When Marino Auriti created his multi-media sculpture Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, or The Encyclopaedic Palace, in the 1950s, he was aspiring for something grander. The Italian-American artist wanted the 11-foot high architectural model to be realised as a 2,322-foot tall museum in Washington DC that would house all the knowledge of the world – alas, it never was.
In 2013, curator Massimiliano Gioni modelled the international exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale on Auriti’s Palace. Auriti’s idea, Gioni explained in his curatorial note, was to create a repository of accumulated knowledge, starting from the invention of the wheel – an aspiration, he added, that occurs in both the history of art and humanity. In his own encyclopaedic venture, Gioni included works by more than 150 artists from 38 countries, including psychiatrist Carl Jung’s The Red Book. Three of the works in that show were by Bengaluru-based artist Prabhavathi Meppayil.
Meppayil is now showing at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and at a solo show of nine works at New Delhi’s GallerySKE. Recalling the exhibition at The Encyclopaedic Palace, she said: “They may not have known what a thinnam is, but there was a lot of awareness about art history abroad.”
A thinnam is a metallic tool which features widely in Meppayil’s work. It is used by traditional artisans to make patterns on gold bangles and shows up at Meppayil’s show at GallerySKE, where she has a set of five works, each with thinnam on a gesso panel. Meppayil’s works are untitled except for a number assigned to each. The five-piece thinnam work on display at GallerySKE, is called d fifty five.
“When I look at these panels, I can actually hear the sound the thinnam makes while marking the gesso,” said Meppayil, standing for a moment to consider a panel marked repeatedly with a pattern resembling the mathematical symbol for approximately. A common enough pattern on bangles around the country, the “≈” sign seemed fresh in its context and material. “I don’t know how to explain it,” Meppayil said. “When I look at my work, for me, it’s invested with the time that it took to make it and the sounds…”
Meppayil’s work is steeped in traditional materials, artisanal practice and a strong imperative to preserve the old. At the Kochi Biennale, for example, she is showing a pile of rubble imprinted with thinnam in places. “People may think it’s bizarre that I go around old Bangalore collecting rubble,” she said. “But so much of the city I grew up in is changing. The rubble is what is left.”
There are at least four recurring ideas in Meppayil’s work at the GallerySKE: the thinnam-imprinted gesso panel; gesso panels with embedded copper and iron wire; gesso coating on found objects, including traditional wooden tools of goldsmiths; and experimentation with the grid.
Meppayil’s artistic process is painstaking and time-consuming. She prepares the gesso herself, with chalk, lime and glue. Local artisans heat and stretch copper, gold and iron wires that she embeds into her work to give it colour. “It’s very specialised work,” Meppayil explained. “You wouldn’t believe what gold looks like when you heat it and stretch it to a thread.”
Next, she applies several layers of gesso to wooden panels, draws lines on the surface with a ruler, drills fine holes at the edges and stretches the wires across the panels. After a few more layers of gesso (the total number of layers is typically 15), she begins to sand and polish the panels, once everything is dry. “I don’t always know what the work will look like when I finish,” Meppayil said. “I just know when it is done. In some, you may think the line is not complete. But the wire is there – stretching from one end of the frame to the other.”
As a result, Meppayil’s panels often lie at the edge of how much authorship the artist can claim and the role of chance, in a work that is extremely technical and demands discipline on the one hand, but where results can be ephemeral. “The colours change during the life of a painting or sculpture, depending on how you choose to look at it,” she said. “The iron rusts and produces this beautiful orange. The copper turns blue. Some years from now, they may corrode and be gone entirely.” Meppayil was looking at d fifty seven, a copper wire and iron wire embedded in gesso panel.
Imbued as her work is with local tradition, Meppayil also consciously responds to historical and contemporary art movements around the world.
“It is a minimalist approach,” said Kiran Nadar, chairperson of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. Nadar has five works by Meppayil in her collection, including one which she bought at Art Basel Unlimited last year. “It’s a work that can be installed depending on the space you have. In Basel, they had a doorway in the middle where they had displayed it on the two sides of the doorway. I love the way she puts the metal inlay into the gesso. Her work to me is a little reminiscent of a Nasreen Mohamedi. Even though they are very different, the feel is that of a minimalistic artist. It’s the feel of the work which is very abstract in its display.”
It is this minimalist, almost reductionist and abstract aspect of her work that Meppayil finds resonates immediately with viewers abroad. “They have seen works like this in white before,” she said. “They know something about the history of the grid.”
In 2014, London’s Pace Gallery showed Meppayil’s works at an exhibition titled nine seventeen. The accompanying catalogue had a superb essay by Harvard University professor Benjamin HD Buchloch, in which he examined key aspects of Meppayil’s work and how they are more than a throwback to “a summa of postwar strategies, from European and Latin American Neo-Concretism to American Post-Minimalist abstractions”.
Buchloch structures his essay in eight parts, to talk about the formal aspects of Meppayil’s work (the white colour, the use of the grid, mark-making as opposed to painting, repetition) and her process. For example, he traces the lineage of her use of white back to the history of white paintings in the 1950s and 1960s, with champions of the non-colour such as Robert Rauschenburg in his White Paintings (1951), Cy Twombly, and Piero Manzoni. Buchloch wonders if the choice of the colour white in Meppayil’s work was so that it could become a space for writing, or get assimilated as architecture.
Meppayil loves these in-between spaces, between writing and architecture, mark-making and drawing, sculpture and painting, the artist’s will versus chance elements. Her choice of material, process and form speak of her partiality for duality, ambiguity. “Gesso was used as a surface to paint,” she said. “I am interested in it as an object in itself.” More than anything, Meppayil seems to want to resist categorisation. Her art is at once deeply local and international.