Sheetal Gattani's solo opened at Chemould Prescott Road on February 2, marking the second anniversary of the gallery's move to its current location. Sheetal has for years painted watercolours on paper in a fashion that simulated oils, so her recent move to acrylics on canvas doesn't create a radically different look. That isn't a bad thing, since she's accomplished at producing thickly layered paintings that look like monochromatic blocks, cracked and speckled in places allowing the underlayers to shine through.
The big change in this series is her use of three dimensionality. The paintings are made up of segments, some of which are recessed in the mounting, creating a play of surface and depth, shadows and light. Sheetal works within a tradition of abstraction that has been unfashionable for a long time. But she has doggedly stuck with her vision, and her latest offering makes for a mature, substantial and satisfactory show.
To coincide with Sheetal's opening, Jitish Kallat exhibited a giant canvas with a giant name in Gallery Articulate downstairs. The painting, titled Horrorificabilitudinitatibus, is headed for London, where it will be part of a 40 person group show at Haunch of Venison's new space at 6, Burlington Gardens. The building formerly housed the British Museum's ethnographic collection and was called the Museum of Mankind. After a refurbishment in 1998, the ethnographic artefacts moved to back to the main British Museum, and 6, Burlington Gardens was taken over by the Royal Academy. Haunch of Venison have leased it for 3 years, agreeing to pay some 4.5 million pounds for it in a deal which may now seem a big mistake.
Horrorificabilitudinitatibus is a play on honorificabilitudinitatibus, which is the longest word with alternating consonants and vowels in the English language, and means 'the state of being able to achieve honours'. By changing 'honor' to 'horror' Jitish focuses on 'the state of being able to receive horrors', referring particularly to the fascination with which the spectacle of 26/11 was greeted. The artist gathered together news photographs of citizens staring up at the burning buildings of South Bombay, and crafted one composite image which he then transferred to canvas. The figures in the finished painting have coagulated cityscapes resting on their heads, a motif Jitish has used for the past two years, and seen in this picture from his Dawn Chorus series exhibited at London's Albion gallery in late 2007.
The striped 'rays of the sun' background he employs is also familiar from past work, particularly a sequence titled Carbon Milk he exhibited in Beijing in mid 2007.
A few insect-like forms float down from the sky; they look like flayed body parts and are also supposed to be reminiscent of Rorschach inkblots. The picture surface is covered with glitter dust, perhaps meant to signify falling shards of glass. Unfortunately, the glitter, together with the stripey background, makes the painting look cluttered and a bit kitschy. I have a feeling a plain background of the sort Jitish used for his Albion show would have been more successful here. Perhaps the problem with the image is that the central group of figures is uninvolving and Jitish has overcompensated in trying to rectify the situation.
Aside from its formal shortcomings, the canvas is also hampered by its subject. To this day, no truly important work has been created about the 9/11 attacks, because there is no way art can compete with the astonishing images of the planes hitting the Trade Centres and the collapse of the towers. In similar vein, the terrorist strike on south Bombay made a tremendous visual impact on the public at large, being carried non-stop for three days on every news channel. That's something difficult to assimilate and respond to adequately by means of a painting. Jitish is intelligent enough to realise this, which is why he has focussed on the reception of the attack rather than the attack itself. But there's been a lot of attention paid to this aspect of the event as well, and Horrorificabilitudinitatibus has no new insight or perspective to offer on the matter.
Jitish is nothing if not confident, and, by making the painting in the exact dimensions of Picasso's Guernica, he advertises the scale of his ambition. There is a congruence of subject between the Kallat and the Picasso, of course, but the Guernica reference serves only to diminish Horrorificabilitudinitatibus further. It is never wise for artists to bring to mind comparisons where they are going to come out second best.
Jitish is one of my favourite artists, but Horrorificabilitudinitatibus feels like a mis-step. In general in recent years, his sculptural and photographic works have made a far greater impression on me than his paintings. I'd never have thought that possible, given his exceptional gifts as a painter.
Update, February 7: Jitish informed me that the glitter was always part of his plan for the painting and wasn't meant to represent anything specific.