Group shows can be tricky affairs. Put more than one artist in a room and you immediately set up a dialogue between the works, even if the works and the artists have, or want, nothing to do with each other. The point, however, more often than not is to reveal new narratives or perspectives, tenuous ideas that become apparent, and lasting, when, say, a Manet is placed next to a Degas. The idea is to give the viewer some thread with which he can feel his way through an exhibit, that Manet’s broad brushstrokes were undoubtedly the first base washes from which Impressionism sprung.
Here, in India, “group show” is often used by galleries as an all encompassing tag to lump together leftover stock, a random sampling of Progressives and other disparate names for no other reason than, well, they could. It’s not unusual to see two dozen heavyweight names crammed into a tiny space, with nothing holding them together, except the flimsiest of titles that are as silly as they are baffling.
Ganesh’s Sugar and Milk
As the art season gets underway, a few are already up and running, pulling together various themes and subjects with varying success.
In Mumbai, Chatterjee and Lal is hosting Thomas Erben Gallery from New York, and has put together an expertly selected group of international names such as Chitra Ganesh, Yamini Nayar, Krishna Reddy, Dona Nelson and Matthias Müller. Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke has a fairly straightforward grouping of three artists who draw and sculpt, while Bodhi Art’s blockbuster Everywhere is war (and rumours of war), opening today, will showcase an overwhelming range of Indian and international biggies, all working around the theme of conflict and war.
Nelson’s Oh Pal (left) and Joag’s The sweet smell of the consecrating holy acid
Strictly speaking, Thomas Erben at Chatterjee and Lal is not a conventional group show in that it lacks a title (which may not be a bad thing) and is a sampling of stock works from Erben’s New York gallery. Erben has carefully pruned the selection, so that in all but one or two cases, there is only work by each of the nine artists on display. There is no real continuity here, though Erben has intentionally placed works in a certain sequence, so that one work reveals in the next something unexpected.
Thus Ganesh’s camp Amar Chitra Katha subversion references mythological feminist narratives that surface, although obliquely, in Nelson’s heavy oil impasto that swirls and drips in murky configuration. Both are provocative, titillating and not a little discomforting, though for entirely different reasons—Nelson’s for medium, Ganesh’s for content.
A vase by Clemente
In this manner, the show carries the viewer across and around the room, so that standing in the centre of this fairly compact space, one is able to see parallels and cross-references, such as Mahbub Shah and Yamini Nayar, who both work in the miniature tradition, one applying composition and mosaic to magazine cut-outs, the other to dollhouse set-ups of crumbling interiors.
At Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke, the set-up is less integrated, with a room devoted to each artist. Drawing Sculpture is, exactly as the name suggests, a series of drawings, some of sculptures and two actual sculptures by three artists who share very little except that they draw with varying degrees of success.
There are thrilling parts of this exhibit—individual works that shine in isolation but seem to lose their lustre in this linear display. Dutch artist Juul Kraijer is a gifted draughtsman whose ghostly, intricate charcoals of faces and figures, seemingly plundered from Freudian theory, have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sadly, these are not on display. Three neat charcoal figures and one bronze bust peppered with shrieking heads do little, except maybe push the viewer into the next room where Tushar Joag’s pen-and-ink drawings more than hold their own as a mini exhibition. Like strange and desolate landscapes from a sci-fi movie, his drawings explore otherworldly places, where gas tanks and carcasses lie strewn on post-apocalyptic ruins.
Whatever context the viewer is given comes through the titles (The sweet smell of the consecrating holy acid ; Shhh! We can pounce when they come to suckle at the carcass, to name a couple) and this is probably a good thing. Apocalyptic fantasies are best conjured up in the head, and Joag’s drawings do a good job of stimulating all kinds of menacing scenarios. N.N. Rimzon, the accompanying literature tells us, “pays obeisance to the worker” and uses cloth, sandpaper, charcoal and other odds and ends to create stolid, uninspired drawings of tombs and mirrors that lack the intensity of Joag, or even Kraijer. In the middle of the room, The Tools, a sculpture of a farmer-like figure offering thanks for harvest, surrounded by rusty farming tools, is impressive but out of place.
Lastly, Bodhi Mumbai with its cross-continental reach and financial might, is adept at corralling big names under one roof. Everywhere is war (and rumours of war) starts today and will feature a heady mix of contemporary biggies and international giants such as Jon Kessler and Francesco Clemente, many of whom were specially commissioned for this show. The gallery will be reconfigured to resemble war bunkers and trenches, a little hokey undoubtedly, but possibly a way to entice viewers not already sold on the stellar roster. The question, however, remains whether 35 artists, including some of India’s biggest, can coexist in a coherent fashion.
Thomas Erben at Chatterjee and Lal, Colaba, continues till 30 August; Drawing Sculpture at Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke, Colaba, continues till 20 September; Everywhere is war (and rumours of war) at Bodhi Art, Kala Ghoda, continues till 27 September.