How political is the normal?

Mahesh Baliga’s paintings challenge frameworks that govern the way we perceive everyday occurrences, says Pooja Savansukha

February 28, 2020 08:47 pm | Updated 08:47 pm IST

‘It’s a normal day…’ Mahesh Baliga’s fifth solo exhibition at Project 88 features the artist’s works that showcase his unrelenting concern with everyday happenings. Baliga uses matter-of-fact, playful, and semi-satirical imagery to divulge dissonances within regular days that have been overlooked or ignored, while making a strong case for the relevance of painterly practices. Entering the gallery, one is taken by the impressive display of evenly-sized, small-scale paintings that are exhibited cinematically across two walls of the space and juxtaposed against larger paintings by the Vadodara-based artist. The viewer is compelled to pay attention to the conversation between these works that highlight “Details that have been missed from the day-to-day framing of images of importance — of violence, pain, loss, and love.” Mythological subjects, intimate indoor scenes, depictions of nature, the built environment, and references to Baliga’s artistic identity are brought to the forefront. The artist invites considerations of his painterly medium, the construction of narratives, and idea of normalcy.

Contemplative form

Baliga works with casein, a by-product of milk, mixed with pigment that achieves an intensity and vibrancy that cannot be realised by synthetic colours. He was introduced to the medium while working as a production assistant at senior artist, Nilima Sheikh’s studio and acknowledges in an interview that, “How the paint behaves,” is a question that continues to drive his practice. Allowing his medium to determine the depth and dimensionality within his paintings, Baliga also abandons a strict adherence to realistic perspectives to re-examine regular sights with scrutiny and imagination. Using vivid colours, he captures essences of still moments and dynamism across his paintings, inviting a contemplative form of viewership. The artist expresses in the press note, “The daily practice of painting is often found redundant in the present context; it is normalised/standardised as something of the commonplace. This is the primary action which I consciously retain.”

His paintings draw formally from sources such as Edward Hopper, Caravaggio, post-Impressionists, Ukiyo-e prints, and Persian miniature paintings. In his paintings, Pagala Gach (Ptergota Alata) and Gaze Chart, Baliga also reveals his consideration of children’s charts as reference material for the manner in which he explores numerous ways of depicting trees and fountains, respectively. Some of his paintings furthermore, pay tribute to artists including Nilima Sheikh and Raqs Media Collective, revealing his engagement with art practitioners. Painting enables Baliga to straddle serious subjects, banality, and deliberate humour while exploring the structures of visuality. “The delight of making” remains at the core of his practice; “I cannot sleep without making a painting,” he expresses.

Narrative techniques

For Baliga, making art is linked with, “looking sideways at images that are all too familiar.” His works that are exhibited like a series do not construct a linear narrative, but instead portray various kinds of reversals, contradictions, references to time, and ideas of intertextuality. Baliga explains how his use of recurring motifs within these works provides a sense of distancing and reorientation. “There are conversations surrounding the absent mother, the burnt cycle, the upturned milk van, and the presence of a military tank in a residential area which lives without any caution. The unnoticed everyday responses of an artist to his daily life, moments of introspection, friendships, and conflicts are laid bare for the spectators.” In ‘Artist consuming time’ , Baliga appears to have depicted himself eating the moon — a reference to lunar cycles, as well as to the phenomenal experience of the passage of time while painting. ‘Birthday’ , alternatively features a date from a calendar (of the artist’s birthday) inviting a consideration of the construct of time. The artist frequently portrays images of noise on a television screen to insinuate a sense of “pause” within his cinematic series, providing viewers a moment to consider “how we see.” In one painting, a rabbit chases a hound, and in yet another the situation is inverted. ‘Pagala Gach’ (mad tree) features a tree from Kolkata’s Botanical Garden in which every leaf is different from another, representing a sense of unity in diversity. Baliga depicts the tree with waq waq tendrils, borrowing from imagery in Persian manuscripts. By placing equal emphasis on images, ideas, and events that are both trivial and critical, Baliga investigates the idea of normality.

Questioning the ordinary

Baliga suggests, “When singular things or events begin to occur regularly, they are rendered normal. When people overlook strangeness it’s normal. Sometimes things are simply normalised to suit institutions of power. News clippings from the sidelines and margins may enter the frames. The normality of everyday gets lost in the articulation of larger discourses of politics.”

In his paintings, Baliga refers to the writer M.M. Kalburgi who was shot dead in 2015 for quoting the writer U. R. Ananthmurthy, news about abandoned babies, ecological catastrophe, and the ill-treatment of animals. “The routine practices of reading unreceived images of violence, alienation, conflict, and desire through the everyday of myself as an artist-person, enters my practice. I ask how political is normal?” the artist explains. Baliga chooses to portray his subjects with a calculated distance. By maintaining a sense of unsentimentality through stylistic exaggeration and consciously not taking any stand within his works, the artist is succinctly reminding viewers to remain vigilant and to look and think critically every day.

Today is the last day to see Mahesh Baliga’s works at Project 88, Colaba

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