Kavi Gupta is pleased to announce a new self titled solo exhibition by Manish Nai at Fondation Fernet Branca.
This is the challenging question posed by Benjamin Buchloh in his first and (to date) only extended interrogation of the practice of a non–Western artist, Prabhavathi Meppayil, the exhibition of whose work at the 55th Venice Biennale curated by Massimiliano Gioni in 2013 afforded an international visibility that far surpassed the attention it had hitherto received from the discerning few (in India and abroad) and was an occasion to discover the subtlety and rigour of her sustained dialogue with certain exemplary forms of modernist reductiveness such as the grid and the monochrome (or rather achrome, given the immaculate white that is her preferred pictorial ground). Buchloh’s question might as well have been triggered by the work of Nasreen Mohamedi, the international recognition of whose major achievement as an abstract artist of the first order only came posthumously in the wake of her inclusion in Documenta 12 in 2007, and whose apotheosis was the magisterial retrospective at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year. What Buchloh characterizes as the ‘‘asynchronicity’’ of Meppayil’s project, elaborated in ‘‘geopolitical isolation from the primary avant-garde legacies’’ is not less germane to the context in which Mohamedi articulated her engagement with Mondrian and Malevich more than thirty–five years earlier.2 But Buchloh’s contention of ‘‘belatedness’’, however, would merely be a reiteration of a familiar trope in considerations of non–Western art were such a one-sided view not be countered by him when he goes on to say, in the same breath, as it were, that Meppayil (and one might add, Mohamedi, too, each in their distinctive ways) ‘‘also confronts her Western viewers with a legacy from which these contemporary spectators of culture are currently alienated more than at any other time in the postwar period’’.3 Belatedness, then, paradoxically, could become a form of timeliness, a punctual reminder of the unrealized ‘‘enlightenment potential of these historical models of late modernism’’ and of the possibility of ‘‘initiating their mnemonic resuscitation’’.4
So there are as many ‘‘unfinished projects’’ as there are a plurality of modernities, each with its particular historically determined momentum, and these might collectively constitute an ‘‘expanded field’’ or ‘‘deterritorialized’’ space, allowing for a manifold perception of differences and relationships and for a potential resistance thereby (at the very least on a cultural plane?) to the homogenizing hold of a singular globalization.
Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990) was the great exception on the Indian art scene. The intransigent abstraction that is a hallmark of her achievement, the sublime absolutism of her striving, set the bar very high and not many artists have had the spiritual ambition or formal discipline to venture in her tracks.5 A contemporary exception is Prabhavathi Meppayil (born in 1965), who brings a comparable exigence to her own endeavors, a perfectionism that is very nearly ascetic in its fastidiousness about means and ends. Indeed, the work of both Mohamedi and Meppayil, however separated in time, attests to the existence of a “minimalist’’ moment in Indian art, but not in the sense in which the term applies to the American Minimalists, even if the working methods of some of the artists associated with this “movement’’ have productively engaged Meppayil’s practice. Their art is ‘‘minimalist’’, if we take the word as designating a salutary reduction of means, a recourse to the bare minimum, a zero–degree of graphic inscription, like lines in space. Unlike Mohamedi, however, Meppayil arrived at a form of abstraction via an exploration of a poetics of making rooted in an artisanal practice. Belonging to a family of goldsmiths, she transposes the rudiments of an ancient savoir-faire as the basis of a contemporary pictorial language for critically revisiting the modernist/minimalist crux. This is the vein, albeit in a very different plastic register, that Manish Nai (born in 1980) has followed since the last fifteen years. He comes in the wake of a preceding generation of Indian artists whose emergence in the mid-1990s coincided with the moment when India was catapulted into globalization, consequent upon the Indian authorities’ decision to liberalize the country’s trade policies, jettisoning thereby several decades’ worth of adherence to a protectionist conception of the economy. The works of some of the artists of this generation which came to international prominence from 2005 onwards interrogated the cultural repercussions of the opening up of the Indian economy to foreign investment, often evincing an engagement with what seemed at the time a critical catchword – ‘‘local versus global’’ – as a way of reckoning with the social contradictions of the new world order to which India had declared allegiance.
In due course the Indian art scene would go on to witness a now familiar pattern of a boom and then a bust (subject as it is to the speculations of the market) but what seems fixed in the broad international mindset of those who follow developments in art practice on a global scale is the image of contemporary art from India as something overly declarative, given to ornamental or representational excess, frequently monumental, unabashedly allegorical or symbolic. In varying degrees some of these attributes (which certain artists deploy to critically subversive ends) also encode the continuing attraction of mass culture and of vernacular modes of expression as an artistic resource, a topos first explored by the figurative painting of Bhupen Khakhar (honoured by a retrospective at Tate Modern last year), the inaugural phase of whose work represents an indigenous version of Pop. Both Khakhar (1934–2003) and Mohamedi emerged as artists at roughly the same time – the mid 1960s and the early 1970s – and the juxtaposition of the “Pop’’ and “minimalist’’ moments instanced by their respective bodies of work offers an art historical conjuncture (as it appears to us in hindsight) that is also a vantage point from which to map the subsequent course of Indian art and to view the complex periodization of that art in an international frame.6 Khakhar’s artistic progeny have been multifarious; Mohamedi’s succession has been rather more select. But the bracing reduction of means that is synonymous with her art has been a source of emulation, whether avowed or not, even for artists who don’t share her tropism for abstraction. A major instance is the formal economy (and moral complexion) of Sheela Gowda’s use of humble or archaic substances and artisanal means – often vernacular in origin, anthropological in resonance, redolent of the life–world of physical toil. Another instance, albeit focussed on the sheer materiality of matter, is the abstract, formally spare and physically compacted work of Manish Nai.7
The abstracting impulse that his practice has obeyed from the time he began to come of age as an artist from 2001 onwards marks him out as an exception in the current context of Indian art, given the representational bias so salient in diverse ways in the work of many of his contemporaries. In a culture of iconophilia where the symbolic as such continues to hold the collective imagination in thrall, the work of a young artist concentrated almost exclusively on the material qualities of the different substances that he has elected to deploy must appear as an anomaly. But in the circumstances, this seeming incongruity is precisely a gauge of his independence, a token of the faith he keeps in the dictates of his own sensibility and tastes. His abiding interest has been in discovering the abstract dimensions of form through the physical manipulation of matter (jute or burlap, newspapers, old clothes, used cardboard), in exploring how process is intimately and sometimes visibly part and parcel of the making and the end result, how control in the handling is continually countered by the vagaries of chance. It is this element of surprise that must account for the categorical open–endedness that he sometimes evokes when deciding for himself if the object that has been wrought is painting or sculpture, although, of course, conventionally, a work hung on a wall belongs to a pictorial regime whereas a free–standing, three–dimensional entity is in the domain of the sculptural. His initial forays were certainly pictorial, marked by a heightened attentiveness to, and affirmation of, the surface qualities of the particular technical support he chose to explore. The substance of that support is jute, ubiquitous in India and a staple of the economy from colonial times, a natural fibre whose cultural use is primarily utilitarian (the making of twine and rope or woven into sacking and matting). The artist’s father had once professionally traded in this organic matter and Nai’s close familiarity with it as he was growing up spurred him to explore its plastic potential as the basis of a pictorial proposition, unconcerned with its status as a “lowly’’ or poor material for making art. So from the outset, the drive towards an investigation of the formal possibilities of surface and support hinges on the cross-cultural merger of these two entities, a chiasma of the indigenous or vernacular and the conventions associated with the high art tradition of painting, a crossing that establishes both the ground and the surface, indeed the ground as surface, of the resulting pictorial object.
The fastidious preparatory ‘‘cuisine’’ of Nai’s work in its inaugural phase (between 2001 and 2004) involved the successive layering of rectangular formats of canvas with jute (or its more fine–spun version, burlap), butter paper and grainy hand–made paper. This ‘‘millefeuille’’ was then delicately probed and partially undone by the scratches made on its surface, and the resulting incisions, affording tantalizing glimpses of the underlying layers, painted over with watercolour. In a further twist to this exploration of the archaeology of surface, Nai experimented with a coarser variety of jute laid on canvas and covered over by tracing paper of the kind used by architects. This integument was then lightly brushed over with transparent washes of colour and covered with a more finely meshed textile in jute. But as if this process was not laborious enough, Nai went on to unravel, thread by thread, sections of the flatly stratified surface to reveal patterns in the woof and warp of the fibrous underside. Surface, then, is the overriding preoccupation, and in being beholden to it Nai’s practice was discovering for itself an aspect of the self-reflexivity of modernist art (from Impressionism to abstraction) about means and materials, and, by extension, the nature of the medium itself, that is its defining condition. (As Lawrence Gowing beautifully summed it up in his great essay on Cézanne, in the modern era ‘‘the handling was the picture’’).8 Nai’s recourse to non-art materials as an artistic resource, however, locates his procedural protocols in the vicinity of some of the practices that emerged in the post-war period intent on critically revisiting the pictorial and sculptural legacies of modernist art. And whatever the medium deployed, a crucial focus of such a reevaluation is precisely the surface, exemplarily in the work of Robert Rauschenberg from its very inception in the early 1950s. No other artist in the second half of the twentieth century was as indefatigably and jubilantly resourceful as him in inventing a picture plane that ‘‘let the world in again’’, in Leo Steinberg’s memorable phrase, the surface of that ‘‘flatbed picture plane’’ being the sheerly materialist embodiment of all manner of extraneous objects that had been physically incorporated in it, from clothes to newspapers, to name but two of the things that Nai would go on to use when his practice assumed a sculptural turn. Nai’s habit, moreover, of building up a surface through successive layers of jute fabric and paper and paint is audaciously presaged by the way in which in Rauschenberg’s work from the early to mid 1950s, fabric and newspaper are collaged on the pictorial field of the canvas and ‘‘items of clothing are embedded into the surface by covering them either by a coating of paint, or by a stretch of semitransparent scrim material so that they are implanted under the continuous spread of the surface like a splinter under the skin’’ The art historical precedent set by Rauschenberg is admittedly an intimidating benchmark for all the artists who have followed in his wake. Its evocation here is simply to signal the challenging perspective in which the developing ambitions of Nai’s practice in a pictorial register over the last decade can be situated. His use of burlap might bring to mind some of Alberto Burri’s works from the late 1940s onwards but the association is ultimately superficial, given the de–idealizing impulse motivating Burri’s deployment of the stuff and other poor substances like burnt plastic in his pictorial surface, the physically distressed condition a token of their “baseness’’ and his disillusionment with any idea of transcendence. Piero Manzoni’s Achromes (the earliest date from 1958) that constitute a cunning colourless riposte, in a variety of natural and synthetic elements, to the pictorial (and verbal) hyperbole of Yves Klein’s chromatically suffused monochromes might appear as an art historical reference for the textile basis and textured surfaces of Nai’s work, although the intentions underlying the use of their respective materials are, of course, finally very different. Nor can Nai’s formal preoccupations be said to have any sustained affinities with Arte Povera as is sometimes adduced, apart from a broadly shared concern with process–based practices (as Girish Shahane has perceptively observed) and certainly not with a misleading notion of a supposed impoverishment on the level of artistic means suggested by the intriguingly ambivalent name of this movement.11 The freshness and candour of Nai’s approach to his elected matter stems from the considerable distance in time that separates him from these historical precedents, and where he comes closest to something like a dialogue with certain emblematic examples of late Western Modernist art is when his preoccupation with the materiality of jute pushes his practice towards the making of simple, unitary forms such as the cube and the column that are salient in Minimalism. But concomitant with the embrace of three dimensionality is the mutation of the pictorial entity into the intermediary state of the relief, a development that would seem to be dictated by his decision to desist from stretching jute on canvas, exploiting rather its malleability by twisting and wringing and folding it and then shaping and compressing the tactile voluptuousness of the heavy textile carapace into fairly monumental rectangular or square slabs or tondos designed to be displayed on a wall. The incitation to touch these abstract works is irresistible and this appeal to the eroticism of the haptic as part of the viewing experience – its cheeky figurative precursor is, of course, Duchamp’s Prière de toucher – is surely one of the more unexpected effects of an endeavor ostensibly focussed on exploring the pictorial and proto-sculptural dimensions of a given raw matter. In its natural, chromatically untreated state, the foregrounding of the jute material assertively betokens the organic and vernacular provenance of the relief’s medium; when the jute is uniformly dyed in indigo blue, the mnemonic associations of the colour inevitably recall the legacy of the monochrome even as Nai’s version lends itself to be seen as an artisanal riposte, respectively, to Yves Klein’s ‘‘mystagogic’’ and Anish Kapoor’s ‘‘high–tech’’ appropriation of this modernist paradigm. On a transversal time scale, moreover, the very name indigo, let alone the beauty of its hue, is evocative of India in the Western imagination, ever since the dye was so designated by the Greeks. Its more sombre connotations relate to the ruthless commercial exploitation of indigo cultivation by English planters in Bengal during the colonial period, leading to the so-called Indigo peasant revolt in 1859. But as Nai admits, he wasn’t alluding to the historical complexion of the hue when he resorted to jute fabric dyed in it but rather to a youthful memory of piles of indigo coloured cotton fabric in a clothes shop run by family relatives awaiting to be made up into uniforms for school children and factory workers.12 This matter of fact attitude to his practice is characteristic of Nai’s approach to the stuff at hand but it doesn’t exclude the discovery, in the course of the technical manipulation, of the aesthetic potential – and inadvertent beauty – of humble substances even as they are subjected to the modernist injunction of laying bare the poetics of the work’s coming into being. A relevant art historical comparison might be with some of the procedures and materials deployed by the artists associated with the Supports/Surfaces movement in France between 1966 and 1972, notably in their recourse to rope, cane, gauze, wooden plinths, unstretched canvas, printed textiles, dyed fabrics, knotted or plaited cords, simplified repetitive shapes made by the use of stencils, grids created by the folds in stretches of cloth hung on a wall, braided strips of cut canvas. The playful ‘‘primitivism’’ of these operations (akin to a kind of creative misreading of Claude Lévi–Strauss’ notion of bricolage) was a means of deconcealing the illusions of which Painting is the object and commodity fetish by way of a deconstruction of its constituent parts (picture plane, surface, color, touch, frame) through a set of demystifying gestures informed by the political radicalization of some of these artists in the immediate aftermath of May ’68. The studied informality of these procedures, albeit in a more mordant register, is also evinced in the disheveled rips and rents in cloth hanging limply from a canvas base or loosely suspended on a wall that betoken the salutary acts of aggression of pictorial conventions that Michael Buthe undertook in his extraordinary Fabric Paintings of 1969. In marked contrast, the critical animus (if at all) of the Cloth Pieces of 1967 made by his American contemporary Richard Tuttle is rather more muted, translating as they do his pleasure in textiles as such and in his blithe confidence in their potential to function as pictorial propositions in their own right : dyed canvas cut in irregular shapes and variable in their mural or spatial orientation. These works were made in the heyday of Minimalism and it is striking that Tuttle’s subsequent response to Minimalist literalism should be in an archly artisanal mode, notably his 3rd Rope Piece (1974), a work that is simply a length of rope nailed to the wall or the 4th Summer Wood Piece (1974) consisting of a piece of folded cloth attached to a wooden prop, the L-shape formed by the latter strongly suggestive of the edges of an incomplete picture frame. But perhaps Tuttle’s subtlest intervention in the expanded field of art practice (that is also coterminous with various attempts to go beyond Minimalist objecthood) is the work made in 1973 with pieces of cord deployed as meandering configurations on the floor, drawings in string, as it were, that describe contours on the empty expanse of the ground. Other major examples of the post-Minimalist exploration of pliant or malleable substances would include Jackie Winsor’s inventive deployment of rope and Eva Hesse’s singular experiments with paper mâché, latex, cord and rubber. The columnar or cubic configurations that evince Nai’s exploration of three–dimensional form can be seen as a left–handed take on the comparably simplified shapes favoured by the Minimalists, or perhaps more accurately as sharing a working affinity with certain post–Minimalist procedures aimed at unsettling the metallic obduracy and industrial complexion of Minimalist sculpture but given a vernacular twist by Nai’s use of jute in its brute state, the objecthood of these forms visibly the result of the compression of the tactile fibrous material into a geometric module. The impetus to move into three–dimensions came from Nai’s intuition that the fibres of jute that had been discarded in the course of elaborating his wall-based works might serve some purpose, and these eventually turned out to be the ‘‘fodder’’ for making the geometrical volumes. When presented as an individual unit, Nai chose to leave the upper face of the cubic module as a flattened tangle of threads, in contrast to the compression to which all the other faces of the modular entity have been subjected. Confronting the ‘‘bale’’, one has the impression or fantasy that all one needs to do to undo it is to begin pulling at the strings for the form to collapse and the jute to become an amorphous mass, returning thereby to its original condition as materia prima with which Nai began. Such unravelling, even if only in the viewer’s mind, is not given to the rather more solidified vertical slabs and columns (supported by an inner wooden armature) that Nai has been making over the last few years, for the process of compressing the substances that individually compose them – jute, corrugated cardboard, newspapers, old clothes – hardens their initial malleability, desiccates their ductility, transforming them into flattened, fossilized versions of themselves. Once released from the mold in which it was compressed, the material presents itself as a petrified square or rectangular module, ready to serve as a building block, as it were, compacted as it is of the flattened shapes into which the folds of the used clothing have been ‘‘frozen’’ or of hundreds of summary, roughly surfaced, ball or stone–like pellets (in the case of the newspapers), their size corresponding to the quantity of stuff in the hand of the assistant who crumpled it. This module is Nai’s compositional unit and with it he makes walls, columns, pillars, slabs, things one has to be careful not to bump into when backing away from the wall pieces or reliefs he also makes with the same elements as those used in the three–dimensional works. What unites the two bodies of work is their shared outcome of a process of compression but the compacted object is not laden with the pathos of obsolescence, as in, say, the débris scavenged in the graveyards of industrial waste in César’s Compressions. Nai seems interested rather in the new life assumed by his particular repertory of cast-offs as a result of their metamorphosis, the change in their condition from objects of use (jute, cardboard, newspapers, clothes) to objects divested of any function or utility, that is to say, objects in their condition as art. (Apart from the procedure it denotes, ‘‘compression’’ for Nai also encapsulates the time that went in the conceptualization of a form and the memory of its making). Unlike the melancholy undertow that inevitably accompanies the contemplation of personal or cultural relics (the work of an elegist like Christian Boltanski is eloquent in this respect), there is nothing mournful about the ecology of the aesthetic re-use of daily or seasonal discards (the ephemera of the newspaper, clothes which his son has outgrown) practiced by Nai. The newspapers, for example, are washed before being compressed, rinsed of their printed content. What remains, as in the case with the clothes, are vestiges of colour. Recently, the particular process deployed by him has led his work to take a more playful turn as in the slender ‘‘poles’’ made of compressed clothes that are lighter to handle, easier to displace, more vivid in their colouristic appeal. These are either serially propped up against a wall (recalling the similar disposition of a sequence of fleecy, fibrous, distaff–like forms in a famous work by Jannis Kounellis made during the heyday of Arte Povera) or piled up in a heap on the floor in the manner of a protocol of display characteristic of Installation art. Considered individually, the pole cannot but (distantly) recall the portable, coloured wooden staff that was an idiosyncratic, signature pictorial element of André Cadere’s performative and conceptual art practice. Contemplating one of Nai’s compressions, the first question that comes to mind is: What is it made of? For it is the work’s surface, its texture, its exterior aspect that arrests the eye. But however abstracted from their context his works might appear to be, Nai’s gaze is hardly indifferent to the myriad solicitations of the spectacle of contemporary life in a megalopolis like Bombay where he lives. Significantly, it is the façade of urban space – the scrofulous, time worn, weatherbeaten walls that are its eloquent template – to which his attention is drawn. ‘‘When I travel in the city, I look out for moments of blankness and flatness. To me, empty billboards and concrete walls are like works of art (…) I have often observed construction workers throwing cement into concrete slabs as they make walls, as if they were making a gestural painting’’.13 Nai’s remarks bring to mind Ellsworth Kelly’s elation when coming across adventitious alignments of structure and colour in the cityscape during his Parisian sojourn in the late 1940s that led him to treat these chance discoveries as ‘‘found objects’’ and as an ingenious pictorial resource such as the random patterns made by unequally unfurled coloured oblongs of the awnings of public buildings.14 The ‘‘empty’’ or ‘‘vacant’’ billboards that are the object of Nai’s discerning eye, often painted over in white or summarily camouflaged with paper or plastic in anticipation of the advertisements and publicity images that are their raison d’être, offer a surprising range of inadvertent pictorial tropes and painterly incident: monochrome, grid, collage, scumbled brushwork, traces of lettering or numerals. His photographs of these ‘‘found abstractions’’ offer a canny counterpoint to his work with more vernacular materials and are as teasingly deceptive, too. For at first sight the surfaces of whatever medium he has deployed are never what they appear to be and this visual ambiguity is nowhere more salient than in his practice of drawing, an activity that is second nature to him. Nai makes scores of abstract drawings, almost on a daily basis, and rejects an equal number. Those that find his favour are scanned and then played around with on Photoshop, notably with an emboss tool that imparts an illusion of relief to the template thus obtained. The process had already been used in his earlier ‘‘jute paintings’’ (notably in a series made in 2007) where the patterns resulted from the projection of the digitalized version of a drawing on the jute surface. Initially this involved the arduous task of tweezing out the threads according to the lines of the projected pattern and then the application of paint in the interstitial network. The resulting play of surface and depth, that hallowed trope of modernist painting, was thus obtained by a combination of artisanal and high tech means, even as the recourse to digital technology triangulated the old polarity between ‘‘high’’ and ‘‘low’’ in a distinctively novel way. The more recent drawings in dry pastel on paper are further refinements of this crossing of manual and digital methods but the procedures employed have been much simplified. The pixellated areas of relief and recession on the digitally derived working template projected on archival paper are picked out and manually shaded or highlighted in dry pastel in a tonally modulated grisaille of great subtlety. The pointillism to which Nai resorts, moreover, also lends itself to be seen as a mnemonic recapitulation of such diverse instances of pictorial handling hinged on the deployment of a diminutive or micro unit as Seurat’s petits points and Roy Lichtenstein’s stenciled ben-day dots, not to mention the meticulously hand–painted white particles that constellate Vija Celmins’ nocturnal skies. In Nai’s drawings the minute rendering of the graphic incidents results in an overall configuration that is literally flat but appears to illusionistically harbour strangely protruding shapes under its surface, rather like the blisters that form under the plaster of a humid wall.
The analogy, however impressionistic it might seem, acquires a certain pertinence not only in the light of his professed attraction to the accidental ‘‘abstract’’ designs he discerns in the stained and peeling surfaces so typical of the visible face of built space in his native Bombay but also when one remembers that Nai has made mural drawings (based on digitally projected patterns) that, for all their abstraction, recall scratched, graffiti–like versions of starburst or (in a more anamorphic register) aerial or topographic views of a cityscape. A cluster of disparate, faintly delineated mar- kings from a ‘‘normal’’ viewing distance is revealed at close range as the micro–structure of a more complex network and this perceptual instability, resulting from Nai’s consummate technical prowess, is the crux of his more abiding fascination for what he holds to be the essentially mutable nature of the relation between two dimensions and three in general, and between pictorial flatness and relief in particular. This mutability translates as a form of optical illusionism that is a hallmark of all his graphic work, whatever the nature of the support, and is nowhere more suggestive than in the drawings in dry pastel on paper. For in contrast to the public or civic dimension that is the justification of the mural format, the drawings belong to a more intimate regime of beholding and the closer form of scrutiny they solicit can reward the gaze with the illusion of shapes with rather more intimate associations, too, notably in a series of works from 2014 where the abstract configurations resulting from the formal exploration of recession and protrusion in delicately modulated pointillé carry inescapable associations with body parts, and not least because of their sheerly haptic aspect. Prière de toucher, indeed, although the nipple and navel–like forms suggested by Nai’s drawings are the more sly and intriguing for being virtual and inadvertently anthropomorphic when compared to Duchamp’s tongue-in-cheek invitation to touch the rubber simulation of a breast that was his way of defying the conventional interdiction of laying a finger on a work of art. (What might appear as the sexualized aspect of some of the illusionistic ‘‘slits’’ in Nai’s works in acrylic paint and ink on paper from 2010 is fortuitous, too, as is the perhaps inevitable association, when following this train of thought, with a signature trope of Lucio Fontana’s paintings). So what started off as a technical process intent on exploring the formal dynamics of surface and support and a specifically pictorial preoccupation with flatness and depth by way of an audacious mixture of manual and digital means, ends up yielding an enigmatic surplus of metaphoric associations, a poetic bonus, as it were, that supplements without supplanting the work’s ostensive abstraction and the acknowledgement of the material conditions of its coming into being. That the visual complexion of the pictorial field might be in the nature of a ‘‘found’’ abstraction, that the technical support in question might lend itself to be seen as an abstract pictorial entity in its own right, without any active intervention on the part of the artist, is the premiss of Nai’s most recent works, their optical evasiveness a function of the ambient light in which they are seen. The cue came from an object fairly ubiquitous in Indian homes: the fine wire mesh inserted in window frames whose purpose is to keep mosquitoes at bay. Doubling the thin mesh, superposing one over the other, yields a configuration of random patterns in a state of flux, their mutability a result of the continual fluctuations between ‘‘figure’’ and ‘‘ground’’, contingent as these are upon the play of light and shadow and the shifting positions from which they are beheld. Nai also recalls the optical effects produced by light filtering through the black jute cloth that he had deployed to darken his studio windows as another cue for exploring the pictorial potential of so basic a phenomenon. The transposition of the window mesh as a framed screen (suspended from the ceiling by slender wires or backed by a white wall) is in keeping with the self–reflexivity of a practice whose evolution or development is hinged on the internal logic of a formal process of discovery and experimentation. As the interface of opposed modalities (figure/ground, light/shadow, flatness/depth), the screen is a template for the enactment of this logic, a surface that is the force field of these formal oppositions. For the tensile aspect of the finely meshed ‘‘picture plane’’ is continually undone by the slippery shapes and amorphous patterns that play upon its surface, as if what one is beholding is a stretched expanse of watered silk. Indeed, the analogy with a textile fabric, however adventitious, is what is most salient about the surface of these works, recalling ‘‘the shimmering curtain–like veil that Joyce called ‘‘the diaphane’’ ’’.15 The shimmer is produced by ‘‘a kind of moiré effect, with a constant oscillation between figure and ground depending (…) on where the viewer happens to be standing’’.16 This is part of Rosalind Krauss’ exegesis on the rigorous formalism of Alois Riegl’s account of the internal development of art, ‘‘an entirely (…) autonomous evolution (…) that continues without gap or deflection from the most ancient civilizations of the Near East up through Byzantium’’.17 Krauss’ reference to Joyce’s notion of ‘‘the diaphane’’ brings us closer to our own time, since it is occasioned by her interrogation of the breakthrough paintings made by Picasso in the summer of 1909 (in Horta) that inaugurated his Cubism, a style where the questions internal to its autonomous, analytical development were, crucially, those on which Riegl himself had focussed in his investigation of art forms from a rather more remoter period, namely the mutating relation between figure and ground, the optical and the tactile, the objective and the subjective. Nai’s intuitive exploration of these questions is thus inscribed in a complex history of the evolution of art considered from a strictly formal perspective; the references to ‘‘the diaphane’’ and ‘‘the moiré effect’’, suggestive as they are of the optical impression conveyed by his most recent work, simply signpost, by way of a mnemonic recall, the deep historical backdrop of the problems that his practice has led him to confront. The formalism of his procedures apart, the perceptual experience of these works does not exclude, of course, the play of free associations in the mind of the more art historically informed beholder, even if these go beyond the ambit of the artist’s particular intentions or preoccupations. If some of the configurations in Nai’s illusionistic drawings are suggestive of body–parts, the very absence of this anthropomorphism in the random ripples and wavy patterns on the mesh screens recalls the presence of the shadowy striations that ‘‘veil’’ the naked torso of Lee Miller in Man Ray’s celebrated photograph of 1930. ‘‘Seeing as a sensual act’’ indeed (to borrow Riegl’s qualification of a sense modality hinged on the purely visual), embodying, as Man Ray’s image does, the erotics of the chiasma of the optical and the tactile.18 For Riegl, however, it is ‘‘essentially through the sense of touch that we experience the true quality, the depth and delimitation of objects in nature and works of art. … Whereas the optical qualities disappear in the dark, the tactile qualities remain: extent and delimitation are thus the more objective qualities, colour and light the more subjective ones, for the latter depend to a greater degree on those chance circumstances in which the perceiving subject finds itself’’.19 Nai’s practice has, of course, continually oscillated between these sense modalities, and if the recent mesh screens appear to privilege the optical, a parallel body of work asserts the tactile as such. These are the experiments with aluminum (the earliest dates from 2011), a soft metallic substance whose ‘‘essence’’, if it can be said to have one, is precisely its tactility, for it is in its crumpled state that aluminum reveals its phenomenological ‘‘truth’’ and plastic valence. The industrial aluminum sheet deployed by Nai is not the user–friendly aluminium foil that is a staple of the kitchen shelf. But the foil’s fragility, its malleability, given that the slightest touch can crease or rent it, are precisely the qualities one associates with this element, even if one is aware that Nai’s compressions result from the deployment of a mixture of manual and quasi–industrial means: the spherical or ball–like shapes of the aluminum sheet are created by hitting the heated metal by hand, then placed in a metal die and compacted by a hydraulic press. The procedure yielded a cube in 2011, but the prohibitive production costs stalled further explorations and Nai’s recourse to the material has been intermittent, although he has, subsequently, used it to make a sequence of wall panels. Their most salient feature is their crumpled or squashed state, a tactile effect if ever there was one, albeit at the antipodes of the organic voluptuousness of jute fibre that has long been his material of predilection. But perhaps a shared feature of these radically different substances (as manipulated by Nai) is the fold, the crease or pleat that reveals as much as it conceals. Indeed, given its recurrence in his work, the fold would seem to be something like a fetish for him. By taking a shine to a metallic element with resolutely industrial connotations, Nai’s practice touches upon another form of seduction. Might one describe it as ‘‘the sex appeal of the inorganic’’, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s suggestive phrase in a different context? The question remains open.
The erotics of the tactile, whether incited literally (in the pictorial or sculptural deployment of jute, and, more recently, aluminum) or virtually (in the drawings), returns us to the surface qualities of the matter in question, that is to say, to the medium itself. Manish Nai’s work, whatever its scale and the nature of the materials, opens up new ways of negotiating certain artistic paradigms that are part of the legacy of late–modernist abstraction by single–mindedly pursuing the particular logic of formal processes that are of his own ingenious devising. And he is the first one to be surprised and beguiled by the results this pursuit might yield. ‘‘This is not a naked wall, it is a very sweet life that one has compressed to make a wall, grape by grape’’, exclaims an unnamed voice in an enigmatic fragment by Kafka. ‘‘I don’t believe it. Taste it. I cannot raise my hand so incredulous I am.’’
Paris–Venice, May 2017