Art News & Views

Cutting Through the Material


by Sandhya Bordewekar

Sandhya Bordewekar profiles three young artists from Baroda – Dilip Chobisa, Preksha Tater and Sandip Pisalkar – who walk the cutting edge initiating meaningful experimentation with material, the primary and formal visual device.

Dilip Chobisa’s big project in the future is a large sculpture of paper, so large ’that people can walk through it, moving from one space to another, actually experiencing the artwork.’ “I think all the work that I do, is in some way a preparation, smaller maquettes, for that big work,” he laughs. For the moment though, vast sheets of paper hang along the walls in his basement studio in Baroda, painted and ready to be assembled into giant works that will be displayed in his forthcoming solo with Gallery Latitude 28 at the Delhi Art Summit in January, 2012. Chobisa trained to be a sculptor but the love of paper has never left him since his days as a young fine arts student. The first sculpture he created was a pillar made from paper. “As a boy, I would accompany my father, a civil engineer, to his work sites where vast bridges were being built. I think the thick, grey cement pillars of these bridges left a lasting impression on my mind,” he says trying to explain his interest in such sizes, shapes and material for his sculptures.

The apparent impracticability of using paper for large stand-alone sculptures turned Chobisa’s attention to making paper sculptures for the wall, to be hung like paintings. That is when he began to experiment with three-dimensionality that paper could offer using graphite to create the effect of shadows, textures, perspective and depth of field. Sometimes he slit the paper, putting an electric light behind, thus allowing the colour and slivers of the light peeping through the slits to give the illusion of an extra dimension.

Then, a moment in Ellora-Ajanta gave him the incentive for a more challenging exploration – the way light filtered into the stony space to create illusions of space beyond space. He wanted to replicate that effect in his works. He began to arrange papers in layers (often pasted on compressed PVC sheets to hold the paper up), one behind the other and mounting the work in a thick frame, creating an amazing illusion of building-scapes, with the first paper layer opening a ‘window’ so as to reveal another ‘room’ in the second layer, whose ‘floor’ might have a gaping ‘hole’ that reveals a ‘basement’ below, and so on.

While Chobisa’s works are devoid of figures, human presence is indicated by a plant in a pot placed at the centre or in the foreground, or a creeper climbing up a wall or some other architectural element. It is the object that is the all-important crux for the artist and it is from this object that the artwork derives its strength and dynamism. The objects might be quite insignificant – a nail, a razor blade – and not obviously visible either, but that’s what makes them important for Chobisa. They add silence to his works, which he wants to celebrate. He gives me a small knife he has made from paper. It is simply designed but the edge is sharp, the point angled hard. If Chobisa had used the graphite on it, I might not have been able to distinguish it from the iron knives of vegetable vendors. “I like working with paper,” he says, “I can dominate the material.”

Until recently, Preksha Tater’s sensitively wrought drawing-paintings were restricted to black and white and all the shades in-between. In 2009, her first solo show Small Wonders at The Strand Art Room, Mumbai, curated by Anne Maniglier, featured works made in pen and ink on paper the size of a standard visiting (business) card. This show demonstrated a distinct shift from the expressionistic-abstract style she was following earlier to an expressionistic-narrative one. Beginning with scribbles, the tiny works began to take on an introspective complexity that explored inter-personal relationships, gender issues, erotic content. The later works in the show saw the introduction of red-coloured thread.

The challenge of working on this scale (from the usual 5 x 3 feet canvases) must have been immense though invigorating. And Preksha took it up sportingly. It introduced her to a deep understanding of size and scale. Post this exhibition, she began carving charcoal sticks, about 1.5 cm high each, as figurines. When one looks at these closely, one can certainly see a carving element there – they do come close to resembling human figures such as on totem poles. “Doing these were difficult; each stick took a lot of time and if you pressed a little harder than necessary, the charcoal sticks broke. I had to throw away a lot of them,” she explains. She then fixed these charcoal figurines (as a group, a mass moving along) on her canvas, generally towards one edge. These canvases were either left blank or featured simple, single-dimensional landscapes. The intriguing part was the shadows cast by these figurines on the canvas to give an illusory touch to the works.

When I recently visited Preksha at her home plus studio, I was surprised with a completely new range of paintings, with an unusual twist in the way the canvas is structured on the frame. It was obvious that her interest in sculpture is further strengthened in these canvas works, which include cast sculptural human figures scampering up and down the canvases. Often with the help of red ropes. “I am trying to understand the colour red, and its different aspects, since it is a very strong colour and has different meanings in different cultures,” she explains. “Also, I am exploring the physical and sculptural way of treating the canvas surface.” In some of these canvases, Preksha leaves a part or side of the canvas ‘unstretched’, the folds thus made offering an unusual sculptural edge to the canvas. But what is truly amazing about these works is the painstaking detail with which Preksha has created the effect of jute cloth, fur and hair on the canvas with the charcoal stick. “For me, it is a meditative way of working on canvas to create these textures by hand,” she explains. With these paintings, Preksha has truly taken drawing on canvas to another level altogether.

Like Chobisa, Sandip Pisalkar is also busy working on an exhibition, People Narratives, to be hosted by Exhibit 320 at the Art Summit in Delhi. For this exhibition Pisalkar is working on 20 portraits of persons he has met and worked with over the last four years in the industrial area of Baroda where he has his studio. These are people with high skills – technical and in human relations – that caught the attention of the artist. He has collected a set of their shirts that they wore regularly which he makes the portrait (their faces) wear, and box-frames the whole thing.

Pisalkar is a sculptor and multi-media artist who is very sensitive to the socio-economic, political and cultural undertones exuded by the medium/material he uses in his work. Therefore, each bit of material that goes into his sculpture is carefully chosen and meaningfully presented allowing for multiple readings of his work. His portraits are ironic in the way they upturn culturally conventional notions of portrait-making as well as the popular marketing strategies for selling clothes in sub-urban areas displayed with photographic cut-outs of celluloid heroes stuck in them.

Pisalkar came to Baroda for Post-Diploma studies after having earlier attended art schools in Gulbarga and the JJ at Mumbai. His rural background and orientation is strong and he is able to extract objects traditionally ensconced in these cultures/history and re-work them in modern contexts with an amazing sense of ease and an irreverent chutzpah! He has used paduka (wooden, single-toed footwear used by holy men in olden days) and cross-hatched it with electrical circuit boards, converted the traditional bamba (water heater) into a beer bottle chiller, mechanized the pata-varvanta (stone spice grinder) and the ghanti (stone grain grinder) to make a sharp social statement regarding the corruption of the system/establishment and the mirage of justice and well-being promised by the state, respectively.

In fact, last year, at his solo exhibition at the Vadehra Gallery, Delhi, he showed Chalak-Malak, a strange and amusing coming together of the hand-rickshaw (of Kolkata) that was mechanized, with a barber’s chair connected to it in the front. The mechanization allows for the rickshaw puller to earn more money than he would normally do and the barber’s chair would offer an opportunity to earn some extra money when he would be whiling away time waiting for customers for the rickshaw. “The rickshaw puller is one of our most exploited workers. If they are banned on humanitarian grounds, what would the thousands of them do as unemployed? It would be better to make their lives and work a little easier,” explains the artist.

Pisalkar was recently invited to participate in the A Gift for Khoj project where he created a sculptural work, Golden Time, a series of eight cube-shaped, foot-operating waste bins. Photographs of the way his village-town had changed since he was a child (not always for the better) are pasted on the four sides of the cube. Inside each cube is a bullock-cart toy that the artist played with as a child pulling it behind him. In each cart was one object that linked the village, the artist, and his memories – a stone, a doll, a spinning top, bottles, twigs, stamps, and so on, all painted golden to commemorate the golden times of the past.

The artworks and, more importantly, the way they successfully express their concerns through these artworks, have set apart Pisalkar, Tater and Chobisa. The cutting edge their works often acquire comes from an intelligent and incisive questioning of their own lives, inspirations, visual memories on the one hand, and their academic training and how they have taught themselves to understand and learn to look at the materials they use in meaningful and dynamic ways. Their strength lies in the fact that the content of their work is often personally experienced, deeply felt and fervently believed in. It is this honesty that shines through and gives their artwork that rare cutting edge.

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