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By interpreting popular images of deities into personal statements, I have both paid homage to and, like an ordinary human being, ‘quarreled with Gods’ by viewing them with contemporary sensibility and turning them into art of social context. I have always been fascinated by stories and images of legendary gods and demons including their miracles, strange wars, incredible flights and their multi-headed, multi-handed heavenly physique.
But my personal statement of social nature via deities is not a revolt and it is not aimed at change like in a movement. What I am trying to do more than anything else by painting this is to heighten the tension between the duality of existence. And the duality is that of the superior and the inferior. Though the images painted refer mostly to the superior, their paraphernalia make the invisible presence of the other party felt indirectly. It is about the tension that connects to a sense of violence, a violence that can not be categorized; but it exists. And it exists between the powerful and the weak, the controller and the controlled, the master and the slave, the ruler and the ruled, the privileged and the deprived, the star and the masses, the special and the mundane.
My work is about the conflict of the opposites. This conflict is a fact of life and nature. In my case, it is also a conflict of physical and mental visions. I can not see like most. With only one seeing eye, I see without spatial distance.
I used to have two seeing eyes once and my mind remembers how I used to see then. So it still tries to see things that way and that creates a violent conflict of discomfort. I have found a way to make peace it. I have "invented" a way of depicting imagery juxtaposing fluid color areas in contrast with solid thickly painted hard-edged shapes and marks and text to "fool" my mind into "seeing" things in depth. Thus my personal conflict of partial disability resonate with the conflicts of life.
Coming from another culture and trying to live in different one is very conflicting. So for me personally, it is not only one conflict. Besides seeing differently and being aware of opposites in life, I face yet another challenge. I come from a tiny India village and now live in a western mega city. That adds to my awareness of how most people struggle to survive in the modern world despite difficulties. That sets the powerful clearly apart just like gods that most of us follow and worship without questioning. May be I am trying to question via what and how I paint
-Vinod Dave on his Indian Iconography based works 1991 – 2009
The Shabda Brahma canvas can serve as an introduction to Vinod Dave’s show. It is shaped like a new scripture equating all the major religions practiced in India and relating those to things fine and bold in the lay world, inclusive of animals real - “ real as well as drawn from the artist’s private mythology, while misty layers of gentle, radiant illumination impregnate the whole with warm lyricism.
Vinod Dave is a poet of amalgamation. In his early works of photographic mixed media from the 1980s Dave began with images from mass and popular culture and blew them up beyond their pictorial values into over-modulated intensities, then painted onto them birds and people of immense delicacy, producing realms where public and private life furiously---yet poetically—intersected. The banal beauties of calendar art found themselves printed onto canvas then etched in a gouache resonant with mauve gardens and pale blue temple portals. Old photos from the British Raj were plastered with multi-colored Rajasthani peacocks and language from pre-independence newspapers. The effect was to bring the runes of the past into the explosive politics and kitsched quotidians of the present, generating a poetry of mysterious derangement. From sources in Rauschenberg, Pop Art and Surrealism, also in temple architecture and Rajput painting, Dave created an empire of imagery straining the bounds of human rationality, in which anxiety and pleasure, social reality and human privacy, disorder and rearrangement became inseparable twins, jolting the brain and soothing the imagination.
His art has come a long distance in these twenty five years, and yet the central contours of his world and work have remained of a piece with those earlier days. Dave’s images still explode with a history situated on the far shores of human rationality; his pictures still place power in collusion with patina. These layerings and juxtapositions have become all the more intricate, and frightening, since 911, which is the subject of Dave’s current exhibition. 911 is something he felt viscerally as a New Yorker, but also as an Indian citizen grown up on the vast legacies of Hindu-Muslim conflict. Ironically the vastness of the subject has spiraled Dave into things smaller: a series of mixed media works done in miniature size, the size of an ordinary color photograph on the family mantle, that of a Rajput painting. This shrinking of range is the occasion for an expansion of domain: into a world torn apart by fundamentalism, recalcitrance, hatred, violence. And yet the violence appears more quietly. Dave’s pictures are closer than ever to the Indian miniature framework in their use of ornamental border and washes of color. In them figures float in boundless space, or travel courtesy of that jet propelled god who never crashed into the World Trade Towers, the Vishnu-Garud. The quiet timelessness of the miniature subdues the iron-wrought intensities of the statement in these tiny but jam packed works, by bathing the violence in layers of poetic gouache. This build up of patina is overwritten in Arabic script, a writing as elegant as Urdu poetry. In Dave’s aesthetic procedure the present is placed in a larger, oceanic past, raising the question of its emergence. How did things take the current turn? What of the old cultures, were they the same? How can lovely men reciting poems to one another while drinking mint tea have arrived at this? What is the difference between a religious incarnation/avatar and a violently derailed airplane? What happens to cultures when they collide like vessels in the air? In these pictures everything is raised and nothing answered. As always, frames are contained within images, and those within other frames, suggesting displacement, appropriation, incandescence. In Dave’s work, big ideas come in little packages.
-Daniel A. Herwitz
The entanglement of the past in the present has long been a subtext of Vinod Dave’s work. Since the early 1980s he has satirized the overt and the subtle violence in the canvases jammed with images form contemporary popular culture and the grand Indian visual traditions. Dave transcends the familiar postmodern despair of cultural mix and his works fold multiple conflicting references into a few carefully chosen and richly handled images. In his works a brilliant interplay among these contradictions urges us to confront a paradox of mortal consequence: memory makes a lost dream of history, and that dream sustains us, even as it threatens to destroy us.
Dave’s paintings reverberate with a nostalgia for the traditions of village life. Initiating this project on a visit to his native Gujarat, he posed and photographed villagers costumed for the yearly Navratri performance of the Hindu classics. Blurred and painted over, these figures are shrouded into a gorgeous haze.
These are intimate mementos that link personal history with the historical past. Fading and frozen in time, Dave’s photographs evoke colonial images of the ‘natives’. He borrows the Bengal School’s melancholic nostalgia and the Company School’s treatment of the photograph as a flat surface to be painted over. These overlapping, divergent references remind us that Dave’s self-alienation is a cultural phenomenon, and that it began with colonization. But also, in synchronizing the past and present, he plumbs nostalgia’s deep, authentic roots. What reality has not yet redressed, the memorial imagination repairs with a unifying vision, a recollection entire at least in its beauty and intensity.
Contradictions embedded in the photographs and superimposed drawings go further. They replace nostalgia with an acceptance of the difficult ambiguities of the past. The photograph in The Divine Witness and Hawks of a Dreamland, so effectively doubling as personal keepsakes and colonial-era ethnographic documents, reveal that Dave shares an exoticising vision with the imperial photographer. This transposition of the colonial and postcolonial subject acknowledges that colonialism is not only the source of the proud victim’s alienation, but also the antecedent of cultural consciousness. The longing that signals the artist’s absence from the landscape also discloses that the freedom has had the unexpected and painfully borne consequence of making a tourist of the native son.
In addition to issuing warnings, the sharply contoured drawings of these two works are transformative images. On the one hand, the leaping, snarling tigers surreally threatening birds, and the heraldic weapons, recall the heroic imagery and refined style of the courtly miniature traditions. But they are reductive forms as well. They could be comic-strip characters or commercial logos. Surprisingly, they embrace the history of culture’s degradation into kitsch, and acknowledge the objectification of culture through mass production, tourism and symbol-seeking nationalism. If these elegant forms offer an image of the past, it is not the lost creature of cultural purity, but rather a motley, resilient and evanescent beast.
Dave does not dismiss nostalgia - the need for the cultural wholeness that fuels it is real - but because of the determinative force historical myths exert on the creations of the memorial imagination, he will not underestimate the danger. Perhaps most movingly of all, his paintings are remarkable for the faith they exhibit in art’s capacity to address these dangers.
Since the ‘Oriental Renaissance,’ (1680-1880) in which Europeans ‘rediscovered’ Indian art and thought, Indian depictions of deities have been central components of many Western museums’Asian art collections. While this certainly played a crucial role in promoting knowledge and (partial)acceptance of Indian religious traditions for those living outside India, recategorisation of these pieces as ‘art’ also affected the perception of Indian artists engaged in the representation of deities. The ritual production of images (mūrti) that for centuries had been about proper reproduction, rather than personal innovation, was replaced by new schools of ‘art’ that used the images as allegory. This shift in the production process restricts the agency of the divine character, transferring it from subject to object, and making it devoid of ritual efficacy. However, these works remain involved in constructing the human relationship with the divine, which can be best described as a continuum of the sacred and the mundane.
Perhaps no example illustrates this better than images of the goddess Durgā slaying the buffalo-demon(Mahiṣāsuramardinī). Therefore, in this article I will examine how artists have portrayed this goddess and the implications of their images for the construction of a modern human-divine continuum within the Indian artistic sphere. The artists discussed are those that have had most impact on the flourishing Indian art market since the mid twentieth century: Husain, Bhattacharya, Mehta, Arjuna, Custodio, and Dave, illuminating each artist’s interpretation of the myth and focusing on the rationale behind either their controversy or acceptance within both the art world and India.
Beyond the Progressive Artists Group, a new generation of artists has been captivated by Mahiṣāsuramardinī. These artists produce images that further blur the lines of divine and secular. Using innovative techniques such as mixed media and serigraphy the artists are formulating new interpretations of how the divine image might fit into the everyday life of the audience. In these new productions the divine is transplanted amongst the mundane in a way that removes all transcendence from the image. Vinod Dave is amongst these artists. He was formally educated in the arts and received an MFA from Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda,ix before moving to the U.S. to complete an MA at the University of South Carolina. Early in his career Dave was injured by one of his own paintings, rendering him blind in one eye. This disability inspired him to begin producing art that would reflect his particular way of seeing. He also began producing images focused on Indian religious symbols and mythological characters, including Mahiṣāsuramardinī. The imagery of Durgā as the slayer of the buffalo also has personal significance. He uses his image of Mahiṣāsuramardinī, Mother Victory, on his biographical page to show his own personal triumph over obstacles that would have prevented his success. Dave uses his skills in mixed media to produce depictions of the goddess that intermingle various textures and styles: in Mother Victory, he used a classical manuscript of the Devi Mahatmyam as the centerpiece for an image set on a background of sombre earth tones. The manuscript is engulfed by smaller images of a pistol and a bomb. Dave’s mixing of the old and new is reminiscent of Arpita Singh’s Durga in which the goddess, dressed in a white sari, holds a pistol. Singh’s influence is also felt in several other images by Dave, especially an untitled piece in which the deity holds a pistol identical to that of Durga. Dave’s image, however, places the focus not on the deity but on the deity’s historical context by including the manuscript. The origin of the deity is removed from ‘time immemorial’ to a definite moment of textual creation. But as with Singh’s Durga, the focus of the image is the violence that ensues from such formations.
In Mahisasur Mardini, Dave again depicts a traditional form of the goddess in combat with the buffalo demon, but the use of various media expertly mixes the traditional with the new, and the magical with the real, as the image of the buffalo slowly transforms into a photograph of a raw piece of beef. From the goddess’s uplifted head an arc sweeps down the image to the head of the buffalo, moving the viewer’s eyes in the same motion as the swoop of her sword as she cuts off the head of her adversary. Similar arcs reverberate across the painting, while other hazy apparitions of the goddess fill voids in the image, displaying her as omnipresent. The work, like many traditional paintings, places the action in a mythological plane removed from the world of phenomenal existence; however, the use of such visceral imagery as raw meat ushers the deity into a very ‘real’ setting, while the use of photography gives realism to the battle: the viewer can see the texture of the flesh of the demon that has been torn apart by the goddess and her lion, while the buffalo’s severed head glistens from the light of the camera’s flash. Christopher Pinney has argued that by mixing photography and painting the mystical can become tangible. In the works Supreme Mistress and The Goddess’ Feet, Dave replaced the head of the painted deity with a photograph of a ‘real’ woman. Unlike the earlier works that placed the magical in the human realm, Dave’s images innovatively place the profane within the sacred.
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