Painter Gieve Patel is a masterly observer of the nuances of life.
Gieve Patel is not yet seventy, but an age when he can look back to a body of works stretching all the way back to the late ’60s, and which, collectively, allow for a retrospective, though the almost-timid and soft-spoken artist (among other things, including playwright, poet and doctor) prefers “select works” from the period spanning from 1971 to 2006. At an opening at Gallery Threshold in New Delhi (the same show will open in May 2010 at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai), surrounded by his “friends, people…”, he confesses to being overwhelmed.
Patel, who has managed to keep a low profile despite an impressive repertoire of work, could be a representation himself for cartoonist R K Laxman’s common man, a trait he cherishes as he moves around, absorbing the transient migrant to the city, the pavement dweller, the ship builder, bicyclists and strollers, the people who make up his paintings with the city background, its overwhelming presence captured in the emotions of the people who, he says, “are the point of entry into any of my activities”. The city or other landscapes may recede into a suggestion, “but the two things have to come together” in his art, he says, a reflection of “the presence of man on earth”.
He has had occasional periods when he painted without human figures, such as railway station architecture — this was in the ’70s — and “for over 12 years now, a series of looking into wells and capturing reflections”, something he hopes to continue working on, even though, recently, he’s added a new element to his oeuvre: sculpture. “The general approach to my work through the decades has remained fairly consistent,” he says, “with sculpture the only departure. Though my friends tell me that the way I handle clay is the way I paint, so I suppose that is consistent too.”
An occasional poet — “I find I have to wait for a poem, and to be completely passive” — his painting is a constant activity, if not the actual act of the painting then at least the preparation for it. “It is in many ways a physical activity, something I find reassuring: cleaning the palette, setting the brushes, putting up an easel. I like to listen to music” — mostly Western though occasionally Hindustani classical — “though I don’t paint while the music is on. When listening to music, I like to look a little at the painting I’m working on, it helps to clarify what I’m going to do next, but when I paint” — he also admits to being a “slow” even “temperamental” painter — “I prefer silence.” And though he isn’t obsessively disciplined, he does paint regularly even if not daily, “for just a half-hour, or maybe three hours, though lots of time goes looking at the canvas”.
Unlike several of his peers, Patel says he has never been tempted to try his hand at abstraction — “though abstracting the essence of what you are painting is a universal phenomenon” — because to him the subject is more important than the act of painting. “I always start with the subject matter in my mind,” he confides, and writes in his catalogue that each work “represents an aspect of my thinking that will surface unpredictably from time to time”. Notes curator Kamala Kapoor, “Patel has long drawn and painted the ordinary, in terms of the everyday, and also the extraordinary, in terms of deprivation and dispossession in a way that draws these features out”, something, she adds, that might not have been noticed “before they came to be on this artist’s canvas and paper”. And yet, she reflects, “one can always recognise Patel’s complete commitment that remains free of trend or compromise, where the work has no middle ground”, but which forms for him “a means for probing reality, nature and human experience”.