City Without End


City Without End

Gallery: Solo Show at Aicon Gallery, Palo Alto, U.S.A.

Essay Title: Real and Virtual Addresses: A Response to Ravi Kumar Kashi’s ‘City without End

Author: Ranjit Hoskote

Year:  2003

In the course of an artistic career that now spans 16 years, Ravi Kumar Kashi has proceeded by a breathtaking series of disconnects, as though no single medium or approach to image-making could hold his restless energy. He has worked in graphics, painted on glass and on canvas, addressed the figure and explored abstraction; he has cherished the collage principle, devoted himself to moulded-paper sculpture, mobilised assemblages, extended the painterly mandate to the social signalling devices of the T-shirt and the mask; he has engaged in photography and made digital art-works as well as art-works that are inspired by digital-media processes. The solitary self, in the richness of its anxieties and indecisions and ecstasies, has often been the locus of Kashi’s art, but he has also attended to the communicative demands of sociality. He has, for many years, acted as co-editor of the Kannada art journal, Sanchaya, and has contributed art criticism to newspapers and magazines.

Not surprisingly, Kashi has cultivated a long-term interest in the legibility of collage, conceived as a whole composed from fragments, its effects accomplished by means of adroit editing patterns and a symphonics of surprise. He interprets the collage principle, not only in its early modernist sense of a patchwork of heterogeneous materials pasted together on a pictorial surface to challenge the homogeneity of paint and painting, but also to include sculptural assemblages or quasi-sculptural combines. Accordingly, Kashi has used architectural elements such as doors, as well as readymades such as chess pieces, stencil templates, toy cars, rocking horses and neon tubing, in some of his works. He has also activated papier-mâché to considerable effect, as in the 2003 ‘Paper Armour’ series of armour suits and helmets cast in cotton-fibre pulp, presented with ‘Pause’, a suite of silent weapons, cast in pulp made from cotton and banana fibre. He has crafted paper-pulp sculptures in the form of books, blazoned T-shirt moulds with messages in the installation, ‘Chatter’ (2005), and assembled a set of tabletop photographs, with images of torsos, hands, jars and other ensembles of elements that rub together to generate a friction between the everyday and the bizarre. Kashi’s key recurrent motifs are the book, seemingly solidly crafted but vulnerable to historical and climatic violence; and the torso, whether naked or protected by armour, or presented as a mould, the armature of absence.

Kashi may well have secured permission for this versatility in the course of his nomadic education, which was garnered in various schools, cities and disciplines. The artist earned a BFA in painting from the College of Fine Arts, Bangalore, in 1988, and was nurtured by the very different emphases of the two Bangalore institutions that socialised him into the domain of the visual arts: the Ken School of Art, an informally run, perennially precarious but superbly vibrant local Bauhaus with a flexible syllabus and an accent on improvisation, and the Chithra Kala Parishath, a formal, State-funded academic institution animated by a sense of the composure and grandeur of the artistic mission. Kashi then took an MFA in print-making at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda (1990), and found the time, while working to establish himself as an artist, to read for an MA in English Literature at the Mysore University (1995). The natural subject for such a sensibility would be that kaleidoscope of possibilities which is the modern city, the “city without end” that features in the title of the present exhibition. The city without end is everywhere: it fashions itself as the environment that we occupy; it secretes itself in the imagination; it lays down the rules of habitation and movement; it decides how we may communicate with each other, and also becomes the ground note of our communication. At once aspiration and ambience, metaphor and reality, the city without end demands ever-renewed acts of testimony.

Kashi is a connoisseur of urban signs. His interest in the structures and layouts of the metropolis was nourished during the 12 years that he taught at an architecture school in Bangalore. The presence of the city has haunted even the scintillating near-abstract paintings that he orchestrated through the mid-1990s. Houses and streets, pylons and hanging electric wires, bridges and staircases: all were invoked, as glimpses and snatches rather than as solid entities, in a play of the visible motif and the manoeuvre of eclipse. Kashi preserved the residues of form even as he knit together tapestries of dissolving interiors and notational cityscapes. In his paintings of the last few years, Kashi invokes the city, not directly, but indexically: pointing to its everywhereness, so to speak, through the spectacular pictoriality and dayglo sensuousness of advertising images drawn from billboards and glossies, and from the popular religious art of the street. He embraces digital images and graffiti; he enlists maps of cities; he inserts into his paintings, night scenes from the anthology of surprises and incidents that is the big city. These images are combined with fragments of text, which Kashi incorporates as an element in his pictorial configuration: like the announcements and updates that run in seamless straps along television screens, the artist often has text running at the bottom of his picture surfaces, or across them.

Like many of his contemporaries who use mediatic imagery, Kashi maintains a growing archive of references: folders bursting with newspaper and magazine advertisements, alongside which are set his ‘image diaries’, journals loaded with beginnings and observations, the germs and seed-crystals of ideas. Sifting through these, we come upon playful remix operations, sometimes involving a fourth- or fifth-generation riff on an image; the artist points out, for instance, to his deployment of a Ford advertisement that uses the detail of Gandhi’s foot and the tip of his staff, a visual quotation from D P Roy Chowdhury’s canonical sculpture of the Mahatma, itself developed from a photographic representation. The folk hero of popular culture and the action hero of the comics are given a new lease in Kashi’s art: falling or floating figures, figures captured in the act of running or leaping, inhabit his paintings, and put us in mind of Sisyphus or Icarus. And the artist’s optimistic belief in the sovereignty of the imagination over circumstance is always underscored. Design, as the mode by which the imagination conveys an architecture of desires and discoveries into being, is also assigned a primary value in his recent paintings: flights of stairs, variously combined and permuted into stepped blocks, ziggurats and devices of ascension, signpost the interplay of optical and mediatic reality. Kashi also fingerprints his paintings with several varieties of code, including sign language: articulated as a strap-line of stylised hand gestures, it reminds us that a painting does not surrender its meaning easily to the viewer’s delectation, and demands decipherment. The ancient, the unfamiliar and the epic achieve an intriguing afterlife in Kashi’s paintings, recovered as persistences and registered in the archive of everyday image and phrase.

We transit, with Ravi Kumar Kashi, between asphalt and cyberspace; between the brushiness of a painted surface and the cool electronic glow of the monitor screen that is implied. Where shall we call on the artist-self, we find ourselves asking, given the choice of real and virtual addresses. Where, in these fluid and turbulent times, shall we locate the interventions of this artist-self?


City Without End

Ravi Kashi, Works 2007

By Ranjit Hoskote