When I first encountered Jitish Kallat's paintings in December of 1997 at the opening of his first solo exhibition in Bombay, now called Mumbai for the sake of post-colonial prides, the shock of the new was rather a shock of the familiar transposed, the shock of the similarities of youth all over the world. Bombay and New York share many attributes: a peninsular sitting beside the sea, the financial might of a commercial capital, a progressive cultural appetite, and a snobbishness towards the rest of the country. Jitish Kallat, cut whole from the cloth of Bombay, could straddle the two cities by being specific to one. He could have the confidence that those in their early adulthood at the end of the century could speak to each other of shared experiences. He could make paintings which grew from a nature entirely bracketed by culture. While a student of painting at Bombay's Sir J J School of Art, Kallat's work oscillated between abstraction and realism - not as a self-conscious critique of representational modes inspired by the oeuvre of the German painter Gerhard Richter, but rather as the nervous twitches of a confused young man. He was well aware of the debate surrounding the domestication of abstract art by Indian artists (one which strove to relinquish the anxiety of Western influence with the acknowledgment of indigenous, ancestral traditions) yet, he felt compelled to paint the world he saw around him. This was a world rapidly becoming media-savvy and consumer-conscious, a world being violated by satellite television, video technologies and advanced advertising techniques. His formal education failed to ever even mention the name of Andy Warhol and it has only been in the 1990s that Indian artists have domesticated Pop Art for them-selves en masse. Comfortable with the multiple-image montages he found on the screens of both TV and PC, Kallat's paintings were soon able to synthesize both the image-glut and the lyrical abstractions in which he was submerged. The popularity of his paintings can be attributed to the 24/7, all-you-can-eat buffet they present to the viewer, something for everybody, all the time.
All of Kallat's work to date has been of and about self-portraiture. His own image has usually been the focus of each painting and even when he is not present literally he represents himself with a stand-in. He then constructs, rebus-like, an assortment of pictures with which, around this central core, swirl identities of masquerade, mythology and diverse psychologies. Precocious and ambitious, Kallat has usually sought to paint himself as India's (or the world's?) everyman --one of a billion who is usually accompanied by dizzying patterns, chaotic city plans and pulsing crowd scenes. In a recent work, the artist/self is seen manacled by an insect, set against a phosphorescent background which glows radioactively, perhaps to explain the insect's gargantuan size. Against this caustic and polluted palette hovers the chain of an ankle bracelet, common to rural India yet rendered without a trace of sentimentality. Picture, sign, symbol and word coalesce into some-thing that exceeds the boundaries of language, locale, nation or heritage. That which is specifically Indian is treated no differently than the images which have been imported. The result is a self-portrait that accepts contradiction, hybridization and foreign influence without a trace of anxiety.
As many artists have been since the 1960s and increasingly so, as science develops, Kallat is fond of both the use and the look of technology. He refers to "my good friends the machines" as his collaborators and they supply him with the raw materials for his canvases, that being the residue of photomechanical reproduction with all its discontents. Chance, distortion, repetition and obfuscation can be handled by the machines leaving the artist to juggle, to collate and to interpret. To a New York audience, Kallat's painterly references will be steeped in Americana: from the word and object pairings of Jasper Johns; through the tastes for funk and kitsch common to New Image Painting; to the layering of cultural detritus practiced by a generation of painters in the 1980s. But Kallat's paintings have their moorings on Indian soil as well, and his work is surely indebted to the picturing of the common man as practiced by Bhupen Khakhar and Sudhir Patwardan, the scribbling of cryptoglyphs by Swaminathan, and the organic abstractions as arranged by Gaitonde.
Our attentions will be drawn as much to the surfaces of Kallat's paintings as to their images. Pockmarked and festering, scarred, scabbed and abused, these surfaces hold the weight of Kallat's meaning. These surfaces complement the images and the processes through which the images have been coerced. Lower East Siders will agree with Bombay-wallahs that the feel of these surfaces is something natural and inherently real in-bed with the artifice of all picture-making. The harsh, grinding climate of India takes its relentless toll on all in her midst, and paintings fare no better than anything else. Jitish Kallat's paintings will slip effortlessly into the stream of works which stand for Indian Art History in the 20th Century, a host of works which have been ill-stored and now suffer from cracks and chips, fissures and wounds. Like the mottled walls damp with mildew and the public stairwells splashed with streams of beetle-nut juice, Kallat's paintings look old before their time and suffer quietly these indignations.
And herein may lie Kallat's Rosetta Stone. Poignancy, Romanticism, Classicism and Nostalgia come together in the degeneration of both image and object. The big themes addressed by Religion can be playfully skirted by an infatuation with disease and decay, the dehydration of the body, the march of time. The young artist can attempt profundity from behind the mask of chicanery, mastering his medium with the all-or-nothing acceptance of insecurity, hesitancy and defeat. No wonder that Jitish Kallat's works have both ignited the imaginations of his contemporaries and been collected by India's elite -these are works which stand for the stoicism of life in India while embodying its humor. They seem to speak of both, the failures and achievements, the beauties and the horrors born of the contradictions at the heart of Indian culture. (There is a scene in the Mahabharata when Krishna's mother seeks to scold her child for eating mud, only to find the entire cosmos inside of his mouth.) While the pendulum of extremes may be in greatest evidence within India and the triumph of Indian culture has been to render this oscillation as delectable to the palate, surely the sound of waves breaking is the same on every shore.