Manish Nai, Matter as Medium

Manish Nai, Matter as Medium
09.10.2016 — 10.29.2016

Deepak Ananth Matter as Medium “… [C]an a delayed or a renewed reception of artistic paradigms from the recent past of late Western Modernism acquire new artistic, critical, and historical relevance in the context of contemporary Indian art (comparable to the manner in which the delayed reception of Russian avant-garde art of the 1920s had a formative impact on the late-modernist American art of the early to mid-1960s)?”

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 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 rigor 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, reaching an apotheosis in the magisterial retrospective at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this 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 thirty years earlier. 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’. 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’. 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 (1938–1992) 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. A contemporary exception is Prabhavathi Meppayil (born in 1965) who brings a comparable rigor 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 also 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 so-called opening up of the Indian economy to foreign investment, often evincing an engagement with what was 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 a cultural and artistic resource, a topos first explored by the figurative painting of Bhupen Khakhar (honored by a retrospective at Tate Modern this year), the inaugural phase of whose work represents an indigenous version of Pop. Both Khakhar (1934–2004) 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. Khakhar’s artistic progeny has 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.

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 aesthetic dimensions of form through the physical manipulation of matter (jute or burlap, newspapers, old clothes, used cardboard), in exploring how process is intimately and 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 at once 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 watercolor. 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 color 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, about 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’). 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 cite but two of of things that Nai would go on to use when his practice assumed a sculptural turn.9 And Nai’s habit 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 surface 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 this and other poor materials 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 from1958) that constitute a cunning colourless riposte, in a variety of natural and synthetic materials, 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 of course the intentions underlying the use of their respective materials are finally very different. And 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, and certainly not with a misleading notion of a supposed impoverishment on the level of materials suggested by the intriguingly ambivalent name of this movement.

The freshness of Nai’s approach to his elected materials stems from the considerable distance 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 or burlap on canvas but rather exploit 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 inadvertent 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 allusions of the color inevitably recall the legacy of the monochrome even as it lends itself to be seen as an artisanal riposte, respectively, to Yves Klien’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 itself 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 the coloured material in a clothes shop run by family relatives awaiting to be made up into uniforms for school children and factory workers.

This matter of fact attitude to his practice is characteristic of his approach to the material 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 would 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 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 Windsor’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 favored 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 module have been subject. 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 materials 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 hundreds of summary, ball or pebble-like elements (in the case of the newspapers), their size corresponding to the quantity of material 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, for Nai the word compression 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 children have 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 portable, lighter to handle, more vivid in their coloristic appeal. These are either serially propped up against a wall (recalling the similar disposition of a series of distaffs in a famous work by Jannis Kounellis) or piled up in a heap on the floor. Considered individually, the pole cannot but recall the portable colored wooden staff that was a signature pictorial element of André Caderé’s performative and conceptual 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 spectacle of contemporary life in a megalopolis like Bombay where he lives. Characteristically, 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’. 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 as, for example, the seemingly random patterns made by unequally unfurled colored oblongs of the awnings of public buildings. Often painted over in white or summarily camouflaged with paper or plastic in anticipation of the advertisements and publicity images that is their raison d’être, the empty billboards that are the object of Nai’s discerning eye 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 useful, 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 almost second nature to him. Nai makes scores of drawings and rejects an equal number. Those that find his favor are scanned and then played around with on Photoshop, notably with an emboss tool that imparts an illusion of relief to the pattern thus obtained. The process had already been deployed in his earlier jute paintings, where the patterns resulted from the projection of the digitailized version of his drawing on the jute surface. Initially this involved the painstaking 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 on paper in dry pastel are further refinements of this crossing of manual and digital methods but the procedures deployed 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 in dry pastel in a tonally modulated grisaille of great subtlety. The minutiae of the graphic incidents (manual pointillism miming digital pixellation) results in a 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 when one remembers that Nai has made mural drawings (based on digitally projected patterns) that, for all their abstraction, recall, respectively, graffiti-like versions of starburst and (in a more anamorphic register) aerial views of a cityscape.

Manish Nai’s work, whatever its scale and medium, opens up new ways of negotiating certain paradigms that are part of the legacy of modernist abstraction by singlemindedly following the particular logic of formal processes that are of his own devising. And he is the first one to be surprised 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.’ Luçon, July 2016