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Reviewed by Monica Arora
What struck me as a visitor at Gipin Varghese’s solo exhibition entitle ‘Lifetimes’ currently on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery from 25 July 2014 to 6 September 2014, was the stark simplicity of the paintings. The minimalistic usage of colour and the linear representation of the human body convey the essence of the philosophy behind the artist’s inspiration, which is the angst and suffering of the common man.
Interestingly, Gipin has juxtaposed recent events which have been much in the news for their sensationalist value. Even more interestingly, these are erased from public memory as quickly as they arrived and the men and women afflicted therein lie forgotten. Trudging along with their burdens, these men and women, who are found in every galli, kuchha, mofussil town, village or rural settlement of India, seem bent and huddled under their misery and are forgotten even by the media once their cases are shut or issues are merely languishing in courts of justice for decades.
This is Gipin’s second solo show and essentially includes creations that he has produced over the last two years. Curated very tastefully by the artist and curator Bhooma Padmanabhan, the exhibition’s minimalistic yet impactful display is almost like an extension of the artist’s simple sensibilities, wherein he deploys an almost narrative technique in his attempt to decipher horrific current events. For instance, there is a series of circular paintings, and one of these dwells upon the much talked about Badaun Rape Case in Uttar Pradesh where two cousins were hung from a tree after being brutally raped. Ironically, simultaneous to the running of the exhibition, the case is sub judice and it has been revealed that the girls were murdered perhaps by their own parents as a case of honour killings. Justice eludes these young girls even after death…
Another horizontal panel evocatively depicts activists at the Kundalkulam Dam, which strikes instantly to the viewer as a powerful creation of watercolour on paper with a mass of raised hands and agitated men and women rooting for a common cause. Noteworthy is the fact that the body language of these protestors as a whole represents agitation, again no mean feat for such a minimalistic piece of art!
Call it co-incidence, but the day I visited the show and conducted this online interview with Gipin, the Manipur High Court ordered the release of activist Irom Sharmila, who has been fasting for some 14 years. And the highlight of ‘Lifetimes’ were three magnificent paintings of Irom Sharmila, standing tall with her head held high, humbly and yet firmly taking a stance. Such is the power of Gipin’s creations that they actually seem to be ‘a mirror to society’.
Gipin’s paintings are actually semi-narrative in the sense that they actually narrate a story through the visuals. Deploying fractal structures or self-repeating patterns that are similar across different scales, as are evident from his depiction of series of scenes portraying stories of human suffering in a semi-urban kind of space with men, women and children depicted in a similar symmetrical fashion with immense precision of scale, size and form. And the rare colours visible in his work further enhance the serious tenor of the message that he is putting forth.
Of course, the minimalism and easygoing demeanor of the artist as a person can be gauged from his clean and austere drawings. And even while communicating, he came across as a much uncomplicated personality, who is deeply connected to his roots and moved to the core by events unfolding all around him in contemporary society. He stands true to the great artist Leonardo da Vinci’s observation that ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’
Speak about his style of painting? He has a distinct visual aesthetic, can you describe that a little, apart from what he says below.
Following are some questions I had put forth to Gipin Varghese via email, which he has answered quite candidly.
1. Where and when were you born and how did your early childhood influences shape you as a future artist?
I was born in Auva in my mother’s house on 8 September1980 and grew up in Payyannur, northern Kerala. Spent amidst lush green forests and gurgling rivers, my early years helped me to form a bond with nature. I had an eye for small details in nature, which honed my eye for microcosms. When I was in studying, I went to schoolonly for an opportunity to walk in the water, watch fish andwater plants in the paddy fields. It was a free life and I was a free bird, enjoying every moment.
2. Tell us something about your education and training as an artist.
I did BFA Painting at College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram; MFA Painting from
Hyderabad Central University and my Phd from MG University, Kerala. In all, I spent six years in art colleges,which were also my formative years as an artist, but there was something amiss. My research work took me to study the church muralsin Kerala, and I got a chance to observe and documentoriginal murals.
Following my research, I spent two whole years at home,almost completely excluded from people and this time spent in solitude enabled me to discover the artist that you see today.
3. Which is your preferred medium of expression? Water or oil on canvas and/or murals?
Currently, I am painting with watercolours filled in drawings. Repeating limited colours in the same painting offers me immense pleasure.I adapt many elements from folk murals,manuscript drawings,icon paintings, etc. I strongly believe that painting is not restricted to a fixed medium…may be, I will try something differentin the coming days!
4. Which Indian/foreign artist has influenced you the most since your early days as an artist? Why?
This is a difficult question to answer as I was influenced by many and each had something unique and special to offer.
5. The most striking aspect of ‘Lifetimes’, your solo exhibition currently on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery from 25 July to 6 September 2014, are its simplistic and stark forms and figures and deliberate usage of earthy colours. The common man and his struggles appear to be the underlying theme behind most of the creations. Kindly elucidate on this.
I was always interested in the folk murals and miniatures.The way they study life and draw observations has fascinated me, especially their fractal kind of structures and the rhythm of patterns. But I do not represent the spiritual and colourful world depicted in religious murals.
As a modern artist, I incorporate several current and topical issues plaguing the society and the stark colours are a reflection of that pain and agony endured by the masses on a day-to-day level. I capture their struggle for survival and the anguish in their bodies.
6. How have recent current events drawing much media attention, for instance the Badaun rape case or Irom Sharmila’s fasting, influenced your art? Do you think that art has the power to draw mass attention to issues plaguing the ‘mango’ man, which are usually brushed under the carpet?
As you know,the scope of art is tremendous and it has the potential to exploremore space in these grey areas of human society. Art has the ability to slowly engagepeople.I choose these current events much in the realm of the media frenzy because if you notice, these extreme cases have parallels throughout the length and breadth of the country. For example, rape cases or honour killings are not just restricted to Uttar Pradesh. They are equally prominent in Haryana and elsewhere.
7. Interestingly, the Manipur Court has ordered the release of prominent human rights activist Irom Sharmila today, on 19 August 2014. Any thoughts?
It is a disturbing that she is still continuing the fast. I hope she could end it very soon. However, the questions she has asked still remain unresolved.
8. How does a regular day in the life of Gipin Varghese unfold?
Well, I have to work hard to make a living and managing time is a struggle. The greatest joys of my life are my wife and four-and-a-half year old son. Organization of time is a challenge especially donning dual hats of an artist and a family man. But one learns…
I live in Thiuvananthapuram, Kerala, and life is full of fun as well as stress that are a part and parcel of a family man’s life.