EXHIBITION - Paths of progression (Aug 21-Nov 05, 2005) : Both Theatre and Engineering

Often deemed to be without function, painting does in fact have multiple functions. For the painter it acts as a mirror, a diary, a megaphone or a psychoanalytic couch. For the lay audience it is rarified entertainment, scandalous expose or trenchant observation. Even as decoration, painting works hard to enrich our surroundings while complementing both architecture and design. For the critic and historian of art painting will ennoble its more strident function as a sociological tool, a firmly calibrated device to take the pulse of not only culture but the ancillary spheres of politics and economics as well. In addition, for all concerned, painting should continually question itself, its own programs and practices, so as to expand its own reach and relevancies. It is with just such a macro-lens that I wish to consider the production and practice, the choices being made and the decisions arrived at, of the twelve painters included in the present exhibition.

The title of this exhibition, "Paths of Progression," has been chosen so as to provide a slight breeze of reference to the contemporary art scene of India some fifty years ago. This was the era immediately following Independence, the tumultuous years of forging a cohesive national unity from a wide diversity of cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions, when a group of painters in Bombay banded together and called themselves "The Progressives." As with many artistic coteries throughout the ages, this arrival at a specific nomenclature to tie together a group of painters served more to package their wares for presentation to the public and to sever their dependence on historical art than to actually focus or direct their creations toward any stated goal. Today, after decades of post-modern philosophizing, the very notion of "progress" is highly suspect, implying a singular linearity to history and shared values of what constitutes quality in the arts. Our title of the present exhibition is not therefore without irony, meant to call attention to both continuities and changes within India's culture and society, hoping to shed light on the dialogues Indian artists have with themselves and with the world outside of India.

While five decades separate our current band of painters from their predecessors working in Bombay, some parallels can be found among their respective cultural conditions. Fresh after the thrill of release from centuries of imperialist domination, India in the 1950s was a nation hoping to write its own ticket for a passage into the future. Nehru's vision for his country strove to synthesize a socialist responsibility of the state with the democratic guidance of its peoples' voices, to take the best of traditional India and fuse it with the advancements coming from other parts of the world. This attitude of both/and, rather than either/or, inspired a group of artists in Bombay as well. Their mission sought to harness the possibilities to be found in painterly practice taking place in Europe and America with the imagery and expression of their native land. Their success was to accommodate both abstraction and figuration within their embrace, to forge practical and theoretical exchanges through kinship and professionalism.

Likewise, the present generation of painters in India today (of which our chosen dozen can be considered a concise representation) strives to have their cake and devour it as well. Their approach is both international and domestic, their imageries unconcerned with any nationality of source, all being appropriate grist for their mills. Radical social changes have also empowered these artists, inspired by the liberalization of the Indian economy and the resultant expansion of the mass media and communication technologies within the country. Much has been made of the influx of foreign media, especially television, into India in the past decade but, to be fair, one most acknowledge that this has been met with the diversification of home-grown programming as well. A plethora of product, predominantly from the United States, has been answered with a greatly expanded representation of the regional cultures and languages of India onto the broadcast airwaves. The effect on creative minds looking to express themselves and their world is a heightened sense of complexity both at home and abroad, a wider range of possibilities on offer.

One can, therefore, defend an argument for "progress" in painting. This we can define as an expanded field of inquiry or a less hegemonic and more pluralistic accommodation of styles being appropriate to represent the present age. Our painters under consideration certainly embody such opportunities, both in the multiple approaches to painting they represent but also in the manner with which they embrace experimentation and diversification. If anything, difference itself is a stylistic hallmark of this generation, the expansion of the vectors of perception the only goal. Unlike the original band of "Progressives," perfectly High Modern as they hoped to be, our newer generation is anti-heroic and fundamentally at odds with a quest for empirical meaning or a grand unifying theory of art that might link together all peoples and all cultures. The possibilities of a post-modern condition have been realized by a natural evolution. Our painters are identified with diversity and individuality rather than any cohesive collective identity.

It would be interesting here to make a comparison with popular music when discussing a notion of "progress" in the arts. In the United States and Europe in the 1970s a genre of music known as Progressive Rock was dominant for some time, this coming out of the experiments of Psychedelia and Heavy Metal and embodying an approach which favored excessive technical values and often appropriating stylistic devices from European classical or medieval music as well as music from non-Western cultures. One could certainly argue, then or even now, that this was indeed a "progressing" of the craft and scope of popular music of the time. A backlash ensued with the development of Punk Rock, a style that valued immediate expression over technical accomplishment, a fusion of political and economic realities with artistic inspiration. Again, one could argue that this constituted "progress" in popular music, albeit now accommodating notions of primitivism or nihilistic reaction into the mix. Ironically, Punk quickly spawned a genre known as New Wave, a rather amorphous catch-all phrase to accommodate less aggressive styles, which implied a reinforcement of an historical lineage of "progress." In relation to our discussion of contemporary art in India today. A younger generation of artists may already be articulating a more raw and decidedly anti-commercial.

To attempt precise evaluations of the works of our painters as a cohesive group would be frustrating at best, misleading at worst. It seems that a taxonomy of painterly styles that have developed in the past one hundred years have been fully mined, each artist choosing his or her own particular recipe so as to forge some sense of a personal style. One can, of course, make sweeping generalizations that will stick to all twelve of our subjects, coalesced as they are in the reality of being a certain age and living in India today. What does set this generation apart from their forefathers in India is their acceptance and even reliance upon photography and its off-shoots as both inspirational sources and applied techniques in their works. In all cases, references are made to the plethora of imagery available through the mass media and how this has had an effect on the urban fabric of India and the psychologies of Indians. After that the similarities may be only superficial. Many elaborate essays have been penned on each of these twelve painters, focusing on their specific subjects or painterly tropes in order to articulate the fine points of their concerns and the larger meanings of their works. What can be demonstrably stated is that both "success" and "progress" may be attributed to the works of our twelve precisely because they have been able to bridge the wide chasm between the local and the global, because their art has embraced international dialectics by not turning their backs on their immediate contexts.

That said, one can employ language as a sort of pinball machine to bounce through these images and to register the effects, emotional as well as intellectual, they might have upon the viewer. Each artist seems to embrace an uncontainable network of associations, the promiscuous spread of metaphor, and a precarious scattering of signifieds. What is at stake is not some primordial authentic expression but the construction of pictures for their own sake, work but also play, the logic of their construction determining their possible meanings but also social positionings. Images from infinite sources are transposed, superimposed, mirrorized and dematerialized. An emblematic symbiosis is cultivated and celebrated. The fastidiousness of taste is upheld as this may be the artist's only real method of securing a consistent identifiable "style." When language is allowed to enter the pictures it is paraded as dyslexic while the muteness of pictograms is nonetheless abuzz with connotations. The brittle opacity of the photographic veneer is contrasted with the artisanal exploits of pigments and canvas. Within these messy grids of vignettes neither figuration nor abstraction is denied, both textural and textual supports are demanded for these interweavings of the public with the private.

A globalizing culture industry requires both products and artifacts from diverse corners of the world to fuel its endeavors. As contemporary art from both China and Japan has become increasingly visible in the United States and Europe, attention has begun to turn to India and its artists. This attention is almost exclusively directed at a younger generation of artists with the result that many of our twelve are now exhibiting their works outside of India as much as inside of India. Unfortunately, one tends to find an international audience that is completely unaware of any sense of the past one hundred years of art practice in India, resulting in misreadings of contemporary Indian artists' works as solely derivative of western models and antecedents. Certainly, contemporary Indian artists find inspiration from western art but likewise their aesthetics have been strongly influenced by their immediate predecessors in their own country. "Paths of Progression" is, by choice and design, an exhibition of painting alone and can therefore be only a selective representation of art being made in India today. At the same time, it is an exhibition that hopes to embody the wide diversity of painting being created in India and, by extension, illustrates something of the cultural ethos of the nation today. In spite of the development of new technologies and their application to the visual arts, painting continues to have relevance throughout the world. There is something about the physical immediacy of painting that still engages us. It might be likened to being alone in a darkened space with your own image, a situation in which you are forced to recognize something within your own subconscious. Paintings can act as tunnels into which the viewer is drawn or as permeable layers separating reality and the imagination. The works assembled by the twelve painters in this exhibition hope to convey the complicated richness involved in the natural mechanics of seeing and, by extension, of being alive and aware in the world today.

- PETER NAGY Delhi, 2005
(Peter Nagy is an artist and curator who writes frequently on the subject of contemporary art.He is the director of Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi.)