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Of pregnant beds and other mysteries
In a witty tribute to his mentor Prabhakar Barwe, Manjunath Kamath does his best to empty his canvas.
A headless couple with their limbs entwined, ensconced in a speech bubble. An ornate table leg which extends into a human mouth. A gigantic bed in a vibrant hue of red and a large pregnant bump. Delhi-based Manjunath Kamath's first solo show in Mumbai delights, as it perplexes. The surreal quality of the drawings, paintings and sculptural installations render reality into a malleable illusion.
Born in Mangalore in 1972, Manjunath Kamath completed his BFA from the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts, Mysore and went on to study at the School of Art & Design, University of Wales Institute, as artist-in-residence. This exhibition, Collective Nouns, is his tribute to his mentor, the late Prabhakar Barwe, and is embedded with Kamath's characteristic interweaving of the sacred with the secular.
Although seemingly divorced from the everyday, the images that appear in the paintings are generated from Kamath's daily life, his memories and his eclectic reading material. "This particular show was all done in one year, during the course of which I was reading different books, newspaper columns, magazines, mythological stories, philosophical texts etc, " says Kamath. "I start from a single germ of a thought or image, and that leads to another, like a chain that is out of my control. While I work, I let go of the situation and let the images simply come to me and they form their own narrative. " The result often surprises Kamath as well.
Using the single watercolour works as a daily diary of his mind's life, Kamath builds complex layered narratives that are autobiographical in their figurative allusions. The recurring symbol of the rabbit which appears continuously in his paintings, for instance, is an obituary to one of his pet rabbits that recently passed away. The mythological characters that appear sporadically in his work come from the fables that Kamath was reading at the time, "There is a story about sour grapes - the fox who can't reach the grapes and so he thinks they are sour, " says Kamath. "I turned that around and gave the fox a spoon with which he can easily eat the grapes. "
The elusive mystery of the work, that evades socially confirmed meaning, is vital to its purpose. "Every day I can tell a new story to go with my paintings. Why should I have to stick to one story? Saying the same thing every day is like being caught in a cage where you have very little space to move, " says Kamath. "If you don't have any ideology, you are free. " As art practice regularly layers symbols with accretions of meaning, Collective Nouns does not restrict its larger narrative. The story that moves between the images is particular to each viewer, depending on the associations that the viewer then has with the objects.
Much of the work is playful in its instinct. Foot in Mouth depicts an ornate wooden table leg extending into a human mouth. Kamath, who believes that humour is important to his work, has created a visual translation of a witty Kannada poem about verbal faux pas. In Pregnant Bed, the bird (of the birds and the bees) has landed at the foot of an impregnated bed. Kamath explains in all seriousness, "When I sleep with my wife, I sleep with my bed as well, so thought to myself, if my wife can get pregnant, why can't my bed?"
Reminiscent of weathered surfaces, the layered backgrounds are indicative of the deceit inherent in human nature. The earthy slaps that stretch in vast empty spaces on the canvas between metaphorical quotation marks are as important as the whimsical characters placed between. These spaces of vacuum are important to Kamath who has arrived to this style consciously, taking inspiration from the minimalistic idiom of Barwe. "Ten years back my work was overcrowded with imagery. Taking the work of Barwe as my muse, I want to empty my canvas, " says Kamath. "It gives you some space to think. The story moves in between the images. "
The surreal nature of the work allows Kamath to bend time and space. In Pumpkin and Varaha in my Backyard, the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu takes the form of a boar in a yard with a rabbit, with a vegetable patch, a pillow, a book and necktie floating in between. As the artist moves with equal ease between a variety of different mediums;drawings, paintings, sculptural installations, digital prints and movies, his canvas work also takes on a sculptural quality. In another work entitled When I said God is Dead, the painting is arrested between quotation marks, as a speech bubble hovers on one side and piles of scrap wooden furniture balance precariously in between.
"Visual play can go beyond the realistic. It is my version of reality, per se, " says Kamath. "The artist plays a god-like role in their work. As an artist you can create your own god. "
Collective Nouns will be on display until April 30 at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai
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