Photo Finished

17th October 2010

It has almost been a decade since photorealism made its debut in Indian art. Is it time to ask: what next?
It all begins with a photograph. The artist first draws a grid on it,and then painstakingly replicates each square of the grid on to his canvas. Then,begins a long process of undoing,almost as if the artist is working backward: the bold brush strokes and the distinctive coarseness of the canvas are evened out. By the time the artist is finished,the image has the flatness of a photograph,and not the depth of a painting. This is a typical day at the studio of an artist like Riyas Komu,one of the many contemporary Indian artists to have embraced photorealism.
Komu is considered the poster boy of photorealism,known for his larger-than-life realist portraits of migrant workers,footballers and Muslim women. The genre has followers in artists such as TV Santosh,Shibu Natesan and Bose Krishnamachari.
Photorealism began in America in the late Sixties and early Seventies,as a reaction against abstract expressionism. It was inspired by the exaggerrated colours of commercial photography. The images were hyperreal and evoked a faintly disturbing feel.
It took four decades for this style to reach India,as late as 2003. Over the years,many young artists have jumped onto the bandwagon. “Younger artists,especially students,explore this genre with eagerness,often not in very exciting ways. It still remains one of the best ways to get noticed by a gallery,or at least,this is what many still believe,” says Abhay Sardesai,editor of Art India,a Mumbai-based art magazine.
Several collectors seem to share Sardesai’s fatigue with the glut of flattened,realist images of everyday life. Tunty Chauhan,owner of Delhi’s Gallery Threshold,says she “finds photorealism a bit too technically assisted”. At a recent art walk conducted at Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi,Annapurna Garimella,designer and art historian from Bangalore,was disdainful of its predictability. “Though it is anchored in the politics of today,and artists like TV Santosh and Riyas Komu have spawned an entire generation of wannabe photorealists,I think it has reached an end,” she says. Delhi-based collector Bhavana Bhayana is an admirer of Santosh,but agrees that photorealism has become the formula that fits all kinds. “Everyone is doing it,” she says.
A few artists have already begun to move away. Bose Krishnamachari,who began his career as a photorealist in 2003,now works with installation,video and even abstract painting. He is not one to announce the death of photorealism,though. “This arguments does not have any historical relevance because it looks at style. What is important in art is its content and concerns,” he says.
Krishnamachari has mentored several artists who have distinguished themselves as photorealists and then moved on to do something different. His protege Prajakta Potnis,for instance,is more emphatic about not following the herd. “I find it deadening to just refer to a photograph. It’s too dry and unemotional. I prefer looking at a live object,the light and the shade; there is then the possibility of transforming it into an artwork rife with emotions,” says Potnis,who works with everyday objects (a comb with a few strands of hair caught in it,or an abandoned teddy bear in the corner of a cupboard).
The debate over whether photorealism has worn out its welcome centres around work by artists like Murli Cheeroth,who have been criticised for regurgitating dystopic images ad nauseum. “The use of hyper-real colours (in his work) are almost predictable and something that belongs to the 1970s,” says Garimella. Cheeroth,who is a Bangalore-based artist,defends his work as being relevant to contemporary India. “My works deal with urbanisation and the frenzied globalisation around us,and the visual and virtual stimulation it produces,” he says.
Komu,who has done some of the most edgy work in this genre,lends his voice to Cheeroth’s. “I do not agree with this argument or even the term photorealism. I prefer the term neo-realism,something that is concerned with the ordinary lives of people. In the Indian context,we have yet to exhaust the possibilities of the everyday,” he says.
Sardesai says for photorealism to work,it has to break out of the grid. “One way in which artists have broken the bind is by combining photo-realism with videos,sculptures and installations. In the best cases,this has led to unexpected conversations between works and genres.” We can see this in Komu’s next exhibition Royal Screws,a collection of wall hangings and sculptures that provoke questions about colonisation.
Dinesh Vazirani,founder of auction house Saffronart,refuses to weigh in on one end of the argument. “I don’t see an exhaustion (with photorealism),only a general slowing down in the contemporary art market,” he says. But he adds: “Every artist needs to take a break from a prevailing style. If photorealism dies out,it will be a natural progression.

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