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Irish Museum of Modern Art

Sheela Gowda: Open Eye Policy by Grant Watson from Lunds Konsthall

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In anticipation of the Sheela Gowda exhibition opening at IMMA this Saturday 5th April, Lunds konsthall have kindly given us permission to share their publication by exhibition co-curator Grant Watson.

Lunds exhibiton guide by Grant Watson (pdf with images)

We are very happy to be able to show Open Eye
Policy, a highly topical exhibition by prominent and
internationally renowned Indian artist Sheela Gowda.
This is the first time the Swedish public has the
opportunity to see a comprehensive presentation of her
work. The exhibition is produced by Van Abbemuseum
in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and specially adapted
to fit Lunds konsthall in the best possible way.
Gowda was born in 1957 in Bhadravati in
the south Indian state of Karnataka. She lives in
Karnataka’s largest city, Bangalore, perhaps best
known for its booming IT industry. She graduated
from art academies in both India and England, and
therefore has an insider’s view of both European and
Indian art.

Gowda emerged in the 1980s as a figurative
painter, but her motifs underwent a gradual process
of abstraction until the paintings became objects in
three-dimensional space: sculptures and installations.
Gowda has developed a characteristic approach that
balances abstract composition and theatrical staging.
Materials are of crucial importance in her
work. Often sourced from her immediate surroundings,
they provide important insight into her process of
thinking-through-making. Formal concerns – such as
understated figuration and unexpected juxtapositions
of elements – also indicate possible readings of Gowda’s work, as do her titles.

Through her practice she articulates her
view on the times we live in, from the vantage point
of someone familiar with both Indian and Western
culture. Gowda’s approach is characterised by healthy
scepticism towards generalising and universalising
about the situation of others. In her work the insistence
on speaking from her own perspective, about a
reality she is in the position to observe and analyse, is
elevated to poignant social critique. This, in itself, is a
fundamentally political stance.

First of all, I very warmly thank Sheela
Gowda for her strong commitment to this exhibition,
and for agreeing to show Open Eye Policy at Lunds
konsthall. I also thank the guest curator, Grant
Watson, for our excellent collaboration, as well as
curator Annie Fletcher and director Charles Esche
at Van Abbemuseum, who have made it possible for
Lunds konsthall to collaborate on this exhibition,
which will also travel to the Centre international d’art
et du paysageIle de Vassivière in Beaumont-du-Lac,
France.

Last but not least I wish to thank all the
lenders: Sheela Gowda herself, Arani and Mita Bose,
Thomas Erben, Amrita Jhaveri, Sunitha Kumar
Emmet, Karin Miller Lewis and Ashish Rajadhyaksha.
Without their generosity, this exhibition and its tour
would never have happened.
Åsa Nacking
Director, Lunds konsthall

 

Sheela Gowda Open Eye Policy

Sheela Gowda is well known for her sculptural works of
elegance and scale, which often adapt found materials.
Since the early 1990s she has shown in museums and
biennials around the world, but only now has her
practice been brought together in an exhibition that
constitutes something like a retrospective. Open Eye
Policy provides the opportunity to see the diversity of
her practice, but also the consistency that comes from
interests sustained over several decades. The range is
wide in terms of scale, medium and approach, but the
individual works are nevertheless readable as part of one
oeuvre. The exhibition demonstrates Gowda’s extensive
back catalogue and the lines running through it, such as
the ongoing investigation of materials, the appropriation
of found elements and the frequent engagement with
abstraction and issues of representation.

At Lunds konsthall Gowda’s work is shown in
a relationship to Klas Anshelm’s distinctive modernist
architecture, which lends itself particularly well to
her installations. Many of these can be reconfigured
differently according to the space in which they are
shown, and here advantage has been taken of the
gallery’s height and the variety of different views that
the building affords. This approach goes against the
grain of a strictly chronological display, so here works
from a period of twenty years – early studies, smaller
sculptures, large-scale installations and works on paper
– are seen in combination.

Painting

Gowda is perhaps mostly known as a sculptor but
originally trained as a painter, first at the Ken School
in Bangalore (where she learnt the skills of figuration,
which can be seen in her watercolours), then at the
Fine Art Faculty of Baroda and at Kala Bhavan,
Shantiniketan, and finally at the Royal College of Art
in London.

Although Gowda only spent a short period
in Baroda (in 1979–1980), her encounter there with
the eminent artist and teacher K G Subramanyan
was a formative one. He had helped establish what
was dubbed the ‘School of Baroda’, known for its
figurative narration, but for Gowda he opened a
door to abstraction. She explains how, in tutorials,
Subramanyan refused to let her take a storytelling
approach and instead directed her towards formal
concerns and using a wide range of materials and
visual stimuli. His principle advice was that artists
should seek to synthesise many different ‘aspects of
contemporary experience, tradition, the west, the
historical reality and the phenomenal world’ – words
that clearly resonated with Gowda and continue to
inform her today.

At the beginning of the 1990s Gowda shifted
her paintings towards abstraction, initially by giving
equal weight to the spaces between the figures in
them and the figures themselves. This led to the
simplification and reduction of the figurative element,
until it virtually disappeared. Her move towards
abstraction took place gradually and spontaneously,
prompted by developments on the picture surface,
but it was also linked chronologically to a shift from
painting to sculpture.

Cow Dung

What enabled this was her discovery of cow dung as
a medium. She first used it in her paintings and then
as a material in its own right for sculptures. These
were shown for the first time in the form of cow dung
pats piled on the floor as part of an installation at
Gallery Chemould in Bombay in 1992. This use of
cow dung defined Gowda’s practice for a period in
the early 1990s and also suggested the potential of
materials in general to function not only according to
their sensorial qualities (colour, texture and form), but
also in terms of the meanings associated with them.
Importantly, she considered the focus on materials
as a way to address her immediate environment –
including India’s cultural and political realities.

Gowda selects materials taken from her
surroundings, often noticed first for their abstract
qualities and utility rather than their connotations.
This initial selection is followed by a more protracted
period when the potential of the material is
scrutinised, both physically and conceptually. What
will the material do? How can it be transformed,
burned, woven, flattened, diluted? What structures
does it make possible? How will the viewer interpret
it and how will this be influenced by the artist’s
decisions? Gowda proceeds through trial and error,
a kind of ‘thinking through making’ in which her
intuitions and preconceptions are tested in the
studio and judged according to criteria that are
both conceptual and aesthetic. Materials and
concepts become interlaced to produce an aesthetic
vocabulary specific to her. Once a material has been
tried out it will often become part of her repertoire
and used in different contexts.

Cow dung was something already culturally
significant, but it was also a surprisingly flexible
and visually pleasing material to make art with.
Initially it appeared in diluted form, used as a wash
in Gowda’s paintings to produce a textured and
at times raised coating, suggestive of the very act
of smearing excrement onto their surfaces. One
example is Untitled (1992), a work on paper. It is
predominantly abstract, but in one corner we notice
a tight composition of figurative elements including
an Asian cow (Zebu), a woman collecting dung and
a pair of sandaled feet. This grouping references the
physical presence of the cow in Indian village life
and the crucial role it plays in the agrarian economy.
The cow’s status is protected in Hindu scriptures; it
provides milk as well as dung, which can be used both
as fuel and as an antiseptic. Gowda’s drawing also
suggests her own proximity to this village economy.

The theme is developed more fully in My
Private Gallery (1998–1999), a work composed
of two panels joined at a right angle and placed
in the corner of the room to produce an enclosed
space, within which Gowda ping a series of small
watercolours. The exterior surface of the panels
are made from cheap marbled plastic laminate,
reminiscent of the mass-produced materials used
in the construction of urbanised India, while the
interior is coated with a layer of dung, overlaid with
miniature cow pats similar to those seen on walls
throughout rural India. The watercolours depict faces
of people from the district where Gowda lives (at that
time the indefinite border of a metropolis expanding
at breakneck speed), many of them migrants who
maintain their own rural ways in the city. There are
also scenes from a car window, showing this urban
development as a hectic work in progress. A stack
of cow dung bricks and piles of pats nearby (similar
to those shown at Chemould in 1992) attract our
attention to the material itself. Dung is a basic
building block for the work. It is malleable and
robust, odourless, textured and organic – a constant
dull brown but at the same time patchy and varied in
its tones.

The idea of dung as a basic element is
reaffirmed by Stock (2012) where cardboard boxes
with balls of dung sit on the floor waiting to be used.
In a humorous touch, faces are coarsely scratched
onto them. In the earlier paintings dung was mixed
with pigment, and Gowda uses a similar combination
for several of her sculptures. Mortar Line (1996)
presents an arc of cow dung bricks laid out in tight
pairs on the floor with pigment squeezed into the
cracks between them, forming a curved red line. In
Gallant Hearts (1996) cow dung is compacted into
small fist-sized forms, rough and varied as stones,
which are coated red and suspended in a bunch from
a nail on the wall.

Red String

And Tell Him of My Pain (1997, here shown in a version
from 2007 titled And…) brings together several of the
elements which had been present in Gowda’s practice
up to that point. It is made using a more complex and
extensive working process than before, with multiple
threads being passed through as many needles, then
brought together and coated in red pigment and
glue, which binds them into a semi-flexible cord. The
cord is then coiled around the room – touching the
floor, walls and ceiling and making optical, sensory
and allegorical links between them. This is a bold
and elegant work that fills the space. The cord evokes
earth tones, the internal organs of the body and the
sinuous strength and flexibility of succulent creepers.
The composition in the room recalls the variegated
movements of a Jackson Pollock action painting, but
it also creates a pathway for viewers. The abstracted
figures present in Gowda’s earlier paintings have
been whittled down to a coiling dark red line, and the
spaces it demarcates become gaps that viewers can
enter and pass through.

In Breaths (2002) red string is bundled to
produce cylindrical forms of varying lengths, which
are then contained in a black muslin skin smeared with
charcoal. the innards of red string spill out from their
black casing, revealing frayed and bleeding edges.
The table, acting as support for the work, suggests the
reading that these are limbs that have been roughly
severed and laid out for inspection, although the varied
sizes of the different sections also contradict this and
indicate that the victimised material might be nonhuman
– perhaps burnt logs, the violently transformed
limbs of a tree

Tar Drums

Blanket and the Sky (2004) is the first in a series of
works for which Gowda uses tar drums bought from
workers who tarmac the roads in India. For Gowda
these metal sheets, flattened with road rollers, become
an aesthetically interesting sculptural material
that is light but strong. The surface of the sheets is
marked with lines still visible after the flattening, their
colour is steel grey and inky black with intermittent
patches of orange rust. The fact that the workers
also use the metal sheets to build temporary shelters
where they can sleep shows that the material can be
appropriated for unexpected practical purposes. The
size of the sheets determines the dimension of these
improvised workers’ dwellings. The most ambitious of
the installations made from tar drums is Kagebangara
(2001). Flattened sheets and un-flattened drums are
arranged along with tarpaulins in primary yellow
and blue that are also used on construction sites,
into a sculptural installation on the floor and walls
of the gallery. At first this appears to be an abstract
composition of volumes, surfaces and tones – drums
piled and sheets stacked, monotone blacks and
metallic greys against the brightly coloured plastic
squares. But when we move into the installation and
look at it more closely a narrative begins to emerge.
This might be a roadside encampment with a narrow
shelter behind the metal sheets stacked against the
wall and silica placed at the base of the tar drums
to suggest collected pools of water. As our spatial
relation to the work changes, we experience it as
balanced between abstract composition and theatrical
tableau – with the materials arranged so that they can
communicate both interpretations.

Wooden Chips

A recent large-scale work titled Of All People (2011)
might take viewers by surprise when seen in the
overall context of the exhibition. Unlike in her other
installations, which are pared down to include just one
or two elements, Gowda uses several quite different
materials in combination. She works with different
scales simultaneously and uses brilliant colours.

She began by selecting the small wooden
chips that may appear to be random and
unidentifiable fragments but actually have features
indicating that they should be seen as human figures.
Used in India as votive objects, these chips are
individually carved, but over time the craftsmen have
began to produce them so rapidly that the human
features have become almost unrecognisable. When
they are held up and scrutinised closely their humanity
comes into focus, but left in a pile they dissolve into a
featureless mass, somewhere between abstraction and
figuration, between formed and unformed matter.

To play with this ambiguity Gowda has chosen
to make a ‘stage’ for the little figures, showing them
in an environment that includes a table turned upside
down, door frames (some standing, others broken open
and suspended), wooden columns and window frames
hung from the wall, complete with shutters and metal
grills. Unusually for Gowda, this work includes vivid
colours similar to those found in Indian vernacular
architecture and domestic interiors – bright pink,
emerald green, golden yellow, turquoise blue.

Yet the framing devices do not become too
significant in themselves. The door is a door and
the window a window, but they can also be read
as geometric shapes arranged on the ground or
suspended in the air. Rather than relating this work to
architecture and domestic space, which the doors and
windows and tables would suggest, Gowda describes
it as an immersive landscape. This environment
complicates our interpretation of the little wooden
figures. To be able to understand the work we must
walk through it and view it from a variety of angles
and distances.

Works on Paper

A noticeable development in recent years has been
the increased visibility of painting within Gowda’s
practice. Painting has always been there, of course,
although the shift to sculpture – incidentally
something that Gowda shared with several other
significant Indian artists in the early 1990s – might
have prevented us from seeing that.
Visiting her studio in 2002, I was surprised
when she showed me a series of watercolours
copied from newspapers: photographs of sportsmen
abstracted to silhouettes, indistinct because overlaid
with thin washes of paint, that gave the impression of
rioters running through clouds of smoke or tear gas.
These small works on paper eventually found their
way into a sculptural installation, but increasingly
Gowda now shows her paintings independently.
They are almost always based on images taken from
the media, asking us to question what we see and
what we think we see and highlighting the process of
reproduction and the artist’s role in it. Gowda herself
questions this role and her relationship to the material.
What does it mean to look at images of violence?
What might be an appropriate response? What
are the possibilities for action, for empathy or even
comprehension?

Sanjay Narrates (2004), for instance, takes a
tragic incident, a scene of violence from Palestine, and
breaks it down into 14 sections, which are shown in a
line on the wall. Each is a meticulously painted but
abstracted fragment of the whole, depicting a hand,
a face in pain, feet, arms clenched, a blurred section
of background. Gowda has scanned the image with
care and produced a visual document that is less
complete, and ultimately less legible, than the original
newspaper clipping. Yet the effort of reproduction itself
seems to attempt to understand the gravity of this
scene.

Two sets of works on paper underline
the status of images as ambiguous documents.
Fakes (2008) features three framed inkjet prints of
banknotes, of which some sections have been enlarged
and painted over by Gowda. The original bank notes
are themselves small pieces of paper with images
and patterns printed on them to denote monetary
value, and their reproduction partly mimics the act
of forgery. The enlarged figures, cross-hatching and
meticulously copied scribbled pen marks highlight
details that are there to deter precisely that, but they
also begin to reference the language of art.

Crime Fiction (2008) is a set of two images,
one of a butterfly wing seen through a microscope
and the other of a lone woman hurling a rock at what
looks like a police barricade. The first image is an
example of how nature plays with representations
and tricks the eye, as the moth is one of a kind
whose wings imitate the features of an owl in order
to deter predators. The second image comes without
explanation, but we almost instinctively believe we
understand what is happening and interpret the
woman’s gesture as something brave and futile. But
Gowda has complicated our reception of these images
by attaching little beads to their pixellated surfaces.
At an almost subliminal level, this points at their
physical presence in the gallery and at her own acts of
selecting, staging and post-production.

Heartland (2011) is an enlarged photographic
clipping from a newspaper, showing a suspected
tribal insurgent who has just been captured by the
Indian military. The title refers to the vast tracts of
Central and Eastern India said to be controlled by
Maoist guerillas, the so-called Naxalites. The image
concentrates our attention on the central figure. He
appears in sharp relief while his captors sink into
the background. His face is set in an indescribable
expression, his half-naked body with a curious black
collar around the neck seems defenseless against
army brutality. But he is given a certain defiant
agency, because while in the original image his gaze
is set at an angle, here Gowda has doctored the
right eye so that it implicates us by staring out of the
picture, directly at us.

Protest My Son (2011) features members
of the Indian ‘tribe’ Hakki Pikki who appear to be
showing off for the camera. The found image has the
spectacular appeal of advertising but is at the same
time riddled with contradictions. It is blown up to
wall size, but on a smaller inserted repeat Gowda has
transformed the figures into anthropological types,
giving some of them ‘Native American’ headgear.
A sarcastic comment, perhaps, on our appetite
for the exotic and our inability to empathise with
marginalised peoples. Meanwhile, a real-life tourist
souvenir (a somewhat threatening fetish object of
fake animal claws suspended on a string) hangs from
the larger image and ‘brings it to life’ as if it were a
diorama in an anthropology museum. Gowda calls
this her ‘active abuse’ of the original image, and it
forcefully brings out the problem of representation
that is implicit in it.

Best Cuttings (2008) neatly connects found
material from newspapers with Gowda’s sculptural
installations. A fictional newspaper called the Chronic
Chronicle, put together by the artist and her husband
Christoph Storz from existing articles about Indian
national pride and Hindu fundamentalist politics,
becomes the surface for a series of dress-making
patterns outlined in red. This reflects how tailors recycle
newsprint in India and suggests the potential for three
dimensions on a flat surface. At the same time it echoes
the red chords of Gowda’s sculptural installations,
which in this exhibition are positioned nearby.

Open Eye Policy

Seen together, the works on paper and the sculptural
installations help viewers to better understand
Gowda’s practice as a whole, and the relation between
its different parts. The juxtaposition also nuances
the straightforward focus on abstraction in Gowda’s
work and the often-made claim that it is influenced by
minimalism.

The exhibition places more importance on
Gowda’s methodology, emphasising her appropriation
and transformation of found elements and their
staging in the gallery as the result of a series of
material and conceptual moves. The works on
paper help to understand her process of borrowing,
modification and presentation, as well as her interest
in allowing materials to cross the threshold between
everyday life and the space of art.

Rather than thinking of Gowda’s art as
minimalist, we should reflect on her own description
of her working method as one in which things are
reduced and ‘trimmed’ down to a limited range
of attributes. Yet even transformed and pared
down in this way, her chosen materials bring
with them a residual presence of the world, which
becomes apparent to us in a number of ways. This
can be because of the title of the work, because
of our own associations or intuitions, because of
an accompanying text, or because of the work’s
composition in space.

While Gowda takes great care to sidestep the
pitfalls of representation, or any attempt to describe a
whole social scene. By paring her work down to a few
elements, she nevertheless invokes a range of human
experience. She is clear about her role in this process,
as an artist who takes up materials for their formal
qualities. At the same time she has what she calls an
‘open eye policy’, acknowledging rather than negating
the source of these materials and the economies within
which they once circulated. Used as a title for the
exhibition, Open Eye Policy also becomes an invitation
for us to look more closely, something perhaps desired
by all artists, but which here is imperative.

Grant Watson
Curator of the Exhibition

One thought on “Sheela Gowda: Open Eye Policy by Grant Watson from Lunds Konsthall

  1. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your article seem to be running off the screen in Firefox.

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