A dark female figure squats, headless and emaciated, ambiguously impaled above a rough-cut stump of wood. In one hand, she demurely holds a teacup, in the other, an ornamented primate skull. From the hole in her neck spray frozen, stylized jets of blood. Bharti Kher pushes what has always been her fraught relationship with conventional notions of femininity into new territory with this sculpture, And all the while the benevolent slept, a grotesque visual riddle that hovers between—and refuses to settle upon—civilization or savagery. The piece takes a familiar iconographical image, the decapitated Chhinnamasta form of the goddess, and stages it as the starting point for an excursion to the dark side—tying the themes of sex, death, beauty and horror into a disturbing knot. But is it beautiful?
Mutant Beauty, a powerful group exhibition curated by critic and writer Gayatri Sinha, poses a difficult question: What shapes our notions of the beautiful and how do those notions, in turn, shape us? In her concept note, Sinha makes the case that beauty is a socially constructed value, easily manipulated and subject to market forces and mass media. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” they say, but it might be more to the point if that beauty is in the eyes of groups of beholders—an object becomes “beautiful” through the process of its reception and approbation, by transcending its materiality and taking on a new role as the aesthetic, visible sign and prop for what theorist Guy Debord calls “a social relation among people”. The answer to the question “what is beautiful?” is always shifting, always specific to its context, and depends on a complex and political relationship between producers and spectators, and between media and audience.
Eye candy: (left) A work from The Barodians by Abir Karmakar; and Nothing to know about it by Sheila Makhijani.
Sinha curates Mutant Beauty with an eye fixed on the implications of this process; in her concept note, she invites the 14 participating artists to “create their own monument to beauty, a monument that would be inscribed with its own past”.
Sunil Gawde takes up the challenge with a piece that plays on a theme rhapsodized by 1,000 Urdu poets: the moth and the flame. In his untitled installation, a giant light bulb—an object that reappears throughout the artist’s recent work—hangs in an otherwise dark space, emitting a low blue glow, its skin crawling with small sculptures of winged insects and moths. But here the scene is not one of annihilation into the beloved—the insects seem just fine. The expected denouement has been suspended, the bulb’s light is cool, and the moths stand there wondering what to do next.
Vadodara-based painter Abir Karmakar, like Gawde, questions conventional notions of beauty by focusing on its superficial enticements and internal vacancies, in a remarkable series of oil portraits of shop mannequins that stand in sharp contrast with the works for which he is best known. For an artist who excels at representing the unbeautiful, sagging body in all its hirsute corpulence, this is a striking turn: His brush seems to seek depth in the soulless, ready-made figure of the mannequin, dressed up by unseen hands in an ever-shifting parade of fashionable garments, staring blankly ahead. Karmakar’s “monument to beauty” is wonderfully, jarringly paradoxical: soulful portraits of plastic faces, hollow appearances handled as though they are something more, embodying consumerist dreams that can be pursued but never quite reached.
Tea time: And all the while the benevolent slept by Bharati Kher.
Nothing to know about it, or so warns the title of Sheila Makhijani’s dense oil painting; her sole contribution to the show presents an enigmatic account of beauty that stands at a remove from the more representational work of artists such as Karmakar and Gawde. An abstract piece, it approaches the question from an oblique angle, with cellular, geometric forms woven in shades of pink and thick, laddered lines that twist around each other, overlapping to create fractured stained-glass patterns and drawing the viewer’s gaze into an otherworldly landscape with few obvious landmarks. There is a rhythmic syncopation at work in this artist’s idiom—one developed with patience and consistency over the years, a visual grammar in which forms emerge as though according to their own, peculiarly organic logic; what it demands of the viewer is an accommodation to its emergent, idiosyncratic aesthetic, its alien beauty.
Elsewhere, among the many other participating artists, Mithu Sen works magic with her installation of dark and delicate lace woven from hair, and Atul Bhalla constructs a mixed-media monument to wasted water and wood— a fountain staircase to nowhere made from workshop castaways and shiny, unresponsive faucets in spate. A review can only scratch the surface of a large show like this, Sinha’s own strange monument: In an art scene that suffers from lackadaisical curating too often built around convenience and commerce, she delivers a conceptually rich spectacle of restless, challenging beauty.
Mutant Beauty is on till 12 January at Anant Art Centre, A/21-22, Sector 5, Noida.
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