Laxman Shrestha is a name even the most casual observers of the Indian art world encounter repeatedly, and know well. My first brush with the artist was at the once venerable Jehangir Art Gallery. I was not yet ten years old, and I was surveying his abstracts distractedly, unable to make much sense of them. He came up to me, asked me what I thought of them, and I said I liked the colours - an answer that sounded silly even to my pre-teen self.
It's been some time since then, and I've had the pleasure of renewing my acquaitance with the artist's work at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery's two part retrospective of his career. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the first part of the exhibition traces Shrestha's work from the 1960s to the late 1980s, and explores his evolution and concerns while also providing the context of his peers' expressions of abstraction. It's a compact, concise show that has depth, with paintings interpreted through excellent curatorial notes and a particularly informative interview with the artist.
I'd like to think, though, that even in their absence, I'd find it within myself to appreciate Shrestha's work beyond the colours. The exhibition starts out with tight wedges of colour on small canvases - paintings that are crammed but composed, dense with textural detail. By the 1970s, something shifts and begins to uncoil - planes become larger, details become more dextrous, and forms become more fluid and organic. At one point, the works are described as 'explosive.'
Explosive isn't the wrong word to use in the context of Shrestha's canvases. But isn't quite the word that occured to me, either. What came to mind was a word I hadn't used in a while - 'roil.' Think of a thick, mysterious liquid stirred quickly in a glass and then photographed, mid-swirl and mid-settle. The works put me in mind of the moment right after an explosion, with elements caught mid-motion, mid-momentum. This has to do with the fact that they aren't exuberantly energetic or violent - there's a contained vitality to them, the reds, blues, greens and beiges expanding but also poised.
Does this sense of something that is, but also isn't balance come from the artist's interest in music, particularly jazz? Is it part of his quest for the Source? And if it is, why isn't it as silent and still as the solitude and silence that he describes as the Truth? And is that oddly energetic sense of pause ruptured by a clutch of works from the 80s, whose bisecting, geometric lines seem to jar?
It's so very interesting. I can't wait to see what comes next, because I feel I am seeing it all for the first time.