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The earliest images by Manish Nai I saw evoked the stained walls and buildings of Indian towns. He created them by pasting butter paper and jute on canvas and laying washes of paint before scraping the picture surface. A few months later, I met him for the first time, and found he was incorporating the shaved bits of paint and fabric into his work. He did this by collecting the flecks and strands in small plastic bags and attaching the zip-lock pouches to the bottom of each frame. Although the solution looked unsatisfactory, the recycling of material and foregrounding of an aspect of his working method hinted at an unusual degree of sophistication in one as young as Manish then was. Like many of his experiments, these works were never exhibited, but they are worth recalling now because the same concerns have resurfaced in mature form. His first sculptures, including one in the current display, utilised discards from works made to hang on gallery walls. He gathered the tweezed-out filaments in a mould, packed them tight, and watered them periodically as if tending a delicate plant. 

A more unlikely material could hardly be imagined for pieces that echo blocks of stone. Their asceticism provides an apt counterpoint to his works in jute. The latter began years ago as economical compositions of horizontals and verticals, but have evolved into extraordinarily elaborate designs. They are produced by a complicated method involving drawing on paper; scanning and digitally manipulating the drawn images; projecting and tracing these onto fabric stretched over canvas; and replicating the drawings as patterns on jute through a painstaking removal of threads.

The artist’s site-specific mural and drawings on paper are, like his sculptures, underpinned by abiding concerns. A first look at the illusions -- the appearance of three dimensions turning into two as the composition is approached -- might tempt a viewer to classify them as inheritors of the Op Art tradition. I suggest Manish is closer in spirit to a very different movement from the 1960s: Arte Povera. The Indian reception of Arte Povera has highlighted its political radicalism as theorised by the critic Germano Celant, who coined the name that is Italian for ‘poor art’. An actual experience of the Arte Povera oeuvre, however, demonstrates that its aesthetic achievement far outstripped any transitory political significance it might have possessed. That, at least, was the conclusion I drew after viewing the Tate Modern’s important 2001 show Zero to Infinity. The attitude of the artists in the exhibition was characterised, in the words of the introductory note, by an “openness towards materials and processes”. Their experiments with unusual media represented an expansion of the possibilities of art rather than a revolt against its basic conventions, although the elegance of their compositions may not have been as apparent to contemporaries as it is in retrospect. 

It is in this reoriented sense that Arte Povera relates to Manish’s concern with humble materials and with process. He operates in what might be termed a redemptive rather than radical mode. The design on the wall, which will be on view for approximately as long as it took to be completed, is inspired by the cracked and fractured surfaces that make up a substantial part of the daily visual experience of India. The connection is made explicit through a digital print of a similar illusionistic pattern superimposed on a photograph of an actual wall. 

Rather than reject and ignore the ugliness of the Public Works Department aesthetic, Manish finds excitement in daubs of light plaster, patches of grey cement, trickles of rust from drainpipes, peeling paint and the spread of blackish-green moss; just as he finds in jute a versatile artistic medium rather than the cheap, dispensable sackcloth that most people see. He does not, however, valorise the lowly by setting up reverse hierarchies; instead he employs technology and artisanship, PhotoShop and gunny fibre, as equal partners in his explorations.   

It will be apparent to all who are familiar with the artist’s output that this latest exhibition represents a significant widening of his repertoire. What I hope has been conveyed by my brief contextualisation is that his shift to a number of new media is neither haphazard nor shallow, but a carefully considered extension of long-standing preoccupations.


Girish Shahane

Mumbai, August 2010

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