Friday, March 16, 2012

Jitish Kallat, January 1998

I've written more articles about Jitish Kallat than about any other artist, and this was the first, a profile that appeared in Art India in 1998. It might well be the first thing published about Jitish, though maybe a couple of papers had carried short reviews of his maiden solo.
At the time, it seemed Jitish's success was a harbinger of a new era in which a number of very young artists would break into the big league. Recent graduates did receive more opportunities to exhibit in the noughties, but I suspect this remains the only profile of a twenty-three year old in an Indian art journal.
When Jitish read the draft I sent across, he expressed discomfort with the quote about feminism and my focus on phallic imagery. I don't recall if the quote was changed in the published version, and can't find that issue of Art India to check. If the line was retained, it's the only politically incorrect public pronouncement Jitish has made. But he has deniability, since I've lost the tape of our interview.
The Web was a novelty at the time, and required explanations that appear redundant today. The document on my computer begins ATTENTION ANUPA, NALINI, meaning it was faxed to the magazine office and re-typed, rather than emailed. I've altered some of the really clumsy phrases in the draft, but there are too many of those to rework without changing what character the piece has.

The Profile
Jitish Kallat’s debut solo exhibition, P.T.O., displayed recently in two Bombay galleries, was also placed on the Internet. The virtual paintings had a washed-out feel, retaining little of the quality of the originals. Perhaps this was a deliberate effort to save on downloading time by lowering the resolution of the images; but it seemed like proof, if yet more proof were required, that Walter Benjamin was misguided in contending that mechanical (and, by extension, digital) reproduction would efface the ‘aura’ which original works of art traditionally possessed.
Paradoxically, the twenty-three year old Kallat’s work also reveals the continuing relevance (fallacious futurology apart) of Benjamin’s essay on the impact of technologies of image reproduction. His paintings freely use these, notably the camera and the photocopy machine. Running a sheet of paper repeatedly through a copier, he achieves an over-inked reproduction of the image he needs, usually a photograph of himself or a picture of an Indian monument. This copy is then rubbed onto the canvas, where it leaves an impression. “When I need an image of myself in perspective the process is lengthier”, he says. “In this case I take a photograph, photocopy and enlarge it, place it on the wall and shoot that from the required angle, then make a photocopy of this”, before transferring the image to canvas.
To add irony to paradox, while the canvases on the Net seem impoverished, the paintings themselves have a bruised and blistered, patched and peeled feel, very much like the walls and buildings of his city, Bombay. Kallat explains his journey to grittiness: “I use a lot of mixed materials – binders, textile powders – so my paint is always a little tacky. From early on I used glycerin and starch mixed with acrylic, and rubbed the paint off the surface with cloth. Now I use a blade or a knife for the thicker canvas surface.”
“From early on” may seem like a strange phrase in the mouth of such a young artist, but his work does reveal, very ‘early on’, a remarkable control over the material at hand. A little over four years ago he painted, for the first time, a self-portrait. It was accompanied by the slogan, ‘I am a potato’. The potato was a personal emblem, soon to be joined by the pedestal, the elephant, and the coconut tree. “By saying I was a potato I meant that I had eyes, and could see what others couldn’t.” Here, then, was an artist confident of his particular vision, but diffident enough, or aware enough of our unheroic age, to ironise his own ambition by encoding it within the bathetic symbol of a potato.
Donning the armour of self-deprecation, Kallat can venture into the most dangerous battlefields. Paintings like I Wish It Came with the Food I Eat and Believer Picture literally idolise the phallus. As he puts it, “the whole feminist retaliation against men has produced a kind of counter-retaliation in my mind.” Irony also allows for theatricality, allows the self to adopt the grandest of roles, to appear in the robes of the Buddha, or posterised like Che Guevara.
In a painting from P.T.O. called Guardian Column, “where the painter is a sort of protector of a whole tradition”, we see the same two sided, ironic vision of the artist, a phallic pillar juxtaposed with a photocopied temple. Invoking Benjamin once more, Kallat’s view of his cultural tradition, like that of many of his peers is derived almost entirely from books, from mechanical reproductions of the original cultural artefacts. Kallat’s achievement is that he has found a formal solution to this strange intellectual condition. His pilgrims carry haversacks, but their journeys lead them mainly through a jungle of art publications. Ajanta and Ellora, the palaces of Mysore, the gopuras of Tamil Nadu, the artist has never seen any of these. They are all part of an abstract tradition and receive correspondingly abstract representation in his work.
The elephant, native of Kallat’s home state Kerala, is, like temples and palaces, a symbol of tradition that the artist uses repeatedly, or, as he prefers to put it, “recycles”. In Son, You Can Always Feel Young, the protagonist holds an elephant on a string, but tradition turns out to be less a puppet than a hypnotic pendulum (Rather than depict the pendulum swing in a Futurist manner, the picture shows the protagonist being swayed). The title of the painting brings into the equation a more modern form of brain-washing – that of American pop psychology, the cult of the do-it-yourself book.
Opposed to the gullible figure of Son, You Can Always Feel Young is the bespectacled self-portrait, May What Is Threatened Not Become Fact. The presence of spectacles is a sign, in Kallat’s lexicon, of “the wise, viewing, non-blind self”. The monumental head at the centre of May What Is Threatened Not Become Fact strikes a more sombre note than most of the other paintings in P.T.O. But the canvas also recycles a couple of the artist’s favourite motifs, such as the elephant who, in this case, is toppled from his pedestal. Well-worn phrases such as ‘toppled from his pedestal’ and ‘expanding the mind’ are often evoked by Kallat’s work, and he admits that many of his images “are guided by texts and captions: well-known phrases, song-titles, which, if proclaimed, would be too direct. These are very simplistic, dry, dehydrated thoughts. I maintain them like that for convenience, like a store of canned ideas. They only come alive when I use them as images.” To put it another way, “I think images, but I store words.”
The close relationship of words, ideas and images is central to Kallat’s work. His titles, usually written on the canvas along with other stray phrases, tend to include playful puns (‘Bulb Fiction: Strange Enlightenments’, ‘When So Many Spectacles Happen I See-Saw’). It is hardly surprising, then, that the painter’s first models were advertisements, which traditionally combine clever copy with striking images. The sleight of hand performed by commercials is that they sell you a brand, while you have to buy the product. The brand is the fantasy, the product is banal and real. Jitish Kallat’s paintings, too, have a few tricks up their sleeve. They combine, within the same cluster of images, promise and denial, proclamations and recantations. But if you choose to buy the paintings, you can be certain that what you see is what you get.

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