The seed of Legacy: A-vanguard was sown in December 2003, when Gallery Chemould’s excellent fortieth anniversary exhibition opened at Bombay’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Among the highlights of the show was L N Tallur’s Ablution, which looked like clothes drying on a line until a vacuum cleaner pumped air into the fabric, blowing it into shapes resembling intestines and viscera. Ablution was, like much art created today, loud, colourful and entertaining. On a wall nearby hung the late Prabhakar Barwe’s Alphabets of Nature, a harmonic, deceptively simple, almost self-effacing composition. Lingering in front of the canvas, I was constantly disturbed by the wheezing and whining of Tallur’s contraption. Such distraction is common enough in museums, but standing before Alphabets of Nature I found myself assigning the phenomenon a metaphorical value, associating it with the tendency of vanguardist theory to occupy all available ideological space. At various times and places, proselytisers of abstract art, narrative painting and new media forms have attempted such a colonisation of the discursive space, consigning to the dustbin of history anything that did not fit.
I grew interested in exploring the opposite of the avant-garde: work that, without being reactionary in intent, carries no hint of temporal urgency -- whether in its materials, its subjects, or its relationship to current events -- and yet engages us with its visual facility. It was tempting, in that last sentence, to write ‘visual power’ or visual force’, because language automatically offers up phrases connected with violence, but these are inappropriate as descriptors of Barwe’s gentle images, which possess no cutting edge.
An exploration of the ‘a-vanguard’ could take many forms, but since the idea originated in front of a Barwe canvas, it was logical to involve his painting. Accordingly, Legacy: A-vanguard showcases graduates of the J.J. School of Art whose drawings and paintings, while not in any way derivative, demonstrate an overlap of concerns with Barwe’s work. The ‘legacy’ of the title has two meanings. The obvious one is that the show traces a tradition across three, arguably four, generations. There is, however, an ironic twist to the word, relating to a recent mutation in its meaning. Not long ago, ‘legacy’ signified valuable things handed down through time. Today, it refers more often to old habits that persist despite better alternatives being available. Phrases like legacy technology, legacy system, and legacy carrier have become common place, and none of them is complimentary. The QWERTY keyboard I’m using to type these words is an example of legacy tech. Invented in the 19th century, and designed to separate common letter pairs, and so prevent sluggish typewriters from jamming, its ubiquity rendered it irreplaceable even in the computer age. From a vanguardist perspective, the selected artists are heir to a legacy system. The show makes the counter-claim that something vital and enduring lies beyond the ken of current definitions of artistic relevance. The claim becomes significant in a context in which artists feel pressured to conform either by working in media to which they may not be attuned, or by referencing fashionable issues.
Madhav Imartey, Yashwant Deshmukh, Prajakta Potnis and Parag Tandel all produce meditative images that are the opposite of the kinetic avant-garde mode. Their paintings have none of the brashness associated with the Bombay Boys. They occupy a middle-ground between figurative, abstract, symbolic, minimal and decorative. The work is neither formalist nor content-driven, neither removed from reality nor politically engaged. You might call the artists neti-netizens.
They have no desire to be ahead of their time. They enjoy the quotidian, focussing on everyday objects.
Madhav Imartey is particularly fascinated by mundane things. There is something of the contrarian in him, though the quality finds expression in ways that camouflage its true nature. A little over a decade ago, he made collages using postcards and inland letters, inspired by their washed-out hue, a far cry from the brilliance of lapis lazuli and Indian yellow. When Imartey grows fascinated by a motif, be it a typewriter, pylon, or cement mixer, he creates dozens of studies of the thing, worrying, mangling, distorting and remaking it, seeking a reality that hovers between the object’s form, its function, and its potential to connect metaphorically with something outside itself.
Unlike Imartey, Yashwant Deshmukh has no quarrel with symmetry and elegance. He, too, takes simple objects as his starting point, but pares these down precisely and sensitively till they are bold, geometric echoes of themselves. He enjoys the play of dimensions that is set off by representing a cone -- a circle narrowing to a point -- on a flat surface without realistic modelling. He has imbibed the lessons of modern design while also retaining the memory of his upbringing in the sparse, flat terrain of Vidarbha.
Both Deshmukh and Imartey knew Barwe well, but that was not the case with the two younger artists, Prajakta Potnis and Parag Tandel. Barwe’s romantic convictions, expressed in his book Kora Canvas, played no part in their intellectual development. Both Potnis and Tandel have worked in forms other than painting and drawing. Potnis has to her credit site-specific installations as well as lens-based creations, and Tandel sees himself primarily as a sculptor. Both are interested in exploring not just the visual, but also the visceral, kinaesthetic and haptic. The work selected for Legacy: A-vanguard is a slice of their output that coheres with the show’s theme.
Potnis’s careful brushwork endows objects with buoyancy, so they seem to float in space. She can paint a humble scrunchie with the care devoted to ruff collars in 17th century Dutch art. She’s interested primarily in surfaces that, as points of contact between things and people, are revelatory not only of themselves but of their users.
Parag Tandel’s drawings, which he self-deprecatingly calls doodles, vary from airy compositions to networks of lines so extraordinarily dense they verge on turning into dark, flat planes. He might begin with an attempt to juxtapose organic and geometric forms, but once pen is laid to paper he leaves his hand free to discover what it will.
Legacy: A-vanguard proposes no reversal of hierarchies. Formal experiment is part of the DNA of modern art, and attempts to ‘make it new’ will always command a premium over more conventional techniques of expression. The danger lies in being ruled by the 24/7 news cycle and overlooking the potential of stillness and slowness.