Moments after I had stepped inside Ganges Art Gallery, I felt like fleeing back to the heat and dust outside. Such was the effect of the exhibition by Arghya Priya Majumdar and Mahjabin Majumdar. With no obvious reason, the exhibition had been titled Outsiders Within (May 20-June 12). Whatever value this portentous name might have added to the paintings on display, it certainly couldn’t persuade outsiders to stay within the gallery for more than a few minutes.
Dim light, a faintly musty odour pervading the rooms, shabby captions, and some random canvases, presumably by other artists, stacked against the wall — this was a vintage exhibition mounted on the working principles of the inimitable Calcutta School of Curating. If you write on art exhibitions in Calcutta, you’d better get used to the shoddiness of it all; no amount of complaining will ever change gallerists or the way they function unless a fine, or better still, a summary ban is imposed on badly put-together shows. But utopian thoughts are not going to get you anywhere in the age of the free market, which has spawned a brood of its own free-willed children. And ambitious gallerists with little understanding of art, along with amateur dabblers with colour who go by the name of artists, are the two most dangerous offspring of this market economy.
Consider the work of Mahjabin Majumdar, on which Anirudh Chari, who wrote the catalogue essays, waxes eloquent. The eloquence, one might add, is borne of his unbounded enthusiasm, which results in lush glibness. Viewers are told that “the enigmatic artistic visions” of Mahjabin are “alternately amusing, enchanting and puzzling [sic]… with their juxtapositions and metamorphoses of imagery which centre on the bizarre and incongruous and using visual sleight of hand convert mundane pictorial facts into something unusual”. What we see in reality is no less puzzling than this prose. Mahjabin’s sizeable canvases are filled with intense, often lurid, colours. She is a figurative painter who makes up for her lack of imagination by trying to add ‘shock value’ to her work. Unfortunately, translucent human bodies with flora and fauna floating among the visceral organs are just not good enough. This is the kind of ‘body horror’ that Jaya Ganguly has explored in her sublime grotesquerie, and anyone planning a re-run of this style better be able to transform this idea into something rich and strange — or at least into something remotely interesting.
Arghya Priya, like Mahjabin, is a figurative artist, but thankfully has dropped all pretense of mystery. Of course, that makes his work only more bearable to look at, not any better. Once again, thanks to Chari, we learn that Arghya Priya’s works “transcend the production of pleasure”. Perhaps they produce sheer pain (in the viewers)? Arghya Priya paints distended male figures smiling insidiously, their bodies in various states of contortion. There is something indecently sexual about their gestures, and this sliminess comes through most vividly in the portrait of hands held in a clasp (picture). But the surfeit of blinding colours (fluorescent green and orange) do no good to the eyes, or to the viewers’ attention span.
On top of this, the memory of Jogen Chowdhury’s exquisite drawings of bloated men, or even of Reji Arackal’s swollen creatures, hovered too close for any hint of credible originality.