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ACTS OF FAITH
A work in relief is distinctive – it captures the transformation of a two dimensional form or line into an entity of volume, of texture. S.G. Vasudev explores these subtle relationships between the plane and the sculptural in his versatile practice that embraces several mediums. His copper reliefs resemble complex topographies; variations of light touching the surface generate impressions of revelation and concealment that engage the viewer in waves of understanding. One is tempted to touch, to take further the journey begun by the eyes. Images and symbols converge in a picture-space that is devoid of boundaries and definitions. Each work stands as an action of faith – faith that correlates with the elemental processes of nature, drawing together the ancient and new, the macrocosm and microcosm, attuned to the rhythms of the cosmos itself.
S. G. Vasudev began working with copper in 1975. His education at the Govt. School of Arts and Crafts, Madras (now Chennai) and deep connection with K.C.S. Panikker provided him with a vibrant comprehension of both fine art, and craft processes. At Cholamandal Artists Village, where he was a founder member, artists sought to experiment with and produce craft items that were saleable and allowed them to pursue their individual contemporary practices without constraint. Batik, terracotta, ceramic, brass, copper and other craft mediums blended seamlessly into the artists' creative production. It was then that Vasudev, and his then partner and fellow-artist Arnawaz (19..-1988) happened to meet Kuppuswamy, a retired artisan prolific in traditional metal crafting and relief making. They invited him to Cholamandal, and Vasudev felt an intrinsic connection with the medium, finding in it great possibilities to explore drawing. He worked out a strategy that allowed him to make experiments suited to his contemporary expression while retaining a respect for the medium's history – one that encompasses the creation of intricate temple doors and sacred artefacts. Though Kuppuswamy was soon no more, Vasudev met Chandran, a carpenter, to whom he taught the techniques. Their association was to grow into a steady collaboration that has been especially productive in the making of copper art. Chandran's son-in-law has now mastered the art and assists in the process. The collaboration is a controlled one, in which there is a deep understanding of the medium, and what is expected of each one. "Chandru may not be an artist – but my work is not possible without his collaboration" says Vasudev.
For every batch of paintings and drawings developed over a particular period of time, Vasudev made a couple of copper reliefs too. His tryst with copper has been like that of an old friendship – every now and then they must meet, work and create. From the 70s until the turn of the century, a succession of themes became prominent within his work.
The earliest series revolved around the 'Vriksha' or Tree of Life; the preoccupation of the next period was 'Maithuna' (Acts of Love) an exploration of the union of male and female; he went on to 'Humanscapes' and later 'He and She' towards the early nineties; 'Theatre of
Life' and 'Earthscapes' were subjects that identified his work as the new millennium came in. His most recent series is termed 'Rhapsody' and evokes rhythms and harmonious patterns. The imagery from these creative phases fed into each other, and can be perceived as organic shifts more than abrupt transformations of concept and image; they continue to overlap and mingle in meaningful ways in his current work. The copper works corresponding to the phases reflected the dominant themes from paintings and drawings, but grew out of a framework of their own, based on the inherent expressive qualities of the medium.
Vasudev's fluid drawing became the foundation for his forays into various trajectories of art making. He delved into the processes of textile weaving, and created tapestries with the collaboration of another artisan, Subbarayulu. Literature, particularly that of Kannada, has played a large part in his collaborative experiments. He illustrated the covers of books by A.K. Ramanujan (whose poetry became inspiration for a series of drawings), Girish Karnad and U.R. Ananthamurthy, prominent cultural voices in South India and also his friends. He designed masks for one of Karnad's plays titled 'Hayavadana' and has also done art direction for the national award winning Kannada films 'Vamsavriksha' and 'Samskara'. He has worked with a wood inlay craftsman, and also studied the potential of stained glass art. There is a symbiotic relationship between each medium he uses, and therefore a naturally simultaneous development in each. A texture from a copper relief often influences the impasto effects on a painting; the colours from a painted series can influence the structure of a tapestry; and the 'weaves' in the tapestry in their turn may appear as elements in a copper work. He maintains that having control over one's medium is of utmost importance, as it allows for confidence and the freedom to attempt greater experimentation. Through these decades of art practice, Vasudev has realised the immense possibilities of various mediums, and has never ceased to learn.
The story teller
Like a story teller, who draws from the inexhaustible resources of the world – literature, history, myth, folklore and memory - Vasudev builds his narratives, translating each element of thought through a visual language that is uniquely his own. His works are inhabited by entities of all shapes and sizes including trees, animals, birds and humans, bees and insects, mountains and clouds. Even inanimate objects like rocks, symbols and curlicues of alphabets generate a dynamic 'living' essence. Earth and sky mingle, as terrestrial beings consort with the heavenly and mythical. The same emotions that he conveys through colours in paintings and through line in drawings are translated into myriad grooves, furrows, notches and indentations in copper, making dramatic arrangements of shadows and highlights across the surface. 'Earthscape' (2005)(*83) is a work that evenly distributes areas of intricate patterning with flat mildly textured planes. The scene is that of an abstracted
landscape, and generates the impression of a tale about nature - hills, trees and constellations ostensibly swaying in harmony with the human figures in some mute celebration. There is a significant amount of outwardly radiating movement in most of his works, and he often introduces a frame within the composition to confine it. His has always moved comfortably between representational, symbolic and abstract expression, leaving the narratives open ended, to be completed by the viewer's personal understanding. 'Maithuna' (1993) (*80) depicts a couple apparently lying under a tree, on a large pillow. Closer scrutiny reveals a multitude of textures and striations that give the composition its depth and strength, the beauty being in the clever juxtaposition of bold marks with sensitive notching. Woven into the scheme so they remain unnoticed are 'arrows' broadly referring the symbols for male and female, and the ever evoked arrow of Cupid. The tree is balloon-like, with patchwork divisions, resembling the aerial view of cultivated fields. Such is Vasudev's vocabulary that a broad layering of meaning can be derived from the simplest of forms. Lines and shapes appear to lend their selves to each other – a curling Kannada alphabet can turn into a bird, which can transform into a flower, which can metamorphose into a human face. In a work from 2006, titled 'He' (*85), the particularity of the relief process makes the elements of a human figure like that of a landscape – the visualisation is unfettered by norms of anatomy, perspective or the rigidity connected to realist figurative depiction. In this, Vasudev's work carries forward aspects of classical and folk arts from India. Another point of similarity with these arts is the pervading sense of harmony in a composition, regardless of whether the subject being portrayed is one of peace or conflict. It seems to be linked with an emotional subtlety, of being able to rise above crude, immediate reactions to a space that is impartial and therefore stable.
Different episodes seen within his imagery are connected to various life experiences and happenings in the world around him. The lyricism in his work is enriched by his ability to look inward and outward at the same time, to fuse personal memory and collective history and express them as one. As compared to his work of the 90's, his current practice leans more towards the abstract. 'Rhapsody' is his latest series; the term relates to both literature and music, and suggests improvisation, all of which are close to Vasudev's heart. Bold sections of multiple parallel lines fill the framed sheets of copper, and as if by illusion, a barely distinguishable human or bird appears in their midst. A repetitive texture of symmetric heights and depths dominates the space, making it seem as though a lens has been zoomed in on a section of 'Maithuna' or 'Earthscape' series. The feeling of spontaneity in the works is enormous, which is a paradox considering the laborious process behind its creation.
The term relief comes from the Latin verb levo, to raise, in this case to raise from the surface of the copper. Vasudev uses 18 gauge copper sheets for his
work; these sometimes differ in colour due to distinctions of metal ratios in production. Initially, a base of brick powder, gum and linseed oil is made and poured in a tray. The copper is placed in it and the whole is left to cool. This base gives the metal strength to withstand the pressure of the tools applied in creating texture. The complex and interesting aspect of working with this method is that the whole composition must be envisioned not only is reverse but three dimensionally back-front. A great deal of precision must go into the drawing and execution, because making alterations is not an option at this stage (this is where it differs entirely from the processes of painting or drawing). Tools in wood and metal, with different points and edges are used to generate the wide variety of textures, of varied depths – resulting in low, middle, and high relief visible to a viewer. Vasudev has custom-designed several tools himself, in experimenting with different textural requirements. When the drawing is transferred, the sheet is heated so that the base softens and can be separated from it. A wash of nitric acid and a blow-torch procedure allow oxidization to take place. Finally the surface is brushed, leaving residues of oxidized colour to contrast areas and patterns. Layers of clear lacquer applied on the surface complete the process. Often Vasudev works on both sides of the sheet, using a counter-relief technique to embellish the image and articulate the copper into further gradations. For this, the process of laying the metal in the base is repeated, from the other side. This is the only time when modifications to the original drawing, and additions can be made. The corners of the sheet are turned in neatly, and the result is a satisfying combination of depths, shallows and heights, notches and embossed parts, jointly expressing a narrative. The works emanate energy, often because of the designs and symbols, but perhaps also transmitted by the accumulation of energy within the textures, generated by the bold and gentle movements of hand and tool across the metal.
The works in the exhibition date from the 90s to the present day. Today, there seems to be a close relationship between Vasudev's copper reliefs and his paintings, which are becoming spaces of pristine white, with the details drawn out in raised impasto, visible in the light.
The stories and myths that each burnished piece communicates are not apparent on the instant glance, but they attract the spectator and gradually reveal their secrets. Like the ancient 'Vriksha', or a weathered mountain in his drawings, S.G. Vasudev communes with the past and present, putting a stamp of his creativity on the evolving history of Indian art. As art practices get more and more intellectualised and place the onus of cognizance on the viewer, forcing them to take sides, it is a freeing sensation to engage with art work that is supremely confident in its very being, open and inviting for the viewer to experience whatever is there. There is an innate 'knowing', of having arrived at a wisdom, which frames Vasudev's effortless style.
Each work is an Act of Faith