Early in his career, the Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat began “copyrighting” his work, signing his canvases with a dated, encircled “c” alongside the titles and a varying combination of his initials and name. Perhaps he anticipated the extraordinary decade to come, and was generously helping viewers keep track of his prolific, accelerated catapult into art-world stardom. Kallat recounts that he started copyrighting in his student days as both a playful gesture directed at his classmates and a way to tease the sources out of the visual quotations in his paintings. Continuing to the present, this habit remains the one static element in a high-energy artistic practice that has expanded to global scope. Recent exhibitions include shows in Milan and Sydney, and with a new body of work in a revamped but still-signature style, Kallat packed painting, sculpture and photographs into “365 Lives,” his debut in Beijing at Arario Gallery in July.
Kallat developed a sophisticated arsenal of ideas and a confident command over billboard-style canvases while still at Mumbai’s JJ School of Art, where he earned a BFA in 1996. In an unusual gesture for one of Mumbai’s oldest private galleries, Gallery Chemould held the artist’s first solo exhibition, “PTO,” less than a year after he graduated. The early works filtered the social experience of urban life through self-portraiture. Beginning with his own image and found photocopy and newsprint pictures, Kallat manipulated and layered canvases into additive, large-scale paintings in step with commercial media and the fast, abrasive physicality of changing Mumbai. His incorporation of text and verbal narrative into these works complemented Kallat’s frequent, often parallel practice of critical writing on contemporary art. He says, “[I] feel empty if I don’t write;” and with a practiced knack for visual description, Kallat’s articulations about his own work communicate as thoughtful, written compositions.
The new work at Arario builds upon a previous solo show, “Rickshawpolis.” The eponymous series from that exhibition crowded Mumbai’s rush-hour gridlock onto its expansive surfaces, with masses of public, private, modern and traditional vehicles exploding from central nodes as flattened, outlined silhouettes. Resting the canvases on paired bronze lions recalling the watchful gargoyles crowning Mumbai’s iconic Victoria Terminus building, Kallat transformed his paintings into faceted installations leaping from the wall.
Kallat revives the frenzied traffic from “Rickshawpolis” in Beijing with the series “Carbon Milk” (2007), which fashions acrylic-on-canvas portraits of anonymous children with mass transit on their minds: the pop-painted outlines of the children’s hair are composed from a chaos of roughly sketched cars, rickshaws, buggies and buses. As in “Rickshawpolis,” Kallat fixes his canvases to the wall with animal parts, here using white-painted fiberglass chicken legs, chosen for their spindly aesthetic, rather than the previous fierce felines.
While early works drew iconography and themes from a localized perception of the city, Kallat’s recent subjects arise from the interplay of sites, sound bytes and exposure to a global arena. His invocation of a broadened range of visual culture manifests in the 54-part superflat “Analgesic Studies” (2005-07). Kallat’s mixed-media series of oil, acrylic and glitter on board—also exposed to fire for additional effect—integrates and distorts text, abstraction and Pop imagery. Compressed onto a flat surface, these works construct a post-linear narrative of Mumbai from portraits of contemporary cultural figures like film stars and politicians. Kallat states, “the series began in 2005 and was built over a period of one and a half years, allowing for a wide range of images to infiltrate it. What began as a doodler’s casual enterprise became a full-bodied folio of pictorial ideas, attempted in a spirit of adventure and play.”
In 365 Lives, the exhibition’s title piece, Kallat creates a room-size installation from 365 photographs of slightly dented vehicles. While individually these c-prints transform car crashes into abstract color fields, as a group they evince ordinary urban violence and the organic contours of human scars. Kallat writes, “while [365 Lives] attempts to capture the cadence of the congested Asian metropolis (Mumbai, Colombo, Bangkok, Karachi) through the image of collision, it creates a large surfacial [sic] ripple effect that evokes the notion of flux and change, which is a daily reality in this part of the world.”
While “365 Lives” marked Kallat’s China debut, the artist is set, with characteristic rapidity, to return in September, selected to exhibit at Best of Artists at the inaugural ShContemporary art fair in Shanghai. Lest the viewer lose track of Kallat’s trans-continental jaunts, let’s hope he appends the months to the dates of his copyrights.