This poorly planned show does little to flatter the nebulous talents of India’s first pop artist
There is a painting of a barber’s shop by the Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar that shows a customer sitting before a mirror with an unreadable expression on his face. The barber stands alongside, impassive and stiff. The style is naive, the figures are awkward, the proportions outlandish, and tugging at the eye are the two words Good Luck crudely woven – or crudely painted? – on an orange mat. The only indication that the job is done is a clump of black hair on the floor.
For Khakhar’s admirers – and he has many in this country, not least the painter Howard Hodgkin, a devoted promoter and collector of his art – this picture may be ironic, or comic, or tinged with melancholy. Responses to the series of trade paintings, as Khakhar called them, are strong but tellingly diverse. He painted a tailor labouring in his Bombay shop and a watchmaker toiling over tiny cogs, fag in mouth, and some people find dark humour in these hard-won images, while others detect blue-collar sorrow. I freely confess that I cannot catch their tone at all.
But how is one to appreciate this extraordinary act of public bravery on the artist’s part if one cannot recognise his portrait? Nobody could call Khakhar a natural painter or praise his figurative descriptions. He has no fluency or touch with the brush; he moves the paint around with laborious difficulty. Every canvas appears to be an almighty struggle, to the extent that the struggle threatens to mystify the subject.
It is clear that the work is narrative, autobiographical, political. There is a peculiarly inert and didactic painting of a strike, the workers on one side of the gate, the bosses on the other; and a scene of departure, with a little Alfred Wallis ship waiting to carry an Indian gentleman away from a Rousseau-esque landscape. There are quasi-portraits of Khakhar’s longtime partner and many images that appear to take sex or love as their theme, though even to put it so strongly feels misleading.
If this is so, then this exhibition has entirely failed to give sufficient context for viewers who have no knowledge of India in the 1960s and 70s, when most of these pictures were made. But for reference, there is a picture painted on a trip to Britain in 1979. It shows a lone drinker in a London pub, staring straight ahead, glass clutched in hand; and then again in his solitary bedsit, and once again alone in the cabin of his lorry. This seems far more compassionate than satirical.
Indeed, if there is anything to hold fast to in this sprawling and ill-edited show, it is a sense of compassionate curiosity, especially in the late paintings of illness.