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In Gieve Patel’s new exhibition, you can see the vulnerable figure on the sidelines of society

Mourners, 2005, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 93 in

The fourteen works gathered to form Gieve Patel’s current exhibition, Footboard Rider, offer renewed testimony to the artist’s lifelong preoccupation with the marginal, vulnerable or extreme figure, taken from the sidelines of society or from unbearable intensities of experience, and set at the centre of his paintings. Whether it is the man struggling against the rain, the maimed beggar, the eunuch, the mutilated body on a beach, or the martyr at the stake, Patel’s figures are clothed in the robust specificity of their social milieu or historical circumstances. They are modelled on individuals the artist has encountered in the street, the public garden, the clinic, or the wharf; or else, they have been culled from his intense engagement with the history of painting and cinema. Despite this seeming recognisability, Patel’s figures remain enigmatic. They are never so distant as to be alien to us, of course; yet they are never so close as to be neutralised by familiarity. And while they can sometimes be insistently material and present, they can also be spectral, suggestive of apparitions.

The protagonist of this exhibition’s title painting is one of Patel’s more spectral dramatis personae. He inhabits a threshold between the contained interior of a commuter or long-distance train – a mobile habitat familiar to the denizens of the artist’s home city, Bombay – and the landscape seen outside its window, all red hills and orange sky. Are we inside the train, looking out at the footboard rider, we ask ourselves? Or are we outside the train, looking in? The construction of the painting subtly disorients our viewerly certainties.

In the same way, Patel’s long-term fascination with the moment of looking into a well, and with the passage of clouds in the sky, opens us to cosmic intimations. In these works, the artist pulls away from the figure, hinting at a transcendence of the bodied self; or perhaps, more accurately, at the possibility of such a transcendence. For Patel’s wells are sensuously conceived: his haptic attentiveness embraces the textures of stone, brick, loam, vegetation, water in flow and at rest; he does not isolate his wells, miraculous as they are, from the cycles of human activity and utility indicated by the winch, well head or other architectural features that are occasionally reflected in their surfaces. It is possible, also, to read the floating world of the well as an image of the mind, with thoughts, sensations and impulses striating and succeeding one another on its mercurial surface. Equally, it might suggest the millennial cycles of gathering and dispersal through which the universe maps its life cycle.

In this sense, Patel’s wells bear a considerable affinity with his graphite, charcoal and ink studies of clouds: natural ephemera approximated through the graphic gesture, which remind us of the interplay between mortality and eternity within which we shape our lives. Patel’s artistic project is that of taking up a quotidian moment, so naturalised and rendered routine that it no longer attracts attention, and to visit a transfiguration upon it: to make it mysterious and radiant, marked by an otherness that invites us to look more closely at all that remains unexamined in our lives.

n theatre, an actor finds his or her place on stage through a script, or through a sequence of moves plotted and blocked, or even, in more experimental situations, through evolving relationships with other actors sharing the experience of performance. By contrast, Patel often declines to offer the protagonists who people his paintings a definite script, or to orchestrate the precise relationships that hold them together. As viewers, we find ourselves reaching intuitively for the currents and sediments of affect in his obliquely told tales. We gauge the degrees of familiarity and estrangement from the everyday that he layers into his art, as we attempt to interpret the true inwardness of his tableaux. Our interpretations are, of course, subject to change; they shift as our perceptions shift to accommodate allusions, shades of meaning, undercurrents, the utterances and the silences of these paintings and drawings. Elsewhere, I have written of how “Patel’s paintings often feature groups that are the interwoven sum of unspoken privacies” and the “content of Patel’s compressed narratives remains unspelled-out, withheld as in the paintings of Piero della Francesca, whom he admires”. [2]

In this spirit, let us approach Footboard Rider and Embrace (both 2016). The first work thrums with the momentum of an expanding metropolis and a sprawling subcontinent; it takes its place in a decades-long itinerary of paintings in which Patel has invoked the environs of the train station, the deserted railway platform, the figure of the porter, and the early-morning train ride. In some of these paintings, especially of the early and mid-1970s – Lighted Platform (1974) and Figure in Landscape (1976) come to mind – space was as persuasive a protagonist as any human figure. The second work is inspired by the newspaper photograph of a pivotal moment in a soccer match. This, too, may be contextualised within a research and preparatory practice of the artist’s, which involves the use of media photographs, seen to particular advantage in a series from the late 1960s and early 1970s devoted to the figure of the politician, including Dead Politician (1969) and Conference Table (1972).


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