‘Painting has its own rhetoric,' says artist Rajan M. Krishnan as he reflects on his creative process.
Rajan M. Krishnan, a Kochi-based artist, is making his presence felt nationally as well as internationally. He deliberately marginalised colours to explore the environment and the changes that man and technology have wrought on sensitive ecosystems. His voice is from his own landscape and, perhaps, this contextualisation from his native place of Shoranur — later extending to other areas in Kerala — impacts and gives emotional valence to his works. The artist, who was in Chennai recently for the Artists Residency during the Chennai Art Festival, spoke about his art and praxis. Excepts...
How did your interest in art start?
I started as a self-taught graphic designer in an ad agency while doing a degree in economics before joining the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram, in 1990. I had my stint in the leftist student's movement and designed posters for mass reproduction. But I never thought or dreamed of a career as an artist until my initial mentor Unni Menon, a former student of Madras College of Art, exposed me to the works of masters. I started reading about art; I started painting and drawing frequently. Gradually I knew where my destiny lay.
How did your art pedagogy in two different regions affect your thinking process, visual language and conceptual thinking?
Thiruvananthapuram was a hub of activities when I joined the College of Fine Art. I met writers, filmmakers, theatre activists, actors, painters and revolutionaries. I met Bohemians, vagabonds and alcoholics. I was introduced to good literature, great cinema, music and dance. The college was a meeting point for all these people. Moreover, it had produced some of India's finest visual artists. Thiruvananthapuram provided me the freedom that an individual artist required.
I joined the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Vadodara in 1994. In Vadodara, the time of the great teachers was gone yet their magnetism remained. I didn't do much work; I was more interested in meeting people who came from different regions of India and abroad.
I was only formulating my thinking patterns and process while studying in Thiruvananthapuram and Vadodara. I was even confused at times about my future as an artist and my art. But people I met made me realise that, in any society, art was required as marker of its growth and depletion. My thinking still revolves around the two complementary aspects of life: growth and depletion.
What led you to return to Kerala?
Not out of love for my roots or the repelling sentiment of nostalgia. I returned to Kerala for my subject. Painting! The place opened immense possibilities. Also I felt that I needed to experiment a bit with my life. So staying away from the major centres of art was challenging; I enjoyed it. In fact this gave me the distance and provided a better view and grasp of what was happening.
How difficult was it to begin in Kerala?
When I returned, the immediate need was to derive an appropriate language/vocabulary that would help in more effective communication. I was working constantly and going through a sort of ‘de-schooling', an inevitable process after coming out of academic institutions. My work was taking a new line, different from the earlier narrative method but finally led me to the present. I moved to Kochi in 2000. The art scene there was already evolving, and it was not hard to find my place in it. We did our best to build spaces of interaction, galleries and other interactive spaces. We also worked on building awareness among those who visited our shows.
Ironically you are known better internationally. How did this happen?
I don't know if I'm really known internationally! Yes, I've shown in some of the important international art fairs, and shows and done solo shows abroad. I have to acknowledge Bodhi Art for their efforts to expose my art outside India. I was part of “The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today” a show from the Indian subcontinent, presented by Charles Saatchi in his newly built museum in London.
How sensitive are you to your surroundings/environment?
For me art is a give and take process. Of course I make choices. We live in a world full of ruptures. And there are deep ruptures within us too. I try to bring out the internal traumas inflicted by external ruptures. I try to reflect the sensitivity and sensibility of our time in the objects I paint; in the textures, in the colours and in the choice of forms and objects.
With which kind of visual language do you have your comfort levels?
I have always been a figurative painter, and painting has been my prime concern. I believe painting is still a breathing language. Painting has its own rhetoric. I usually enjoy working on large scale. I had a tendency to work with scale even as a student. I remember a work titled “Substances on Black Moon” done soon after I left Vadodara. It was made up of small frames depicting the moon in blacks and browns. When I started, I had no idea of the scale it would attain. But, in the end, all the frames added up to 15 feet long and nine feet tall. It is more like building with bricks, you keep stacking and the scale keeps shifting. The process is very intuitive. The same thing happened when I painted “Red mountain” and “Substances of Earth”. I like the painting to look at us than we look at the painting!
How did you arrive at your conceptual approach?
I evolved the conceptual approach to express concerns. I think when an artist stands close to his/her heart and expresses things with utmost conviction, there won't be any hard work to evolve a conceptual basis to his/her work.
How important are materials, technique and process for you?
I usually use fast drying colours. Form, colour and texture/surface are equally important. I do not create texture artificially in my works. Texture is gained naturally as part of the process. I have a sculpting mentality when I paint. I use a lot of paint, like a sculptor using clay while moulding. There are a number of hidden layers of paint as corrections, passages, additions and deletions on the canvas suggesting a history of the image and my activity on the canvas. My process is more intuitive than logical. I try to rationalise and justify myself later when going through them again. I think I am a good viewer of my own works.
I have noticed the predominant use of blacks and greys. Are you attempting to convey certain emotions/concepts/narrative through these graded tonal values?
As I mentioned earlier, I was not painter to begin with. And my initial art activity was in design. I was mostly working with typography, designing fonts and so I was most familiar with black. When I started painting, I was searching for a palette that was within me and not derived from the space outside of me. It is more like I need to absorb what is around me and then create a palette within myself. I consider myself to be eclectic and I need to bring that into my work too.
Why are your landscapes and urbanscapes bereft of human figures?
In my landscapes and urbanscapes, I try to bring an air of revulsion usually attained by creating the absence of human presence. I don't see them as a threat!
How important are colours to you?
Since I mean the colours to produce some psychological results in the viewer and in the painting, my choice of colours comes out of an intuitive compulsion.
Have you indulged in any other medium?
I usually indulge in other media only when my paintings demand them. One work, called ‘ORE', a hill/heap made out of more than 1,000,000 handmade terracotta figurines was born out of another work “Substances of Earth”. The image was a large looming red hill. When I completed the painting, I felt like seeing it's another dimension.
How do you want critics to read your work?
In a critical manner. But I'd like them to contextualise my works properly before entering them.