Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bhaja Caves: Story of the mysterious simplicity

Not more than an hour’s drive from where I live stands a magnificent trio of ancient Buddhist rock-cut caves. These are carved out in the hills of Sahyadri mountain range and are situated near the villages Karla, Bedse and Bhaja (today’s story is about ‘Bhaja’ caves among the three). In the modern map these locations seem random and obscure, but historically these were religious centers along the ancient trade routes which eventually connected all southern trade centers to the eminent ‘Silk route’ in the north of India.

Bhaja caves date back to 200 B.C., a period of the ‘Satavahana’ dynasty. Artistically, these caves are not as decorative and grand as the other Indian rock cut architectural sites like Ellora, Elephanta caves or Mahabalipuram, but for me, they have always held a mesmerizing appeal. For a long time I failed to understand what fascinated me so much in this relatively plain looking architecture and I visited Bhaja several times searching for the explanation. Finally, I realized that the answers were hidden in the ‘Cultural history’ rather than the ‘Architectural history’!

The central prayer hall(Chaitya Griha) with ‘Stupa’ (Mound like structure depicts Buddha)

These caves are from ‘Hinayana’ period (literally meaning an ‘abandoned vehicle’ or ‘smaller vehicle’) of Buddhism, when Buddhism was just 200 years old. In later years, Buddhism saw a decline in India but expanded in other civilizations. Around 5th century A.D., Buddhism came back to India, but in a changed form – it was now a ‘Mahayana’ (literally meaning a ‘greater vehicle’) school, far more complex, ritualistic and definitive compared to the ‘smaller vehicle’ that existed 700 years before it. Under this new school, not just the way of worshiping Buddha changed, but the architecture, religious motifs and even Buddha’s depiction saw a transformation. Things became ornamental, very decorative and indeed very beautiful! Without doubt it was a glorious time period for art and sculpture in India. The important rock-cut caves were re-carved, a human depiction for Buddha was carved out of ancient simple Stupas (mound-like structure), patrons, chariots, processions, nymphs and elephants now adorned the walls of the caves.

But this wave of change seems to have bypassed the Bhaja caves, now why did this happen? Perhaps these caves were not very important, or perhaps they were no longer on the strategic trade routes, or perhaps they got ensconced in the belts of newly developed forests. The exact reason is not known. But as a result, a very simple, extraordinarily beautiful (not the ornamental beauty) and well balanced original thought stands in the form of Bhaja Caves! I love to drive down there on a weekend to inhale the simplicity of that thought and when I come back home I feel less tangled.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kim Anno: The universal statement

We see powerful strokes of white and grays mixed with ochre or a tinge of teal on robust painting surfaces like metal sheet or wood panel. Sometimes these strokes show a direct resemblance with nature, and at other times these are suggestive allegories. The painting appears gradual, like it has evolved out of the earth, and then suddenly the fluidity in the composition is disrupted by sharp, flowing lines of saturated blues, umbers or oranges. The entire composition elicits the idea of ‘change’ – dangerous human interference with nature and nature responding back in her calamitous ways.Global warming, changing water levels and disturbed environmental landscapes are the inspiration for these stunning paintings by acclaimed artist Kim Anno.

Kim uses extremely powerful gestural work to convey her ideology. But Kim does not limit her art only to the medium of painting; she is a skilled bookmaker, photography and video artist as well. She maintains a consistent approach in the abstract style of expression across all the art forms that she explores. It is very interesting to watch (and learn) how the different art forms change the emphasis on details but speak the same language. For instance, in her paintings she chooses sheer colors to convey the idea, while in photographs she targets established metaphors like geographical magazines or earth balloons, rearranging them to bring out a new meaning altogether. Her photos are as striking as her paintings; they make you pause for a moment and, most importantly, they make you think. It is not surprising that her work has been collected by museums in the US and has also been exhibited internationally.

Kim was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in Berkeley. She is the chair of the Painting Program at California College of the Arts (CCA) and has been a professor at the college since 1996. Her recent interest has been in the intersection of art and science, particularly in aesthetic issues surrounding climate change and changing water levels. She was recently awarded a fellowship by the Zellerbach Foundation in support of her new interdisciplinary work. Interestingly, Kim is also performing hydrodynamic experiments in various types of water bodies to collect data and images for her projects. Currently, she is busy with the project called ‘Men and Women in Water Cities’. Take a look at these early pictures.

You can visit her website to see more of her paintings, photographs and video projects.
Kim is represented by ‘Marcia Wood Gallery’ in Atlanta and ‘Patricia Sweetow Gallery’ in San Francisco.

My sincere thanks to Kim for permitting me to write this post and providing the images.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gerry Judah: Interpretations of a conflicting world

Think of an aerial view of a town – not a mere two-dimensional image, but the real thing in real time – complete with densely packed buildings, electric poles, communication lines and water towers. You perhaps imagined a peaceful, ordinary town with people hurrying on to their businesses. But in this town, there are no people; they have all long since perished. What we have instead is a scene of destruction, a town turned death cold, an abandoned cluster of ruined structures. The cause of this wreckage may be a war or a natural calamity, but in either case it has an unmistakable trace of human involvement in it – manmade constructions succumbing to manmade destructions. This is what renowned artist Gerry Judah offers to the viewers in his astonishingly ‘crafted paintings’. His large canvases hold scale models of towns which have been systematically destroyed as a process of his work. The end result is a stark landscape in white, the color of peace, but a landscape which is far removed from peace itself.

Gerry has chosen a painstaking process to make his comment as an artist. This is a comment which will perhaps disturb nation heads and political leaders across the globe, but which will always find the common man in agreement. It is not an exaggeration to say that his works are as striking and hard hitting as Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. (Unfortunately, the world from the times of Guernica has not changed much, and thinkers, artists, performers and writers of every generation are still engaging their mediums to make this point.) Gerry says it without hesitation and without any personal commentary. He is like a photo journalist walking the viewer detachedly through the mayhem of the modern world.

Artistically, Gerry creates a perfectly balanced, lyrical experience contrary to the brutal subject matter. There are subtle light and shadows interacting on his canvases, modulating in tandem with the materials he chooses. At a first glance, his work feels like a gestural expression, but in actuality these paintings are very well planned and crafted out with incredible patience.

Gerry was born in 1951 in Kolkata (Calcutta) and grew up in West Bengal as a child. His maternal and paternal grandparents came from Baghdad to settle in the already established Baghdadi Jewish community in India and Burma. His mother was born in Kolkata and his father in Rangoon. His family moved to London when he was ten years old. He did his graduation in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London (1972–1975) and he studied sculpture as a postgraduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London (1975–1977). After college, he set up his studio and began work on large sculptures. He is recognized for a number of commissions from public museums and institutions. One of his highly acclaimed commissions is a large model of the selection ramp in Auschwitz concentration camp designed for the Imperial War Museum in London. Gerry is also recognized for his spectacular settings created for performers like Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin etc. He has also created stunning installations for companies like Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz etc. at the annual 'Goodwood Festival of Speed' (FoS), a historic motor racing event in the UK. Later he returned to his Fine Art roots to create his now highly acclaimed paintings. His latest work 'THE CRUSADER' is on show from 6 November 2010 to 6 November 2011, as part of the Artist Reactions series in the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, UK.

You can see more pictures of Gerry’s work, his installations and read his biography on his website.

You can also see Gerry in action in this beautifully made film by Alex Chandon.

Gerry Judah: Paintings from Sam Marcuson on Vimeo.

My sincere thanks to Gerry for permitting me to write this post.
Gerry’s picture courtesy: Phil Hunt, Film courtesy: Alex Chandon, Vimeo Hosting: Sam Marcuson

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Of Pigments

Remember colors? This question sounds silly because we really don’t perform any conscious process of recollecting specifics about colors (most of the time!). Every object we see, the information we gather visually, our memories, imaginations and even our dreams have colors. This post could very easily begin to move in several different directions at this point. Like for instance if we mention “dreams” then we could bring in Sigmund Freud! But here when we say “colors”, (which is what we are going to say :), we are going to talk about ‘Pigments’.

Now when we begin talking about pigments, we still have multiple things that we can discuss: physical basis, chemical understanding, technical understanding, historical (history of pigments, not history of art), artistic etc. Even from an ‘artistic’ point of view, there are multiple aspects which will very soon convert this post into a good fat datasheet. (No, this is not going to happen!)

So here I am going to limit the scope for this post to an overview about pigments to make things easier.

What is a pigment: A pigment is a dry coloring matter, usually an insoluble powder. When these dry colorants are mixed with binders also called ‘vehicles’ (such as linseed oil, resins, acrylic, wax etc.) we get various types of paints. But besides pigments and binders, paints can also contain various adhesives, stabilizers, preservatives and antioxidants (dryers) etc.

This means watercolors, pastels, gouache, color pencils, acrylic paints or oil paints, they usually share same pigments but different binders.

Pigment Categories: Pigments have three basic categories

  1. Organic substances (made from natural sources. Color example: Rose Madder)
  2. Inorganic (made from sources like minerals and metals. Color example: Burnt Sienna)
  3. Synthetic pigments (artificially manufactured. Color Example: Cobalt Blue)

Pigment Types: Artistically, there are 3 broadly defined pigment types (Source:

  1. Earth colors - ochres, siennas, umbers, Mars colors
  2. Traditional colors - cobalts, cadmiums, titanium, ultramarines
  3. Modern colors - phthalocyanines, quinacridones, perylenes, pyrrols

Organic pigments made from natural sources have been used for centuries, but most pigments used today are either inorganic or ‘synthetic organic’ (containing carbon atom structure same as original organic pigment) ones. Industrial and chemical revolution in the 19th century changed the scenario rapidly and today what we get as consumer colors are mostly made out of synthetic pigments. Historically and culturally, many famous natural pigments have been replaced with synthetic pigments, while retaining their historic names. It is indeed good to know about colors more than just their names!

And how about some trivia on the way out?

  1. More than 15,000 years ago cavemen began to use color to decorate cave walls. These were earth pigments, yellow earth (Ochre), red earth and white chalk. In addition they used carbon (Lamp) black by collecting the soot from burning animal fats.
  2. Ancient Romans used to import ‘indigo’ as a pigment from India by Arab merchants. They used it for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. It was an expensive luxury item!
  3. ‘Indian Yellow’ was once produced by collecting the urine of cattle that had been fed only mango leaves. Modern hues of Indian Yellow are made from synthetic pigments. (Relax!)
  4. Vermilion was developed in China around 2,000 years before Romans started using it. Vermilion was made by heating mercury and sulphur.
  5. Ultramarine was originally produced from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. In the 1820's a national prize of 6,000 francs was offered in France to anyone who could discover a method of artificially making ultramarine at a cost of less than 300 francs per kilo. J B Guimet succeeded in 1828. Known as French Ultramarine ever since, the pigment is chemically identical to genuine ultramarine.
  6. Lac is a red colorant originally made in India, which gave rise to the term "Lake", meaning any transparent dye-based color precipitated on an inert pigment base, used for glazing. During the High Renaissance in Italy, Lac was the third most expensive pigment (after gold and Ultramarine), but most artists thought it worth the expense.
  7. In 14th century, the Italians developed the range of earth pigments by roasting clays from places called Sienna and Umbria to make the deep rich red of Burnt Sienna and the rich brown of Burnt Umber.
  8. The oil paint pigment ‘van Dyck brown’ is named after 17th century’s great Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck.
  9. Emerald Green was a very popular wallpaper color but unfortunately in damp conditions arsenical fumes were released from it. It is thought that Napoleon died as a result of arsenic poisoning from the wallpaper in his prison home on the island St. Helena.
  10. ‘Payne’s gray’ is named after the 18th century watercolorist William Payne, this dark blue-grey colorant combines ultramarine and black, or Ultramarine and Sienna. It was used by artists as a pigment, and also as a mixer instead of black.

Update: This article has also been incorporated in the content resource of the ‘’ by Friedhard Kiekeben. ‘Non toxic print’ is one of the best places on the internet to learn about various non-toxic printmaking techniques and safe painting practices for artists.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

‘Googling’ Museums!

I remember very well how excited I was to see my first 3-D movie ‘Chhota Chetan’ (My Dear Kuttichaathan) in 1985. It was India’s first 3-D movie ever and for most of the movie goers, this experience was simply ‘unbelievable’. This was my very first ‘technology shocker’. Later with adequate intervals (like many other fellow Indians born before the ‘90’s’) I received a regular dosage of ‘technology shocks’, the first TV my father brought home, the first PC I got to use ‘personally’, the first encounter with the internet, the first cell-phone etc…. whew! What excitement! And have the ground breaking inventions taken a break? No way! Here comes the absolutely mind-blowing thing called the ‘Google Art Project’.

While I thought Google was busy shuttling my e-mails around the globe, they had in fact teamed up with world’s 17 most acclaimed art museums to create this magnificent online walk-through. (MoMA in New York, Uffizi Gallery in Florence, The National Gallery in London and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are a few among these) Now what can I say about this?
Well, a heartfelt Thanks to the Google guys! :)

Here is what the Samaritans from Google have been saying about the project on their blog.

To summarize for artists and people generally interested in art, what we get is this,

• We get to ‘see’ the works of great masters like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Rembrandt, Hans Holbein, Sandro Botticelli, Caravaggio and El Greco, just to name a few!
• For the first time, we can see some of the very important paintings like the ‘Starry Night’ in a very minute detail. This is thanks to the ‘Gigapixel Scanning’ technology employed to scan one painting from each of the museums. This, I feel, is one of the most important attributes of the project.
• We can get a ‘feel’ of these 17 museums which are some of the most important art centers on our planet!
A lot of good reasons to drop by to the site and see the magic. So happy museum hunting to you guys, while I go back to ogling my favorite El Greco at ‘The State Hermitage Museum’!

Have fun! :)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

First Colors

Every dawning day in India is immersed in dazzling colors – vermilion reds, shades of deep yellow, greens of all intensities – which form a part of the food we eat, the gods we worship and the houses we inhabit. The mud walls in many houses in rural India are covered with bright paintings of flowers, birds and other motifs which can also be seen – in a more complex rendition – in the traditional miniature and wall paintings dating back several centuries. The colors and the imagery have seeped into the very fabric of life. In the picture I captured a few months back, the 'Chakda' is exhibiting an exotic array of colors while its proud owner is enjoying an afternoon of leisure in the far town of Junagadh, in a corner of western India.
As an artist, I think this is the best place to start my blog, the place where art has formed a spontaneous expression of existence itself.