Artists

Published in Academia.edu, 2012

“I want to seduce them with my line. When there is such a seduction, when such an interaction takes place between a viewer and my work, there is a pure sense-laden moment of communication-total communication. You can’t explain it. Maybe you can call it love, peace, affection…It is a point of pure joy.”[1] At the center of Laxma Goud’s practice lies the magic of making, an intense, passionate communion with tools, techniques and materials, as motivating and sustaining as the figures that emerge from burin, pencil, ink, watercolour, paper, and terracotta.[2] Laxma Goud’s prolific and versatile art practice spans nearly half a century. Very early in his career he drew attention in the art world for his technical expertise and the light hand with which it was deployed and for his startling, refreshing take on rural India. Since the agricultural heartland was a lynchpin in the national project, many post-independence artists, spurning the trite, romanticized images of village folk, sought authentic evocations. Laxma offered something new and audacious. His vision of the rural extolled its place in the natural world, a realm roiling with sexual abundance. Laxma discovered drawing and making things as a child in Nizampur, in a poor, remote region of Andhra Pradesh. But he became an artist during the time he spent at the art school of Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda learning traditional mural techniques under the mentorship of K. G. Subramanyan. Subramanyan’s robust connection to India’s living artistic traditions and to artisanry as the soul of aesthetic practice resonated strongly with Laxma. In this fertile soil, with a teacher who reveled in making things and provided sensitive and insightful guidance, Laxma cultivated a dedication to praxis and tapped into his rural origins.

Laxma Goud describes his family as lower middle-class. They belong to Telangana’s toddy brewer caste. But his father was an educated man who maintained the village’s tax revenue accounts and farmed a modest holding growing rice and pulses for their own kitchen and to exchange for other necessities. His father and brother sensing his talent encouraged Laxma to attend art school in Hyderabad. The family kept buffaloes and a herd of goats whose shapes, movements and antics were Laxma’s earliest inspirations and models: “…the goat is like a life companion. Its mute presence fills in the life and brings a kind of dexterity in art... As an art student, right in the courtyard of my house in my native village, the herd was the most fascinating scene every morning and evening. My early sketch book pages were filled by portraying this very active animal.” [3] From the outset, a sense of the essential oneness of all creatures, bound together in their surroundings, suffused his art. Laxma’s abiding interest in line, and the effects of economy of line, is also evident in these early sketches, like the austerely described, views of buffaloes from his first year of art College in Hyderabad. These schoolboy sketches garnered admiration and encouragement from his father and elder brother, a teacher. Laxma was also drawn to the work of village artisans. He remembers spending hours watching the local weaver, who made saris for his mother, working at his loom. He sat intent on the village potter at his wheel forming lumps of clay into vessels, and was enthralled by the man’s transformation into Ravanna for the village Ramayana production. He enjoyed making pictures and devising costumes inspired by village theatricals. Laxma credits his supportive family and community, which indulged and encouraged his curiosity, as the wellspring of his artistic practice. The close society, the intimacy with animals, fields and farm fostered in him a sense of harmonious unity. [4]

Laxma experienced this childhood universe as redolent with sexuality. His play with other children provided opportunities for looking under girls’ garments and being close to their bodies, watching animals copulate, and listening to the explicit sexual banter of adults. An unabashed passion for sex was kindled. At art college he began to explore expressions of the erotic impulse and to experiment with representing the libidinous in his own drawings, including one that riffs on Picasso’s orgiastic minotaur drawings like the 1939 etching Bacchanal with Minotaur in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Laxma completed a five-year course in painting and drawing at the Government College of Fine Arts and Architecture in Hyderabad. While a student, he attracted the attention of Jagdish Mittal, who, sensing Laxma’s talent, introduced him to the riches of traditional Indian art. His achievements as a student, standing first, garnered a scholarship from the government of Andhra Pradesh that enabled him to go to Baroda. During his year and a half there (1963 - 65), encounters with teachers, artists, and fellow students opened his eyes, let loose his imagination, fed his intellect, and built his confidence. K. G. Subramanyan’s esteem for artisanal labor and the lineage-based practices of traditional craftsmen resonated with Laxma’s experience growing up in Nizampur. When Laxma arrived at Baroda, Subramanyan was embarking on a bas-relief mural for the façade of the Department of Painting. Gyarsilal Varma, a traditionally trained craftsman from a family of masons in Jaipur, who taught mural design and techniques at the art school, was working with him on the project. Laxma joined the project as an assistant and became a student of mural design under Subramanyan and Varma. He participated in their major commission to develop and execute a mural for the Gandhi Memorial at Raj Ghat in Delhi, a task that surfaced problems requiring innovative solutions in materials and techniques. Laxma’s initiation into mural making expanded his technical arsenal and his thinking about the creative process.[5]

Subramanyan, recognizing Laxma’s technical aptitude, also initiated him into print making, arranging for the instructor to give him a plate and show him the basics. In a lithograph from 1964, Laxma uses line much as in his undergraduate sketch of buffaloes to give form to a close encounter between a tonga driver and a woman passenger in another vehicle. But it is the way that he augments line with swaths of dark and light that gives this early print its strong visual presence. Subramanyan provided other helpful guidance, advising Laxma to be content working at the intimate size he most enjoyed and emphasizing the value of concentrating on black and white. He reminded Laxma of Paul Klee’s ongoing experiments with small drawings.[6] Laxma responded strongly to work of other artists in these years, engaging fully in examining their practices in the process of building his own. Along with his interest in Picasso’s engagement in the erotic, he was fascinated with Picasso’s delicate linear realism anddeeply appreciative of the exploratory spirit of Paul Klee’s drawing. “That is the mystery that only a true artist can bring out. It’s here in the line that Klee talks about, it’s there in the women of Picasso; they ooze with life. What is a line Klee has asked, it moves from point [to point], joining them. It’s the simplest thing in the world. I can never be tired of it. It’s my life.” [7] He also appreciated the way Ram Kumar constructed his abstractions with strokes of the palette knife: “You like the labour he is putting in.” [8] He admired F. N. Souza and M. F. Husain for the expressive dynamism in their application of paint. He was drawn to the starkly erotic aspect of work by Souza and Jeram Patel, as well as K. H. Ara’s treatment of the nude and Auguste Rodin’s erotic drawings. Laxma’s deepening acquaintance with the work of such artists opened the aesthetic realm of the sensual and carnal and helped him to tap and articulate his own libido.

Laxma took to print making, refining and developing his approach in the years after Baroda. He liked the medium, the acid and metal plates and tools, the pleasure in the action of creating the line, drawing through wax to make etchings. About engraving, he once remarked “I like to make a groove in the plate that is so pure, so clean, so hard, that it stands by itself. The purity of the line, the purity of the print, it’s very straight, it’s very sensuous, close to my innermost self.” [9] His early etchings have remained an important touchstone for his practice. [10] Laxma’s passion for his media reverberated with his forays into the erotic, moving him towards a language equal to the surreal erotic imagery of his imagination. He devised bizarre creatures, part human, bird, beast and sexual organ. In Laxma’s telling, “I have been … intoxicated with sex…I am obsessed with the whole spectrum of the human body.”[11] In these compositions the handling of line and light projects Laxma’s strange erotic imagery, imbuing it with an insistent, powerful presence. Such works arose from the raw force of youthful libido, but Laxma connects them also with the easy sexuality of his home village: “People living closely together with animals, seeing them copulating and giving birth have a very natural attitude towards sexual phenomena.”[12] In Laxma’s view, the polite orderly world of the urban middle class enforces the repression of peoples’ natural, libidinous, vital spirit so present in his native village. In some sense, his work is an offering to polite society, an invitation to reconnect with authentic parts of themselves. “It is this para-world which is etched into my mind, which animates my fantasy, which I try to voice in my work.”(13) Images of primitive surreal sexuality dominated his work in the first post Baroda years and became the body of work that established him as a distinctive, singular presence in India’s art world. By the mid 1970s, Laxma had a family to support. He was offered an opportunity to take part in a project at Doordarshan in Hyderabad that would use television to promote social development projects in rural areas including three districts in Laxma’s native Telangana. The team would produce programs on subjects such as hygiene and family planning that would be beamed by satellite into the villages. Laxma devised a new iconography for etchings to accompany the programs - wholesome families, charming farm animals, and dramatic scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.[14] These easily read, cartoonish, highly accessible images had none of the edge of his erotic prints and drawing. For the people whose way of life had provided critical inspiration for his aesthetic of sensuality, he offered modern popular imagery as a means to facilitate their access to useful information that could improve their lives. In an odd way he had made himself a translator, a middleman, devising imagery derived from the rural ethos that could give urbanites access to the repressed life-force of human sexuality, and sending modern medical and scientific knowledge from the government to villagers in readily digested popular forms. Such translations underlie the transformation that took place in his own work.

In the late 1970s, Laxma focused his attention on pencil drawing. He developed a facility that was delicate, detailed, and subtle. Grey tones, rather than sharply contrasting dark and light, predominate. A new soft focus emerges from the images built with myriad small marks painstakingly applied. It is as if the clashing dialectic between the striking, stark black and white surreal erotic imagery of previous years and Doordarshan’s requirements for family oriented, didactic, visual pedagogy prompted a new synthesis in his aesthetic practice. He began to work on a larger scale and to make compositions with a more insistent narrative force. For example in the intertwined tree-people of 1979, two trees with human feet and clothing bend towards each other in an embrace. An erotic charge is there, but it is gentle and accompanied by overtones of devotion and affection. Some kind of fable is implied, one of trees imbued with living spirit, like people, that allow them to feel and love. Alternatively, the story could be of a man and a woman who in their uninhibited embrace express an essential oneness with nature. The new works seem to have moved from visualizing carnal lust to expressing haunting, erotic tenderness. Also in the 1970s, Laxma began to experiment with pencil drawings, rendered in the same meticulously detailed style, depicting flotsam - nails, wires, and unidentifiable bits and pieces. Eventually his figures too began to be drawn as if reconstituted, held together with sundry fasteners. In a 1978 drawing of a man wearing a striped shirt, nails and screws close a gash where an ear once was. A portion of neck is patched and sewn. Facial skin is stitched on the chin and screwed in the cheek. Wounds are patched-up, torn clothes are pinned and stitched. The skin itself is rendered leathery and unnatural, as a replacement that doesn’t quite fit. The narrowed slit left for the eye obscures viewers’ access to any indication of the subject’s emotional state. Subtle, minimal applications of colour, here limited to the man’s shirt, began to occur more regularly in Laxma’s work, adding a new dimension that invigorates the composition.

In the early 1980s, a time of expanding, increasingly trenchant figurative and narrative practice in India, Laxma’s work achieved a new level of recognition. A long planned book, K. Laxma Goud, with an essay by Gulammohammed Sheikh, was released in 1981. Sheikh identified the erotic as the fount of Laxma’s practice, articulated by the artist through the clash he experienced between the natural physicality of sex in the village and the complexly moralized and inhibited sex of bourgeois urban society.[15] That same year, the American collectors, Chester and Davida Herwitz, having seen Laxma’s work at ArtHeritage Gallery in New Delhi, sought him out on a trip to South India. The Herwitzes became Laxma’s greatest collectors, intimate friends, and valued interlocutors. Laxma felt an affinity with Chester who had started out as an artisan, crafting leather belts. Chester in turn admired Laxma’s labor so much that he sometimes asked permission just to watch him draw. All of Laxma’s works illustrated in this essay, now in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, were acquired by the Herwitzes. After they met in 1981, the Herwitzes arranged for Laxma to bring work to the quiet privacy of their hotel room. Laxma captured their encounter with his work in a sketch. He recalls that the Herwitzes began looking at his work, spreading it out on a bed, but they soon wanted more space. They “started from the bed, and both of them rolled down onto the floor, and … were lying like that and looking at my work…” [16] Around this time too, Vivan Sundaram wrote a letter to Laxma deeply appreciative of his new work. “I have remembered your most recent drawings and etching very often. I admire and envy your capacity not only to draw so fluidly, magically, but how you are able to use line to capture so vividly the men and women in your locale. These recent drawings speak, tenderly whisper gestures, as the couples gaze at and into each other. They are strong, earthy people and we see them so often but you have brought them in front of us as we don’t normally see them, at their tenderest and intimate moments…” The letter, in a passage that seems to be describing a work now in the Peabody Essex Museum collection, continues: “There is no aggression in their sexuality. They love their bodies as they love the trees around them. The leaves rustle and shimmer songs of the past…. Your lovers have journeyed to these enchanted forests, but no fig leaf hides them from us. They come to us with their heat and fragrance, resin from the trunk. They come towards us, blanket on shoulder, look upwards and wait.” [17]

From the 1980s onward, Laxma’s most successful works convey at once the elemental ordinariness and the deep humanity of people like the villagers of his childhood. His drawings establish their presence within the natural world and imbue them with strength, passion and tenderness. A 1983 pencil drawing is a complex homage to this rural working class. [FIG 9] The woman’s ornaments and the flowers in her hair are given importance through the artist’s minute detailed rendering, which in turn confers value on their wearer. The couple’s ravaged skin, the gaps in the woman’s neck and chest and her milky eyes, are indelible marks of struggle and deprivation. Yet Laxma’s close study and the attentive labour of his drawing, perform tribute to the couple’s strength, endurance, and dignity. Their intimate embrace, the exchange of touch and gaze that flows between them, convey intense emotion, their strong relationship, and their humanity. A 1984 drawing of a standing woman uses the dimensions of the picture space to confine the figure within its boundaries, bowing her head and pressing her hands close to her body. Her posture and expression radiate life’s trials and disappointments, but the sepia tone and ochre background surround the subject with warmth.

Through the 1980s, colour grew in importance, beginning with very limited applications in pencil and ink to drawings, like the patched man which added vitality and depth. Laxma soon went further, using colour to enhance decorative detail, especially clothing and jewellery whose rendering had long been a crucial aspect of his figuration, a source of his subjects’ strong presence. By the mid to late 80s, colour became important in its own right, for its potent dramatic effects. After decades of intense concentration on line, in drawing and graphics, Laxma had begun to push the edges of his practice. The incorporation of colour extended beyond instilling an affective dimension towards a new naturalism. A large coloured drawing of two couples and a woman with a goat offers a close view which invites attention to subtle transactions. The couples gesture toward one another with a touch of the hand, a tilt of the head, a gaze. They seem absorbed in each other, as do the woman and the goat, who likewise look into each other’s eyes. The scene turns allegorical, suggesting animal attraction as the basis of life for all creatures. The new thirst for colour, pushed Laxma towards reverse painting on glass, a technique familiar in popular visual culture gaining ground among artists. Laxma’s mentor K.G. Subramanyan was among the first to experiment with reverse painting and adapt it to available pigments and transparent surfaces including plastics. Laxma with his penchant for technique, found himself enthralled by the process. The building of figures in reverse, from details to background, on the back of a transparent surface was magical to him. He also admired the luminosity of glass and the exciting brilliance of colour. Laxma’s knowledge that the medium had South Indian vernacular roots appealed to him, too, as something close to home.[18] The couple in a 1991 reverse painting on Plexiglas appear in the doorway of their village home. Laxma’s fondness for decorative detail is given full vent. The patterns and textures of clothing and ornaments are lusciously detailed. The two stand close to each other looking directly at the viewer with palpably charged intensity.

From the 1990s, perhaps stimulated by the teaching position he held at Sarojini Naidu School of Performing Art, Fine Art and Communication at the Central University of Hyderabad from 1989 to 2001, Laxma’s forays into other media continued to expand. The new directions remained grounded in an esteem for craftsmanship in which processes of making are paramount. In the 2000s, Laxma made a return to his student experience in mural making and apprenticeship with K. G. Subramanyan and Gyarsilal Varma. He drew especially on the former’s terracotta plaques and wall murals. Laxma found in modelling moist clay a sensuous, malleable medium with the soft suppleness of flesh, palpably evoking the sensations of an erotic encounter. Extending his experiments with media further, Laxma used sculpting in terracotta as the foundations for working in metal, casting bronzes, channelling the flow of molten alloy to form icon-like female busts recalling goddesses of fertility and abundance. The arc of Laxma’s fifty-year practice has had strong anchors. A passion for line; the making of line as a sensual act; the refinement of line to create works that exude an achingly tender devotion to his subjects, staking a claim for their worth no matter their social placement. A reverence for colour; a respect that led him never to take colour for granted; at first using it very sparingly to enrich the visual field of drawings; much later fully embracing colour in reverse painting, allowing it to be the dominant effect of his work, tocarry a sparkling erotic charge. An awe for the power and pleasures of sexuality; the unwavering presence of sensuality in media and process, whether it is the groove cut into a metal plate or the fleshy pliability of clay; the ardour for making; the reverence of a lover in his approach to materials and subjects.

Published in Academia.edu, 2012
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