Quiescence in ordinary things is Mahesh Baliga's artistic idiom. His vision is oblique, catching the emblems of daily life that tell a larger story of the fragility that accompanies the lifestream of the world.
The time has come for Baliga, who was born in Karnataka but lives in Vadodara, to make his international debut at the exclusive David Zwirner Gallery in London with a solo exhibition titled Drawn to Remember.
It is a big deal for this soft-spoken artist - the gallery, whose headquarters is in New York and also has branches in London, Paris and Hong Kong, represents the who’s who of the global art world like Yayoi Kusama, Donald Judd and Carol Bove.
Drawn to Remember, Baliga's new collection of paintings, is more than an ode to memory. It is a portmanteau of images rendered in luminous pastels. Baliga feels that "colour is a vehicle to communicate" - 40 casein tempera works, exhibited for the first time at the gallery’s Upper Room.
His style borrows from the delicacy of miniature paintings to Impressionist imagery. The London exhibition forms a melange of everyday's unheeded pastiches and takes a detour into the magician's twisted world.
There is enchantment beneath the banality, expressed through different slides of a powerful artistic imagination whose mischief bewilders the viewer.
Flowers burst out through a man's shirt, forming a druid’s mantle - is that hope or death? Or both? A boat has drifted off to sea, slave to a current that runs deep in the artist’s subconscious. Is that ink on the poet's shirt?
What was he writing when he absentmindedly stained his shirt? That old man trimming the nails of his feet, one leg raised on the bed - his concentration is such that he will not notice the viewer. Or will he?
People have taken their seats on a row of green hospital chairs at an eye clinic, separated by pandemic distance; behind their darkness is a glass window through which you can see brightly blooming laburnums.
A tragic irony, Baliga lost a dear friend to the coronavirus. Such is the power of this 40 years of painter's illusion that the impossible seems commonplace in his parable made of memories.
Baliga recently told interviewer Gayatri Rangachari Shah that pain gave him energy to work. "If I am not able to paint something out of desire, then that itself is a type of pain. The other is the pain of what is happening in my surroundings which affect me, where I can’t do anything to help," he said.
Baliga too is one of the scores of artists who were influenced and oppressed by the changes the pandemic brought, redefining relationships, spaces, intimacy, desire and loneliness. Last June, Project 88 held an online exhibition of the artist's work.
Confined with his material to home, he missed his studio space "like a person longing for one's missed limbs, as if my mind had been ruptured, becoming vulnerable to the blank noise". He spent the days imagining travelling to his studio and painting there. He resurrected it in his mind.
A man is trying to eat a long paper dosa (also, title of the work) under a Kali painting. He is looking at you, challenging you to question his hunger. A trendy man - an artist as the title claims - is taking a photo on his phone of a deep black oval on black; it is the cosmos.
In 'First Day', a woman lies asleep, head thrown back on the pillow - a study in blue; but first day of what? The marriage bed? COVID? Or simply the first day of the rest of the days? All the painting are small-sized, 12 by 10 inches, rendered casein on board. One of the most enigmatic paintings are of two women sitting on wave-covered sand, their faces covered by white cloth.
"Sometimes things happen and there is a regret of not acting right at that time and there is a desire to undo things; I reimagine situations like I wish them to be. I want to keep a close watch on my loved ones, there is a fear of losing them. But the condition of time only permits me to work on it mentally. The present time has made me forget how to greet and meet the people as earlier. An act which was right for one moment fails in another moment," states Baliga.
The 40-year-old Baliga seeks mystery in the commonplace, and vies to layer the mundane with it, because his challenge lies in bringing mystique to the ordinary, and thereby bring wonder into a world where life is quotidian and taken for granted.