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Intelligent populist

Anjolie Ela Menon, a leading contemporary artist, has occasionally forsaken the themes and images for which she is well known. In the process, she has moved from paintings to mutations, to painted furniture to kitsch, says G. RAGHAV. A `retrospective' of her works is currently on show at the Apparao Galleries, Chennai, till March 10.

Anjolie Ela Menon ... detached from trendy art practices.

ANJOLIE ELA MENON'S retrospective has much to reveal about her mode of thinking and working for the past four decades. She has, for the most part, been a painter recopying herself — "I seem to have spent the last decade struggling out of that trap". She found excitement in getting out of and onto "unknown side alleys". These wanderings yielded some interesting results ranging "from resurrecting junk to playing with images on a computer, to making sculpture in glass in Murano". For the first time, these, along with numerous paintings are significantly brought together for the public.

When she began painting she was Anjolie Ela Dev. She spontaneously painted portraits from all around her, and even indulged in making abstract patterns. The 1970s saw the development of the artist aided by a few exciting experiments. She painted various images of windows on her canvases, and later moved over to painting on discarded window frames. These objects trouves extended into the 1980s, with subjects inspired by a few early photographs of Kerala. During the 1980s, she was with her son in the United States every summer — Aditya was a student — she painted and cooked. The show has a number of personal canvases from this series, which offer comforting depictions — her family portrait is among them.

The 1990s saw her preoccupied with junk and a dabbling in computers. I use the word dabble here from today's perspective. Early in the 1990s, when she was among the first artists to use the computer, the printouts might have surprised and even shocked artists and viewers. She scanned many of her own images and played them around creating compositions. Today, however, a few artists do take the computer as a generative tool. With primary software, they create images and grapple with the tools of the software as say, an animator might. But this is 2002. Given the technological advancements of today and our attempts at converting all our habits to the bit-world, Anjolie Ela Menon's experiments from early 1990s seem primitive and pioneering.

"Mid-day", 1997 ... a bold departure.

The year 1998 was the most crucial in her artistic career. There were two significant changes in her oeuvre — the first in terms of the content of her canvases, and the second in giving up the canvas all together. She painted nonfigurative patterns inspired by Buddhist iconography of Ladakh. She attempted in these works to capture the rhythmic, temporal chants of the Ladakh monastery. When she set aside her brushes after this, it was to take up glass and mould it. She worked with Venetian glass maestros at Gino Cenedese in Murano and created exquisite glass works, which were later entitled "Sacred Prism". These glass sculptures display characteristics of Buddhist and Tantric symbols.

In her latest body of work, Anjolie Ela Menon forayed into what she and her champions call "kitsch". In contemporary art discourses, the word kitsch is wrongly used to denote anything popular. Kitsch, however, is a German word meaning "trash", or even "gaudy trash". The word springs from verkitschen, meaning "to make cheap". Today, given the context of the aesthetic multi-cultural world we inhabit, there exist many easy doors in the age-old barrier between haute and bas culture. Also with a proliferation of mechanical and digital (re) production, our dilemmas of appreciation have intensified. So then, the term kitsch today could mean something vastly different. Pretension or artificiality comes to mind. Concept restaurants and government buildings could be "kitschy", poaching motifs from heritage sites and temples in an effort to draw attention to apparently authentic meanings. On the other hand, an idol — however badly painted — when used for worship by a man who does not care about its finesse, cannot categorically be called kitsch. For, without the subject-object relation, kitsch cannot properly be established.

Now, when Anjolie Ela Menon paints popular imagery, her reading of them might itself be kitschy. Without an effort to comprehend the meaning it may have for the particular class of beholders, the image that is poached is either abused, or, at best, is empty of context. As a notorious critic whose name will sully this page remarked, "(her representations) are a kitsch use of something mistaken for kitsch".

"The Conjuror's Trick", 2000.

Anjolie Ela Menon's use of popular imagery is intelligent, however. She weaves a fantastic visual tale of her surroundings that she constantly interacts with. By extracting visual possibilities she notices in poster and calendar representations, she conjures a clever joke and manages to satirise our common perceptions. Let me give you an illustration. A painting titled "Gujjars" has a hacksaw blade suggestively cutting up in two a boy with a melancholic face. He is frozen emerging from a box, which has a tiger passing through it. The middle portion of the tiger is ignored by the painter thus creating a visual impossibility. A man with a handle bar moustache looks on from behind, smiling. This man has a snake coiled around his neck and is painted blue. This man's iconic identity belongs to a common cultural cognition and can therefore easily be placed as Shiva. But she cleverly displaces his identity by endowing him with spectacles.

Her paintings, other than her corpus of "kitsch", also draw her viewers' attention to formal values. She paints her figures flat but renders them with a rich suggestion of volume. Her colours are luminous, with multiple layers of pigment, painted quickly but with great care and attention. Her style of placing the figure in the centre and painting an imagined backdrop supposedly evokes the practices of European painting during medieval times. Her figures carry a general ambiance of melancholy, with her women and men's eyes drawn inward, half-contemplating, half-glum. Her own nature is "somewhat melancholic", she observes, ... "a Bengali trait — where introspection and the dream-state often result in the creation of music, painting or poetry". She has been a maverick all these years — "I am quite prepared to accept that" — blissfully detached from trendy art practices — "finding self-expression in an idiom which is quite often out of context with the time and place in which I live". Leading an extremely "peopled life", Anjolie Ela Menon, the artist, finds her source in Mrs. Menon the housewife. Steeped in the "complex rituals of Indian family life," she confesses, "I live alone..."

She paints.

G. Raghav is a writer, photographer and art critic in Bangalore.

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