I n the ’70s, as a civil engineering student in Kerala, a book on art history (The Anxious Object: Art Today and its Audience, by Harold Rosenberg) convinced artist Baiju Parthan (60) to switch to studying art. In the early ’80s, Parthan, who had by then moved to Mumbai, was inspired by the existentialist philosophy of playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, and gave up art to study comparative mythology. By the early ’90s, Parthan resumed painting, making images that explored the idea of mandalas. And by the ’90s, he started learning hardware engineering (primarily to maintain his own computer). The pioneering new media artist’s journey had come full circle.
Parthan’s works reflect his diverse influences: they are rich in symbols, showcase his philosophical and ecological concerns, as well as how technology impacts the perception of reality.
Necessary Illusions, Parthan’s new show, comes after a decade, and features 20 paintings as well as digital works featuring graphics layered over photos, on lenticular prints that give an illusion of depth.
“I was fascinated by machines. Around the late ’80s and early ’90s, the internet started making its presence felt. One could sense how this technology would transform the cultural and political landscape. It was an exciting time to dabble in new media,” says Parthan.
The highlights include Monument, an ominous image showing the Gateway of India with a superimposed school of sharks circling overhead. The idea, says Parthan, is to show how digital alterations can make viewers reimagine monuments. Another work, Engineered Fruit, showcases the pear, a common motif in many of his paintings, to represent concerns over genetically modified (GM) products and the idea of perfection.
The title of the show is inspired by American social critic Noam Chomsky’s 1989 book, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. The show, however, has nothing to do with Chomsky or thought control. Instead, Parthan focuses on the contemporary world “where virtual experiences and social media feeds construct our reality”.
Parthan says the decade-long gap between exhibitions was due to a busy schedule — his solo shows were being held globally and across India — and the labour intensive nature of his art. “I do not use assistants. I belong to the school of thought that it is the process that defines you as an artist and not the end result. And I work with different mediums, so a lot of time is spent acquiring skills,” he says.
Necessary Illusions is on display till September 21 at Jehangir Art Gallery; and from September 22 to October 14 at Art Musings.
Address: Jehangir Art Gallery, Kala Ghoda; Art Musings, 1 Admiralty Building, Colaba Cross Lane.