NS Harsha: Upward Movement
Victoria Miro Gallery, London
26 March – 25 April 2015
by HARRY THORNE
If you read about Mysore-based artist NS Harsha (b1969), you will learn that his intricate paintings are founded within ancient Indian custom. You will learn that he has revitalised the tradition of the Indian miniature, and you will learn that he is reassembling icons of Hinduism in a contemporary setting in order to instigate a certain revaluation. If you talk to him, however, he will tell you that this is not the case.
Although, as one would expect, Harsha’s exposure to Indian culture has left him with a reverence for traditional values, he is not heavily indebted to any specific ritual or ceremony, nor is he interested in the imposition of religion on the masses. In fact, he is an artist who admires minimalist abstraction, draws reference from Japanese manga, and entertains a certain irritation at the manner in which religion has claimed a monopoly over a number of qualities inherent to the human condition.
One such quality is ascent, an idea that Harsha considers to be as significant to the drive for modernity as it is to the steadfast tenets of religion. It is to our ceaseless pursuits of ascent, he says, that we are kept in momentum, and it is in this belief that Moving Upward, Harsha’s first solo exhibition at Victoria Miro’s Mayfair gallery in London, is founded.
Harry Thorne: The show is titled Upward Movement. Can you tell me a little about its origins and your early interests in ascension?
NS Harsha: For the past 20 years or so, I have been a great observer of different happenings around mankind and the human, but about three years ago I had a bit of a hit, that point where you want to re-establish your existence in relation to other things. It was then that I began to put a lot emphasis on the idea of ascent. It has become such a beautiful phenomenon because, even in the modern world where we witness high-end science, ascent is still the key word. Though here it proposes upward movement, whether you dive deep into the cell or you dive deep into the cosmos, it’s all about ascent to the next level. Upward movement could really be deep inside. So the works are about the human interest in this ascent, because that’s what keeps us in momentum, constantly.
Once someone told me, “It’s very spiritual”, and I said, “I have got to be very honest: deep inside, these paintings have nothing to do with spirituality.” Ascent has been hijacked by that religious gang, and I want to hijack it back into this form that is independent because, ultimately, ascent is an embedded phenomenon in the human context. Whether you want it or not, your mind is equipped to always looks for it. Although it does have these very heavy religious inclinations, I have nothing. It’s very unfortunate when it’s completely taken into the Hindu framework, because when I look at it, it has got its own journey and its own thing happening.
HT: I agree, because while the subject matter does align with Hinduism – the cows, the monkeys, and even the dancers – there are also contrasting inclusions of machinery, farming and music.
NSH: If you really see it, the cows are more like those from the Alps above Switzerland – I was there in a lab in 2003, working on an art and science experiment. It’s not just India that has a relationship with the cow; it’s everywhere, all over the world. Wherever there is a sense of this agrarian society, there is always a relationship with this form.
It’s not necessarily making a comment or presenting a commentary, but it’s not aligned with Hinduism either – even the monkey. Many people have asked me: “Is it Hanuman?” And I have said: “It could be?” Honestly, I haven’t even thought once to reference Hanuman. Because I live in such an intense context, really I just work aloofly. You don’t want to align it, but at the same time you can’t be completely independent and not observe it. Observation happens automatically. Your body observes and your mind observes, and you just have to keep negotiating.
HT: Can we talk about your interest in narrative? Because while in a number of your works you can pick out certain specific environments or situations, any sense of narrative dissolves into an aesthetic flatness.
NSH: The last painting in this series (Being Without, 2015) somehow looks for that. It desperately looks for this flatness where it can allow the audience or the person who looks at the painting to create his or her own depths and measures. I think that’s a fantastic situation to be in as a painter. That’s where you move away from the grand narrative. There are spots, of course, bits and pieces of events that have happened. For example, the elephant (in both Mooing Here and Now, 2014, and Only Way Is through Milking Way, 2014) that came into the city one morning in 2011, and killed five cows and a man. Of course, as a painter that comes to you as an image, and here it was very important. That elephant raged through my thought and my landscape.
But if you can just observe, then there’s a very interesting pull in that. If you can bring it all into your studio space and thinking space, then you will have a freedom to use it in a multiple-narrative way.
HT: Because your paintings are very stylised and, to a certain extent, localised, do you feel that they are received differently in different countries?
NSH: Yes, of course. I am like a cook sometimes. I love to make a dish, offer it to the people, and then anxiously wait for a reaction. I know everybody’s tongue is the same, whichever country it could be, so it’s only their balance that matters: hot and salty and all those things.
While making, I’m on my own journey of painting, so I don’t think about them once, but I love the way people have to say things after. One of my friends said that he saw the monkey painting (Raha Dikhanaywalay Thay Hai Rahengay (Path Showers Were/Are/Will Be There), 2013) and he drew a relation to the Indonesian temples in Bali where hundreds of monkeys have been carved. I haven’t seen them, but now I may go there because of that conversation, and I think that is beautiful. People just pull it all into their context. You work in these pockets in the world that are not necessarily central to the contemporary situation, but you can still work alongside this larger consciousness. You can connect. You can connect to Australia or America, or wherever. It takes time and it’s not easily put forward, but then it is always beautiful.
HT: I wanted to talk about the paintings in a physical sense. Could you talk about your practice of repeating figures?
NSH: This pattern or this process of making the painting, it creates a landscape or a panoramic view that you don’t get if you’re walking with a retinal landscape – I always call these non-retinal landscapes – and that freedom is very interesting for me. The first figure that I draw will be somewhere in the centre – I won’t start from the top left – and that starts influencing the next figure. So I’ll start putting them all together and eventually they will all have a dialogue with each other. It’s like decoding or coding, like software, and as with writing software there’s always the possibility of permutations and complications.
When I was in art college, we used to go for tea in a small village very close by, and when we went there, we would do a lot of sketching. Always, the small boys and girls there, they would come, but they would not say: “The people have come to sketch.” Instead, they would say: “The people who write figures are here.” There is a very different expression, one that I have always been very interested in it. We are not writing letters, we are writing figures.
HT: But you have painted with perspective before? Melting Wit (2006) comes to mind.
NSH: But again, it’s not true perspective. It’s a very typical perspective taken from the Asian style of treating a landscape. It doesn’t grow into the middle line of the canvas, it grows into the top line, and it doesn’t disappear. So even Melting Wit has this growing up, and I like that perspective. When you pull an image out as a panoramic view, it gets very beautiful – there are so many other things that are happening. And it also helps me to be flat, as we discussed earlier. There’s a sense of flatness to it that gives me great comfort.
HT: Are the figures drawn from your imagination or do you reference people that you know?
NSH: This is the first series where there’s only Plato and Aristotle – that’s it, there’s nobody else. I’ve kept them all as automatic identities that come in the process of painting, in the process of creation. There are, of course, memories that operate on the identities and the construction of the forms. There’s a bent lady with a stick in her hand, for example, and you don’t see that any more. In the earlier days we used to see it, in childhood, but nobody walks like that now. So in those memories, people are there, but there are no individuals. I was cutting everything possible to make it flat.
HT: In that sense, they almost constitute their own isolated population, their own world, especially with their cartoonish appearance.
NSH: I’m really influenced by comics. I have this great comic collection of old Indian comics, but I also love Japanese manga and even the American styles. I love the way they are constructed. There is a sense of formalism that I would like to try to bring into formal painting. So many times people have said that I’m influenced by miniatures, but I say: “No, no, no.” Just because the figures are small, it doesn’t mean that I am influenced by miniatures.
HT: It’s interesting, because while people constantly reassert your interest in miniatures, I can also recognise Lowry and Hieronymus Bosch tableaux in your works.
NSH: How can we not talk about Bosch when we talk about these landscapes? When you know about Bosch, it gives you this amazing comfort zone to be a painter of what you paint. He’s sitting there like: “Come on man, go for it!” [Laughs] That’s what I call influence. It’s not my reference to Bosch. Maybe 10 years ago, I would have had been taking him over and reappropriating him into my own context, but I don’t get excited about that any more. I would rather just have him at my back saying: “Come on! Let’s go for it.” That’s a good relation with a painter.
HT: Can you tell me about your use of plain, coloured backgrounds? Earlier you told me that you began working with solely white canvases?
NSH: I used to be very comfortable working with white backgrounds. There is nothing there. It just starts. With oil paintings, when somebody’s starting a portrait, they will scribble and break the charcoal and dust it off and make some lines, and there is a sense of ritual before starting the “real” painting. That was not there for me at all. My entire vocabulary was that I just immediately start the painting.
But for this one, for some reason, I started experimenting with a kind of background. I put lots of water into paint and I poured it on to the entire canvas about three times. There it just flows and flows – mainly because of the heat we work in – and it dries very beautifully. So now it’s a very painterly approach to background, but, at the same time, I also feel that the background gives you a clue or a colour or a retinal feeling that takes away your visual confidence: it competes with the images that have been put in front of it. I liked that competition this time; it was not there earlier.
Although, I would say it is still non-painterly, because with the entire series I had to be so careful that I didn’t drip paint. Dripping and playing is such an important activity in the world of today’s painters – accidents are such a beautiful vocabulary – but I was sitting there and I couldn’t drip a single thing! [He laughs] I remember being an avant-garde influenced artist long ago, working with German expressionism and spilling and throwing paint, but here I am now working like this. I accept it, and I feel it’s quite interesting to work with this other element because you can’t make a mistake. I have to be in a state of mind where nothing can go wrong. It’s not a “mistake” mistake, you know, because in painting there can’t be a mistake, that’s accepted! [He laughs] What I mean is that the journey of a line cannot go without your agreement, your balance. It’s a sense of body, mind and this line; they’re in total acceptance, together, and that’s when the beauty happens.
HT: Can you tell me a little about your work with local communities?
NSH: In Mysore, I design a platform where kids can come and be present in a creative process, that’s all. The studio is a place where you work with no bindings, it’s quite a free space, but the minute you’re working outside, it’s limited. For example, one of the last workshops I did, I was working on a 700m bridge. We cleaned the bridge and then we painted the pillars on either side. There were 500 of them, but we had to paint 250 black and white and 250 in colour, because the police didn’t give us permission to paint the entire thing – apparently, they needed some black and white for the traffic.
HT: Do you believe that this community-based work is something that artists have a certain duty to do?
NSH: No. Artists have no duty. I think if you bind yourself to anything then you’re gone. It’s a very hopeless situation to be an artist and to have a duty. The only duty is to be mad! [He laughs] You just look for life in everyday living processes, in your interaction with other communities, with your paint, with your studio time. If you’re a very active person who’s living with life, then it happens.
HT: Would you say that your paintings are critiques, considering that they so regularly assess the states of these communities, as well as the wider structures of society and culture?
NSH: The minute you isolate an image from society and bring it into a studio, into a painterly atmosphere, critique happens, whether you want it or not. One can self-amplify this idea of critiquing if that is your direction, but I would rather just keep the painting as a painting and not allow critique to take over. There’s so much within the painting that one can experience.
Yes, of course, when you go back to a hometown that you have not experienced for the past 30 years and suddenly there’s a new farm with all these new gadgets, that really shakes you and you have to react. It does propose and it does show you the direction that humanity’s taking, but I won’t get into this whole idea of proposing a cleaner, better situation. I’ll just reflect what has been experienced and then that reflection itself will propose a certain kind of parallel reading into social happenings. I’d rather just leave my works as independent expressions.
HT: Almost like satire?
NSH: I think that’s a better word. It just suits me better than posing a vague critique. I’d rather be a painter in the studio than become a person who makes comments. But, unfortunately, it does happen. The minute you have a narrative, the minute you have a figure on a landscape, it creates all these things and you can’t really escape it. The cows, for example, the monkeys, they do point and they do speak about the anguish of the people who propose. Humanity has witnessed enough direction and proposition from the cosmos, and every time the cosmos projects itself on to the human mind, the human mind starts weaving a narrative. That’s what we see in religion or philosophy, of course. But at the end of the time, we are all here and we are all just grounded in to this every day. We are just here and the time just keeps going on.