Are galleries the holy grail of art? Artist K.P. Soman comes up with a refreshingly new outlook that takes art beyond gallery exclusivity

The villagers came in clusters and looked at the framed work of art that hung at the ‘paan' shop, somewhere near Bhubaneshwar. It was a print. They asked the artist uncomfortable questions, about the way it was executed, what the hell some things meant. The artist answered as best as he could.

“This benefited both the artist and the public, the artist begins to see his work differently, in a new light and the public got exposed to different trends in art. We put a notebook also there for people to record their responses,” said K P Soman at ‘An Evening with K P Soman', a programme got up at Nanappa Gallery, Orthic Creative Centre, last week. That gallery space can be found in small village space is a concept that is still new, but it has succeeded. The prints kept there are for sale, for Rs. 150. The shop owner gets Rs. 50.

The fifty-plus audience who gathered at the gallery was enthused by this new trend and the discussion was lively with many wondering whether real works, other than prints could also be displayed thus. Art critic Vijayakumara Menon, Nambidi, P N Vijayan, scenarist and writer John Paul, sculptor V K Rajan, Mohammed Ali, Kaladharan, Asanthan, Bhagyanath were among those who took part in the discussion.

Soman, a nationally renowned sculptor and painter, who is the architect of the seven acre Kadammanitta ‘Sculpture Park', which has characters in Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan's poems, has been associated with public art for some time and is a pioneer in this field. Soman works in association with Bakul Foundation, a movement for volunteerism in Orissa, interested in social and environmental issues. It was launched with more than a thousand ordinary people coming together to contribute to set up a children's library in Bhubaneswar, which now has over 8,000 books. This experiment in Orissa was according to him, “just a small beginning for some of us who are interested in art and the public.”

Public response

“These prints were kept at eight or nine shops in this Orissa village and the public appreciated it. Comments came fast and furiously, when the subject of the work touched their lives. When it was an environmental issue, about land scams or water problem that were close to their lives, they responded well to it,” says Soman. “When a painting which had two people under an umbrella, walking in the rain, it drew a blank in the comments section, because it conveyed little, it was just a pretty picture!”

Some big artists refuse to have the prints of their works hung in small shops, but there are many who appreciate it, many who want the public to understand and discuss art.” At one shop, where a work was hung, there were so many people who asked too many questions that the poor shop owner, in the absence of the artist could not handle them. So he quietly removed the work and kept it inside!

If the vocabulary of art communicates well and the subject is of interest to the people, then art gets a good response. In Kolkata too it was tried in a small way, with some success many years ago, Soman said. People have this misconception that abstract art does not mean anything to people uneducated in art. “But no, I had to change my mind when people came with their families, looked at abstract works and gave their opinion, some good, some bad. One person bought the painting too.” At Orissa bus stops, you would find boards where poems are written, he said.

That only galleries can exhibit is a theory that seems passé. The gallery tastes would predominate and originality stunted, if something new like this does not come up. At Thalassery, there was a provision store which kept art and even sold some pieces, chipped in a person from the audience.

Moss art

Then there is moss art, where a compound wall or any wall filled with moss is used as a canvas and the drawing done on it.

Art now seems to be all about money. To break the trend where galleries, collectors and artists dominate art, where there is little space for the common people to be participants, such movements will help. Art as understood in the conventional term, has to reach down to the common people and it will, he believes. The artist also improves with so many comments and criticism from people. Usually in galleries, no one comments sincerely and the artist is left to see silent spectators who walk with blank faces across each work. But in villages, they respond sincerely. It's a totally different scene.

“After a year, we are going to the same villages to display more works to see how much their comments and attitude have changed after the art education they have been exposed to. Slide shows of art at bus stops is also among the next plans to strengthen the communication between art and the public.” said Soman. He urged artists to do something like this here to elicit such responses, which will help hone their talents as well as acquaint people with the different genres of art.