The solo exhibition 'Open Eye Policy' by Sheela Gowda (Bhadravati 1957) presents the most comprehensive overview to date of the work of this acclaimed Indian artist. It brings together sculpture, large installations, painting and photography from the past twenty years. A first impression of these works suggests a pre-occupation with abstraction, form and material, but on closer inspection they reveal a constant engagement with politics, environment and society.
The title of the exhibition speaks of the artists’ attentive approach to her contemporary surroundings as she works with materials taken from the everyday following what she calls on ‘an open eye policy’.
This exhibition forms part of the series of major solo exhibitions at the Van Abbemuseum in 2012-13, which has so far included René Daniëls, David Maljkovic, Yael Bartana and Piero Gilardi, programmed to highlight the artists’ voice.
Initially trained as a painter in India and the UK, since the 1990’s Gowda has increasingly developed a sculptural and installation practice, using materials to draw out references to the social and cultural context of India. Her work is both sensual and unsettling, conjuring some of the darkest aspects of human experience, where poetically invested materials evoke what the artist refers to as “the insidious nature of violence, overt and insidious in our psychic makeup”.
Gowda’s use of unconventional materials is a highly evocative element of her practice; it brings the viewer’s attention to a meaning that transforms these elements into social objects and practices located within a network of production and distribution, framed in relation to India’s socio-political legacy. The materials from which the works are distilled and composed are often in use everyday. Some are mundane, all are common in contemporary daily life in Bangalore where Gowda lives and works. She uses tar barrels, metal piping for domestic plumbing, wooden doorjambs, thread, newspaper. Other media employed can be read as highly symbolic, like hair, incense, cow dung and kumkum (an intensely red dye made of turmeric and lime and often used in ceremonies) or small wooden votive figurines. Yet all are transformed. She re-appraises these found materials, and in each case, she wrings different connotations from them as they take form in space.
There is an intense spareness and direct intensity to Sheela Gowda’s installations which on an initial encounter belies their complexity. In And Tell Him of My Pain (2002-2007) a single gesture: the slash of a red rope cuts through a white daylit exhibition room or coils at one’s feet. A brightly painted sky-blue or yellow doorjamb dramatically unfurls skyward at once unleashed and uncontained in the installation Of All People (2011). Resonating completely and aesthetically as forms in and of themselves, these art works emit a robust, distilled almost ‘pure‘ sculptural presence for the visitor who walks among them, at times, dwarfed by their sheer scale.
However on closer reading these pieces function on a kind of double register. As the artist explains she moulds ‘specificity of place, form and materials into a language of abstraction’. After this initial encounter the precise social economic and political context provokes a second reading and not always a benign one. As Gowda herself states: ‘If my work gets read as beautiful alone it would be inadequate. It would be a reading of the surface markers alone because the underlying layers are dark.’
Following its presentation at the Van Abbemuseum the exhibition will travel to Lunds konsthall, Lund (Sweden).
In the exhibition Open Eye Policy visitors will find, next short wall texts and title cards, a number of screens with movies in which Sheela Gowda explains her work. There will also be several courses and theme lectures related to the exhibition.
Annie Fletcher (Van Abbemuseum) in collaboration with Grant Watson.