From the streets, into the galleryAt the low-brow mix-media exhibition, currently on at the Siddartha Art Gallery, you see two very young artists trying to find a voice that they can stick with
The result of 2015-2016’s Australian Himalayan Foundation Art Award is an exhibition of low-brow mix-media paintings by two artists who have spent as much time on the streets as they have in their studios. The artists this year—Shradha Shrestha and Kiran Maharjan—are both mural painters who have been in the Nepali street art scene for a few years now.
The Australian Himalayan Foun-dation Art Award—an art grant for contemporary Nepali artists that was initiated in 2010—has always been provided to studio practitioners in the past. We’ve seen figurative works done in oil, acrylic and print in the past, but what makes it different this year, is obvious from the work of the artists.
Shrestha (alias Deadline) and Maharjan (alias H11235)—two of the first Art Lab members—have been involved in the street art scene for some time now. A walk around the major thoroughfares of the city will expose you to a handful of murals and tags by these artists. Although both the artists are mural painters, the style and the content of their works are quite different. Shrestha is also a graphic designer while Maharjan is a studio artist currently working on a graphic novel.
Idiot box and Kathmandu
Shrestha’s work is all about good light-hearted sense of humour. Mostly portraits done in acrylic and paint markers on canvas, her paintings depict characters, in a rather unconventional manner, from the Hindu pantheon as well as from myths. Simply put, they are simplified, ‘cartoonified’ versions of the gods and deities. Here, Shrestha fuses the idea and iconography of Hindu gods with stereotypical imagery of aliens and monsters—the kind you would encounter in a Cartoon Network short from the mid-90s or in a Pixar flick. In a way, Shrestha’s idea is quite similar to what Marvel Comics had done with the Norse god Thor and his friends: Taking characters from religion and myth and giving them another point of origin. Shrestha’s Shiva, Ganesh or the Makaras could be religious/mythical entities or they could just be, like the artist imagines, extra-terrestrial beings that humans have learned to worship.
Shrestha’s collection is delightful in its use of colour—they are quite subdued but they stand out owing to the bold black outlines—and the way the characters position themselves in the canvases. They are ‘composed’ and give off the same kind of pre-conceived feel an animated cartoon would give through their planned framing. The rendering of the paintings could have been cleaner, though. If you have been to the artist’s previous shows (especially Random Impact, 2014) you might be a little disappointed. These hard-edged paintings require technical precision, which Shrestha has been known to provide in her works in the past, but some of the paintings in this collection look a little sloppy in terms of paint application.
While some of Shrestha’s characters are reminiscent of cartoon characters—the Samundra Manthan monsters are definitely inspired by monsters that the Powerpuff Girls fight—others in works like The Family Portrait—featuring Shiva’s family—the Garuda and the Makara are a lot more original. Nevertheless, the works are bold and they confront the viewers quite aggressively; I was unable to pass them by without spending some time, observing. And for once, Hindu gods do not come in the form of well-built model figures and ever-smiling compassionate faces (think Indian god posters). Despite their unorthodox physical features, they actually seem more relatable.
Maharjan takes a different turn. His works aren’t as jovial and gleeful like Shrestha’s, but are darker and have a more serious tone. In this exhibition, the artist turns to science. His statement reads: “The series of works are a comparative study between the qualities that make us human and that make animals: animals.” Through classical rendering of forms, Maharjan paints—with acrylic and aerosol spray—parts of human beings and animals and juxtaposes them and infuses them with calligraphic elements. All this the artist does with mastery.
The statement also states that the artist has made use of “the visual style of deconstructivism”. Maharjan’s paintings work better when considered as juxtapositions of forms. The paintings lack the compositional chaos an otherwise deconstructive work of art would possess. Instead, the separations between the forms have been made very carefully in order to create certain narratives within the work. Simply put, for example, Ape in Us is like an image of a profile portrait of a woman and a gorilla cut into pieces and composed together to create a more immersive experience for the viewers.
What is most striking about Maharjan’s series, though, is its stylistic splendour. One can tell, from the paintings that this artist is somebody who puts in a lot of practice and study in his art. The renderings are life-like—the series of hands and Beginning are photorealistic even—and the compositions, speaking formally, are well-balanced.
Both Shrestha and Maharjan have similarities other than the fact that they are mural painters. The artists pay a lot of attention to ‘design’ and the resulting aesthetics. The visual is primary. Here you see two very young artists trying to find a voice that they can stick with. If you’ve witnessed their works in the past, you could well see how their arts have evolved through the years, and if you have not, this exhibition is a chance to start. This is guessing that their works, a few years down the line, will evolve to become much, much more.