A new show of small-scale Indian art has charm and novelty but runs the risk of being a pretty mess
Curios are a collector’s best friends. Sakti Burman did initially resist the idea. But after finishing his canvasses for Art Alive’s ongoing show Think Small!— all in the prescribed 12”x9” size — the Paris-based artist reported the experience as both nice and painful. “I really had to convince him initially,” laughs Sunaina Anand, the Delhi gallery’s director who envisioned a show of contemporary art in a small-sized format. Among the teeming cadres of galleristas vying for the next sticker idea, Anand seems to have hit upon a winner. About 70 percent of the show’s 175 works have already been sold.
Restricting the frame was not just about keeping a uniform scale but an effort to bring a new intensity into it; the curatorial brief emphasised each artist’s native density rather than any borrowings from the traditions of miniature painting. “I asked the artists to give me the same intensity they bring to their larger canvasses,” says Anand. “All information is getting compressed today. Everything is available on a chip now – it’s what our entire lifestyle has become. I wanted to see if artists could match this compression and give their entire vision in a small frame. I wanted them to think big and complete. It was a challenge to create the same powerful viewer response as occurs in front of a large canvas.” But someone like KP Reji never considered such concepts: “For me, it was a chance to do it! Size comes automatically depending on ideas. I took the chance.” Their delicate size — between miniatures and fullblown canvasses — pitches these works as archetypal objects of today’s acquisitive art ethos: souvenir Gujrals and Arakkals.
Exhibiting a large show all in the same size also courted the danger of monotony, but it was posed more as a challenge to the 45 invited artists. The gallery framed all the works itself to ensure they remain a similar size on the walls, and test whether visibility is only a factor of space or if it can also be about intensity. One work isn’t allowed to overpower another through such external factors, and the framing is distinctly quiet, to be able to offer the viewer the same idea that was conceptualised for the artists.
When the show was previewed at the recent India Art Summit, Paresh Maity’s small painting was hung in a corner on the booth’s inside wall, and Anand recalls how people still gravitated towards it, arrested by its strong echoes. Jayashree Chakravarty, whose insectoid whorls have never appeared in this size before, had to reinvent her work to fit into the format. She’s painted a few more in this size, which other galleries have also shown interest in.
“When young,” says Yusuf Arakkal, “I only prayed for a large studio – to work on large canvasses!” In this first small-size series, his focus was to retain some monumentality. Instead of keeping canvasses on an easel or the floor, he put these smaller ones on a high table and stood glued over them.
Kishor Shinde enlarged his forms to create the impression of a larger scale. He liked the format so much he’s continued to paint a few 1’x1’ canvasses. KP Reji used linear perspective to expand his sense of space. CF John credits Anand for pursuing him, even after his initial submissions for this show, to attempt his usual large-scale work in this format. “The large canvas is closer to your own body size and so is more physical,” he says. “I tried to translate the intimacy out of the large format into the small.”
Our culture’s obsession with miniaturisation is often triumphant, and on closer look, many individual works here surprise as if peering into a marble. Satish Gujral’s familiar acrylic and gold figures still push into rather than out of the frame; Shipra Bhattacharya’s woman floats over an entire continent.
The show provides an opportunity to ingest many artists at once, but this is also its prime weakness. Without a central subject, it often gives an impression of aimlessness, and the abstract artists like S Harsha Vardhana or Sujata Bajaj suffer the most without a sustained narrative. And without the proper stamina of looking closely, a viewer might leave with an impression of a nice smattering rather than a specific vision – besotted colours flapping over the tiniest ledges. The nub might lie in the size of things but, as in the case of microchips and bikinis, the close-up view can become fruitless. Contrary to Anand’s hopes for next year, good ideas like these should never be repeated.
More images here