status of this imagery once it enters the artwork? One can certainly understand the work in terms of the artist’s self, to trace and track influences, motifs, situations, even structures of feeling that might have been taken from the realm of the personal. Transmuted into elements of the composition, the copy takes on a new life. Indeed, as Susie Tharu has argued in another context, “The idea of the copy shifts the focus of interest from naturel reality and creation (physical nature; the aesthetic impulse) to culture - an inheritance of shared meanings, their histories and politics…. Attention shifts from reality to the image, to the virtual form of the real, to political histories of images making, the logic of image formation, dissemination, travel…” [2]

Suresh’s thematic invocation of the process of copying, of citation is evident in the ironic (and iconic) quotation marks in Facilitating the Beast. It is not only the personal that he cites, however, but rather he re-presents a range of images from diverse sources. He raids the imagery of comic books, newspaper cuttings, commercial hoardings, advertisements, films and television, in fact, the sweep of mass media that constitutes everyday visual experience for many people. The citations, in play within the structure of an altered frame, gesture towards their own movement and standing as image.

Violence / Embodiment

The exploding volcanoes and gun men of In Between and Acrobat or even the beast-men of Showcase surely invoke a popular imaginary of the violent that is never quite distant from the spectacular. The canvases, however, engage a different realm of violence which lies in the everyday, an ever present imagery that relentlessly informs ordinary lives. The men intently speaking on their mobile phones are imbued with menace in Enquiry; the one who hold out a bowl to the crocodile has his other arm raised, his intention masked by a saffron drape.

If violence is the vital trope in this set of works, it is perhaps most carefully articulated in the embodiment of the figures that circulate here. The contorted figure that strains to balance himself (and his worlds) in Acrobat speaks to the nervous equilibrium of the doubled figure of woman in wall. Often disembodied, existing in outline or shadow the figures are also visible as a limb (in Showcase and Eclipse) or as fragment (in Facilitating the Beast). Many of the figures are doubled bodily (in Wall, for example); extra limbs seem to catch these still forms in impossible motion. The eye searches in vain for a figure that is intact.

Yet, the works do not operate in a modernist frame that yearns for a world where the fragments can be reassembled to make a whole, where meanings are unambiguous, where reality is transparent, uncontested. Instead we are confronted with figures and objects dispersed across the canvas in a narrative without resolution. The eye cannot find meanings hidden behind the symbolic web of the artwork; rather it traverses the artwork to find the play of competing meanings. Figures are produced as the site of violence not through conventional associations tied to a fully fleshed out body but by an evacuation of meaning at the level of the sign and a relocation of violence in the very act of seeing. The reclining nude in Enquiry is clearly open to view, languorous, marked by classical self-composure. However, the hollow, vacant space of the body in outline is locked into display by shutters that are at once backdrop and prison and located in a grid which also holds the cow and the pig, flanked by men who do not spare a glance but who yet hold powers that can fix ‘her’ in place. Signifying the pornographic gaze, the figure endlessly marks the violence of looking.

Representing Realisms

The varied realism that Suresh puts into play - the photographic realism of newspapers to the hyper real representations of hoardings, the caricatural realism of comic books to the narrative realism of films - sit in uneasy relation with one another. The obvious disjunctures between these make visible the representational codes through which realism functions and by which it construct the real. To cite just one example, the sumptuous texture and the perspective through which we see the richly patterned pink carpet in Acrobat suggesting the elegant interiors often seen in advertisements rests awkwardly with the realist conventions that structure the exaggerated comic book or even filmic stances of the two people at the edges of the canvas. It is through such disconcerting juxtapositions that realism is shown to be code, its subject shorn of any naturalized claim on truth. The easy transformation of the two (Muslim) boys playing cricket joyously in a newspaper photograph into gun-toting or sword wielding goondas or terrorists is effected precisely by the codes that allow such slippages. In problematizing the very logic of realism, these works surely pose questions to all representations that employs realist strategies to offer authoritative accounts of history itself.

Though Suresh invokes media realism, he systematically avoids a hyper realist language that gestures to its own status as art and stands testimony to the skill of its artist. Hyper realism thematizes the gap between popular media images and its ‘performance’ as artwork (rendered in oil, for example) precisely through an artistic virtuosity that closes the (content) gap between the photographic image and its representation in art, the ironic masquerade of art as the popular ends up confirming the distance between the two. Suresh’s paintings, however, do not really thematize the hierarchical relationship between media images and art, rather they point towards the shared representational work performed by both. Even if these works reference media images quite directly, their forms easily recognizable as man and beast or as icon, myth, fable, what is indicated is the manner in which these images travel through and across the popular and the artistic. This is further emphasized by the way Suresh stages the ‘unfinished’ quality in thework; the drips, dabs and marks that score across the canvas rupture the self-confidence of realist representations of the subject’, as much in artwork as in the media.

Notes

[1] Susie Tharu, “This is not an inventory: Norm and performance in everyday femininity” Unpublished article, 2006. 3

[2] Ibid, 8
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