Material man

By blowing up everyday objects and casting them in marble, Subodh Gupta's 'monuments' pay a wry tribute to the common man. Amitava Sanyal writes.

art and culture Updated: Dec 10, 2010 23:20 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times

"Subodh is a boring sculptor," says Peter Nagy, director of Gallery Nature Morte who's playing host to the artist's new show. Don't get him wrong. Nagy, who has organised four solos by Subodh Gupta over a decade, is comparing the artist's "slow, organic growth" to the frenzied chase of several others to board the "new-media bandwagon".

To such herd-minded artists, the medium may no longer be the message. But to Gupta, whose current show is ironically titled Oil on Canvas, the medium is at once an artistic language and a tool for social satire. So when such a "boring" craftsman, who happens to be the top-selling Indian artist of his generation, takes up a new medium, you take note.

"Today marble is in every middle-class household," says the Bihar-born artist who has earlier used stainless steel, brass and even cow-dung to make sharp comments on class.

"So I wanted to use it for long. But using a material for the sake of aesthetics is not right. Then it will be just a material, not an artwork."

So he waited till inspiration struck earlier this year. It was a small twist to an everyday item that's become a Gupta motif over the years: a bucket. A kettle, skulls, tiffin carriers and other trademarks followed. (Not all of them are in the current show.)

But marble is not just an aspirational stepping stone in reality-show-loving India of today. Ever since Shah Jahan in this part of the world and Renaissance in Europe, it's also been a preferred medium to build monuments. By blowing up everyday objects like buckets and casting them in marble, Gupta builds mocking modern-day monuments to the common man.

Gayatri Sinha, who curated Gupta's works for a group show earlier this year, says, "Subodh's work is a barometer of social class, a subject that's still very insidious in India... Monumentality also lends an abstraction to his works."

But there's more to the mix that has made Gupta a darling of the international art market. The 46-year-old doesn't shy away from cocking a snook at art history, too. Earlier, his super-sized skull made of steel pots and pans (titled A very hungry god) jousted directly with the human-sized, diamond-studded, super-expensive skull by Damien Hirst (titled For the love of God).

At this show, apart from an irreverent Renaissance 'revival', he's entering into a dialogue with American artist Robert Rauschenberg and Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, who put out 'white-on-white' canvases that stunned the art world in the 20th century. Gupta has also made white canvases - only, they are made of solid bronze.

The casting, done in Geneva, and the paint-over are rendered with such precision that even a close inspection doesn't betray the medium. It's when you try to move them that the heft shocks you. Similar is the effect with a lump of dough that was frozen and then cast.

That's how, with the choice of material and scale, Gupta infuses delicious irony into everyday objects.

The sense will linger till his next show in January, which will comprise only canvas works. Real ones. This show will be on, too. And there will be another potent interplay for an artist who initially trained to be a painter.

First Published: Dec 10, 2010 23:18 IST