DHRUVA MISTRY

Cross-Sections, Sculpture and Drawings, 1982-88
introduced by Tessa Jackson
and essay by Paul Moorehouse,
Collins Gallery,
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow(24 pages)

 





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Introduction

Discussions for this exhibition coincided with rumours that Dhruva Mistry might be commissioned to make a large scale work at Glasgow's Garden Festival. The exhibition now opens as the 1988 National event closes. During the period of' concurrent activity the 15 foot long Reclining Woman has been constructed and sited. More recently, she has been admired and questioned. This exhibition will provide no answers but will present a context and a wider vocabulary with which to view the artist's work.

Dhruva Mistry made his first visit to Britain. from India in 1981, with the help of a British Council Scholarship. In the years leading up to this he had studied at the University of Baroda in his native region of Gujarat. For the past seven years he has lived and worked in England. His experiences include the Royal College of Art; a Residency at Churchill College and Kettle's Yard, Cambridge; commissions for all three Garden Festivals Liverpool in 1984, Stoke on Trent in 1986 and Glasgow in 1988. Invitations to show work in thematic and collective exhibitions have been issued regularly and one person shows have been initiated in Cambridge, Bath and London. Opportunities for Dhruva Mistry have not been slow to present themselves, carefully managed in some instances by the Nigel Greenwood Gallery, London. Surprisingly, to date, his work has never been seen in Scotland, save for the 'Reclining Woman' at Glasgow's Garden Festival.

This piece, along with four others, was constructed and modelled down at Govan Shipbuilders on the Clyde. The artist started work in February 1988 using the facilities and manpower at the Yard. Fondly nicknamed the 'Queen Mary', it was only at the outset that traditional shipbuilding techniques were used. Cement was applied to a meshed, steel framework. By the end of April she was ready to travel majestically down the Govan Road to the Festival site, past further yards and
disused graving docks. Even within the dimensions of the yard, she sat regally viewing the hive of activity. Not site specific, her qualities surprise by her sheer monumentality. Within contemporary sculpture, few artists embrace the human form on such a scale. Her pose and assurity promote misinterpretation.

Dhruva Mistry's work attracts a mixture of admiration and uncertainty. We attempt to connect with a rich heritage of Indian art to which the artist admits his work belongs. But almost unavoidably, we see it from a European perspective. Our visual awareness, our understanding of a common visual language cannot be translated as easily as one might imagine. Certainly not when it is its very Indian qualities that attracts us. Our notion of form and image separates us. The viewer and the artist are presented with a conundrum. The work's popularity but misinterpretation continues to alternately puzzle and amuse the artist.

The basis of much of Dhruva Mistry's work lies in classical Indian forms. His translation of mythology is contemporary in its directness, surety and style. Egyptian and European imagery has, in some cases, been absorbed into his work and the separate or similar qualities of these traditions attract the artist. He maintains a constant contemporary review of these traditions. The sensuous handling of materials belies the intellectual questioning of form. Dhruva Mistry's cast of characters, human, animal and imaginary remain accessible at the simplest of levels. Witnessing the realisation of manual dexterity, the freedom of imagination and the traditional heritage from which these works have sprung, is the foundation on which this six year selection has been made. Full understanding of anything reduces the attention paid to it.

Tessa Jackson
Curator.


The art of Dhruva Mistry stands at the confluence of a number of different cultural traditions. One major tributary of inspiration is his own national heritage. Mistry was born in 1957 in Kanjari in India and many of the subjects and stylistic elements which characterise his work notably the bull and the large rounded breasts of the woman are derived from Indian religion and art. On a technical level, aspects of Mistry's engagement with his materials recall methods employed by Indian craftsmen two thousand years ago. The Reguarding Guardians, 1985 (pages 12-13), for example, were created in plaster which, when dry, was painted or embellished with decoration. In the same way, mural decoration in Indian temples and palaces involved the application of paint in layers, from under-painting to local colour, onto dry plaster. Even the conceptual basis of Mistry's work is rooted in India's past. The following description refers to artistic practices in India from around 300-600 A.D. but it serves equally well as an explanation of the fantastic creatures which Mistry began to make from 1983 onwards:

(The Indian artist is) occupied with achieving a certain inner vision.... From the Gupta period on, the Indian craftsman is completely non-naturalistic in approach - his point of view is conceptual rather than perceptual. He works not from nature but from a series of mental images achieved through contemplation and visualisation.
(Bernard S. Myers, Art and Civilisation,New York 1967, p.95.)

Although Mistry's art partakes of a tradition of Indian craftsmanship, it is not simply a continuation of it. The Indian craftsman invents rather than imitates nature but his mental imagery, whether it reflects the material world or re-combines its contstituent elements, is derived from experience. Like his artistic forebears, Mistry's art manifests an "inner vision".

In Mistry's case, however, the empirical base for this has been expanded beyond those areas of' life and learning which inspired his predecessors. Firstly, it encompasses his position as an artist working within a specifically Western and 'modern" context and secondly, it embraces his knowledge of the art of other ancient civilisations. Twentieth century Western art and Ancient art, most notably that of Egypt, thus form the other streams of influence which feed into Mistry's work.

Mistry's earliest works, created while he was a student at the University of Baroda between 1974 and 1981, already demonstrate a tendency towards eclecticism in the sources of his imagery. Man on a Chair, 1978 and Man on a Cube, 1979, both relate to the sculptural tradition of seated figures which reaches back to both Ancient Greece and the Egypt of the Pharaohs. At the same time, these figures have a nightmare quality, alien to their antecedents, which makes them unmistakable products of art of' this century. Man on a Chair is devoid of eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

Before leaving India for Britain in 1981, Mistry completed a series of four life-size figures: Walking Man, Kneeling Man, Man with Dog and Sitting Man. These are transitional works in Mistry's oeuvre. In these pieces Mistry gravitates away from the psychological intensity of Man on a Cube and Man on a Chair. He concentrates on the problem of depicting the human form: the figures are bald headed and naked, their poses and gestures simplified and understated. This austerity, though producing figures of great physical presence, contrasts greatly with the voluptuousness of form and richness of surface which typifies his later work. In one way it reflects Mistry's aim to reduce the problem to its essential components - anatomy, gesture, stance - in order to confront it at a fundamental level. In another way this austerity reflects a synthesis of various cultural influences. Of these perhaps the Indian influence is the most potent. The nudity of the figures and their impassive facial expressions relate to the Indian Ascetic, an archetypal figure. Their frontal poses also demonstrate a central characteristic of Indian temple sculpture. There are, however, further resonances. Walking Man, striding forward with his arms held close to his sides and slightly bent at the elbows, is reminiscent of one of the earliest types of Greek sculpture, the Kouros or walking youth of the period c.660-580 B.C. In turn this figure derives from dn even older tradition the funcrar-y sculpture of Egyptian tombs, which depicts the deceased standing, sitting or kneeling. That Mistry replicates each of these positions is an allusion to this tradition. A more recent influence is evident in the way the figures are modelled. Although the surfaces are covered in a non-naturalistic network of abraded lines, the figures are nevertheless rigorous in their anatomical detail. This, together with Mistry's use of fiberglass as a casting material reflects the influence of sculptor John Davies, whom Mistry met in India.

Sleeping Man (Collection of the Royal College of Art, London) one of the first works which he made after his arrival in Britain again reflects the influence of Ancient Egypt in suggesting a pharaoh laid out ready for mummification. A major source of Mistry's imagery while he has been living in Britain has been the collections of the London Museums, and in this case the mummies in the British Museum made a vivid impression. Sleeping Man is not, however, simply an image representing mortality. The figure lies on its back with the right hand open, the palm presented to the observer. In Indian art, hand gestures are an important vehicle for meaning. For example, the four hands of the divine Siva represent aspects of his being and importance: one symbolises his destructiveness, another holds a drum representing the first sound heard in the universe - the moment of creation, a third signifies reassurance and the fourth, pointing downwards,
symbolises evils overcome. In this way, Sleeping Man fuses elements drawn from Egyptian and Indian traditions in order to make a statement about the nature of experience and the eternal.

The works which Mistry has produced since 1983 have demonstrated a growing confidence in the deployment of his source material and also a sense of increasing freedom to take liberties with it. Woman, (Collection of the Royal College of Art, London) 1983, for instance, is both playful and ambiguous. In essence, the image is derived from a Yakshi. These were female forms, common to both Buddhist and Hindu art, decorating the gateways to memorial mounds of earth known as Stupas. They controlled all processes of growth and, in particular, human fertility. This latter quality is suggested in Mistry's work by the opulent breasts and hips, the explicit depiction of the lips of her sex and her red colour, symbolising passion. At the same time, the pose of Woman and the fixedness of her gaze are strongly reminiscent of an icon of Western Art denoting provocative sexuality: Manet's Olympia. Between these extremes, the meaning of her upraised palm oscillates in a tantalising way. In one way, she dispenses reassurance; in another she invites offerings.

A wide range of sources - Islamic, Corinthian, Egyptian, Indian, Assyrian, mythological and religious - are equally apparent in the hybrid creatures which also date from around 1983, such as Creature, 1983, Little Bird, 1985 (page 15), and the Reguarding Guardians, 1985. As with Tipu, 1982 (page 7) the exotic cheetah which Mistry based on a macabre object in the Victoria and Albert Museum depicting a British soldier being devoured by a tiger, many of the images for the fantastic creatures are based on first hand experience of art and artefacts found in London's Museums. Creature combines a bald female head with body of a spotted cloven-hoofed beast and is based on a 16th century Persian illustration in the British Museum, depicting the

steed of an Islamic prophet. Little Bird places a female head on the shoulders of a bird of prey. Models for this combination of human and bird forms may also be found in the British Museum in the frieze decoration of late Corinthian pottery; the form of the bird's body is based on a sculpture in the Egyptian collection: the Falcon for Rameses II.

The four Reguarding Guardians are mythological creatures. They draw their inspiration, primarily, from the Vedas, a religious treatise of Aryan origin which contains the sacrificial hymns to their gods whom they regarded as Guardians of the natural world. The main deities were Indra, the thunder god; Agni, the fire god; Varuna, the god of the sky and regulator of the universe, and Suma, the god of creation and the life-giving fluid drunk by all the deities. Although Mistry's Guardians refer to Aryan deities, they also depend on other sources for their representation.

All the Guardians have human heads and animals bodies which are winged. This image is also inspired by ancient Assyrian art, which Mistry was able to study at the British Museum. The Assyrians decorated their palace entrances with monumental guardians of the gateway in the form of enormous winged bulls with human faces. Again, however, there is an indirect link with Egyptian art because the concept of a fantastic creature combining human and animal attributes probably derived originally from the Egyptian sphinx. In the first pair of Guardians, the bull's attributes are extended to the human heads which have horns. This image is derived from the Minotaur legend of ancient Crete and Picasso's modern recreation of the myth in the Vollard suite (1956).

In addition to making sculpture in the round, Mistry has turned, more recently, to making reliefs. In 1986 he produced the series of 27 reliefs in plaster entitled Sativa, Rajas, Tamas which means Light, Passion, Darkness (page widening artistic awareness. They often suggest works of the early Renaissance in their treatment of space and use of perspective. At times the nature of the draughtsmanship and the themes explored – the artist and model, the nude, and the Minotaur – demonstrate the influence of Picasso.

The Maya Medallions, which Mistry made in 1987, consist of two complementary series of roundels, cast in plaster and stone, entitled Maya Medallions, The Involuntary Creation (page 16) Maya Medallion: The Dark One. Mistry's treatment of the female form once again refers to both classical Indian sculpture – in its voluptuousness – and to European painting, the poses recalling Giorgione and again Manet. On a technical level, however, Mistry's description of form in one of the series is completely innovatory. In Maya Medallion: The Dark One, the images are expressed as concavities. This creates the illusion of three- dimensional forms which change in relation to the observer's viewpoint, an effect to which the title alludes – "Maya" in Indian means "dream" or "illusion".

An underlying paradox of Mistry's art is that the sources of his imagery, particularly since 1981, are both universal and yet essentially Indian. This is because although Mistry constantly refers to other traditions, only images deriving from his own culture are present in every work, to a greater or lesser degree. Occasionally, as in Sitting Bull which he made for the Liverpool Garden Festival in 1984, and more recently, White Elephant, 1987 (page 17) the images are specifically Indian. This sense of cultural identity both unifies his work and invests it with individual character. Furthermore it lends it an internal continuity which, in being fed by the art of other cultures, accounts for the broadening and deepening of his art as it proceeds.

Paul Moorhouse
Curator
Modern Collection Tate Gallery, London

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