When I was invited to write this short text about four painters that work with Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, I was uncertain how to proceed, being largely unfamiliar with these artists' practices and having no immediate thoughts on painting — an important reason why they were brought together. I am glad we persevered because what followed was a series of engaging weekly online studio visits, from quarantine in London to various locations including in Kochi, Trivandrum, Baroda and Rotterdam where these artists are based.
While I missed the full experience of going into the studio, meeting in person, and having a direct encounter with the work, I appreciated a technology, which meant that without traveling I was still able to learn more about these four artists and their relationship to the medium of painting. And what follows is a series of short excerpts from our conversations.
The 4 painters will be profiled in 4 Online Viewing Rooms, beginning with Trivandrum-based Ratheesh T. (born 1980).
In the work of Ratheesh T. the visual worlds of Kerala have been consciously reduced to a series of portraits, principally of himself, as well as images of his studio and its immediate surroundings in Trivandrum where he lives and works. The elimination of surplus elements in his practice gets chronicled in the painting ‘I am (Cleaning Pond)’ (2015) where a jumble of clothing has been discarded leaving the artist naked, while behind him the walls crumble away to reveal a scene in which mechanical diggers extract weeds from the pond behind his studio — an image which is at once metaphorical and taken from life. He describes himself as ‘not telling big stories’, not plucking images from the air, but detailing what is happening right here ‘in my small life’. As we speak, he moves the camera to show his studio balcony with its high wall, which in a double portrait currently underway, sees him jumping up in order to see over to the pond below.
Ratheesh explains that while the work ‘I Am (Cleaning Pond)’ was pivotal, an earlier painting ‘The Middle Step’ (2014) also depicts a transition for the artist. This is an upward mobility through his art from a poor childhood, to success and recognition in adult life. In this painting we see Ratheesh ascending a chrome-railed staircase to an upstairs room and looking back to a group sitting at a table below that includes his mother, and four childhood versions of himself. They are eating papaya and jeering at the artist as he walks up and away from them. ‘Papaya’ the artist explains, ‘is low-cost food in Kerala’ eaten by disadvantaged families such as his own. It is noticeable that he has painted the family group with exaggeratedly dark skin, and in our conversation, he describes the association between caste and skin tone that exists in Kerala to which this refers. For example, he relates how in the 10th grade, he was teased by his classmates who called him ‘Booker’ following a lesson about Booker T. Washington, the African American born into slavery, who went on to become a prominent educator and leading intellectual in the late 19th early 20th Century.
As I was finishing this text, the gallery sent me an image of the artist's most recent painting, a self portrait with his daughter — which is also included here.
— Grant Watson
Grant Watson is an independent curator based in London. He holds a PhD in Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths College, London. He was Senior Curator at Iniva, London (2010-14), and Curator at MuHKA, Antwerp (2006-10), where he presented the large-scale exhibition “Santhal Family: Positions Around an Indian Sculpture" (2008), which addressed left politics and modernism in India. He was Visiting Curator for documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, where he researched the participation of contemporary Indian artists in the exhibition. Recent activities include 'bauhaus imaginista' a 3-year research project exploring the transnational character and reception of the Bauhaus with exhibitions and discursive events taking place in Asia, Latin America, Europe and the USA.