The humdrum, industrial quality of shop shutters has been the inspiration for some of artist Atul Dodiya’s earlier works. All of those works were installations—or neo-sculptures.
Dodiya’s first experiment with shutters was for Century City, a show at the Tate Modern in London in 2000. Artists from many cities were invited to represent a time period of their respective cities through themes which dominated that era. Mumbai was chosen for the last decade of the century, and Dodiya made shutters an emblem for communal violence and the rise of the underworld. “Shutters coming down, the overwhelming sound of it came to my mind when I was thinking of ideas for that show. Besides, shop shutters have been a permanent fixture of our city. I’ve passed them by while walking on pavements, while travelling by local train—it’s a quintessential Bombay thing,” Dodiya says.
Large canvas: (top) Fool’s House, one of the works from Malevich Matters; and Dodiya in front of an artwork from an earlier show.
In his new ongoing solo show Malevich Matters at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, these shutters become a backdrop, or a plane on which Dodiya examines his own art. Painted in oil (Dodiya returns to oils—his favourite medium, he says—after four years) on large canvases, the 11 works in this show reveal Dodiya’s influences and imperatives in the two decades he has been working out of Mumbai. It is an amalgamation of many themes that have recurred in his art—Mahatma Gandhi, artist Bhupen Khakar whose pop-wit and irreverence Dodiya has always admired, motifs from the works of artists such as Jasper Johns, Joseph Beuys, Picasso and Kasimir Malevich, a Russian supremist artist whose geometric abstractions brought about a revival in Russian art of the early 20th century. He juxtaposes all these elements on painted shutters of various sizes and hues, some of which are half-open.
Malevich Matters is like a self-assessment of his own oeuvre—or a culmination of all his interests. “These are all devices for my mental plane, and they all come together in this show,” Dodiya says. The sheer breadth of reference in the show can be confusing for those unacquainted with Dodiya’s works. There’s a deliberate randomness about the mix-and-match quality of these works, done at his sprawling suburban studio over two years (simultaneously, Dodiya has been working on 3D works with actual shutters for Art Basel 2010 in June). The title of each work is written in bold, kitschy fonts on top of the canvas—making them appear like names of shops. In False Start, the words “J. Beuys & Sons” appears prominently on the canvas. It includes elements from the art of Beuys, a German performance artist, sculptor and polemicist, along with a profile of Gandhi; in another, a half-open shutter reveals the signature moustache and chin of Bhagat Singh and the upper half has a portrait of Khakar and one of Khakar’s figures—Bhagat Singh is a national hero, while Khakar is cult figure in the art world, and the work is meant to examine notions of heroism and iconism in our society. In Sayno Bolona, Dodiya pays homage to Santiniketan and his “favourite artist”, Rabindranath Tagore.
Malevich Matters is yet another testimony to the fact that Dodiya is a contemporary artist who has not abandoned his curiosity about artistic traditions. Many of his works have references to themes explored by artists from previous centuries—or to the artists themselves. He is also interested in society, how the rise of religious fundamentalism has shaped the later part of this century, and Gandhi’s relevance in these times. Also on display is his perfect control over form and structure, the arduous details and mastery over oils and colour scheme.
Dodiya’s works have recently been selling at auctions all over the world at prices ranging from Rs40 lakh to Rs1 crore. At the risk of being over-arching and trying to encompass many ideas, this show can be educative on his art. He has experimented with many forms and essentially remains an artist driven by intellect and ideas. “I like artists who keep changing. I have always tried to retain that student phase in JJ School when seeing a new medium or a new form excited us about its possibilities,” he says.
Malevich Matters is on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi until 10 April.