Print Edition - 2014-05-31 | On Saturday
Abstraction and the subjectivity of truth
May 30, 2014-
Like most Nepali artists, Subash Thebe strayed—from a high school degree in Science to a year of Environmental Science to a year of Philosophy—before he finally joined Lalit Kala in 2005. Thebe had been drawing and painting from a very young age and it took some drifting before he actually decided on pursuing something that he was passionate about, academically and as a career. Even while studying courses that had nothing to do with art, he was constantly painting, fulfilling his need for expression through paint. In 2008, he left for England to attain a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art. Three years after the completion of the course, he is still painting, in a style that is reminiscent of the Expressionist paintings of the latter half of the 20th century, but with a more contemporary twist—as he sways between the use of representational elements like portrait or text—placing him in what could be called a neo-abstract-expressionist realm, involving context onto a primarily intuition- and gesture-based style of painting. Thebe is currently in Nepal as a resident artist at the Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre, Patan, and will be exhibiting his collection of works titled # metadata at the Siddhartha Art Gallery, Babermahal, on June 6.
“I believe that an art work should be grounded in aesthetic splendour or should posses gratifying conceptual and contextual underlining. These two criteria I’ve set for myself,” says Thebe, as he leans back in his chair at his studio at KCAC to light a cigarette. Lark Ascending plays on his computer in the background. “Before leaving for England, I was only doing representational paintings and even after I got there I was continuing with it. Abstraction was just experiment, when I first started. I had no intention of becoming an abstract painter as such. But as I engaged more with paint, the infatuation towards brushstrokes grew,” he adds. Thebe’s works are almost always done in oil paint and make use of thick layers of brush strokes and dabs, those which mostly bear the texture of the carrier the artist uses to execute the strokes with. The process is one that lies between the command an artist has over his medium alongside how he submits to the material’s natural capability. He adds, “For somebody who’s painting figures and is restricted by boundaries, it’s fun to have none.”
What had been initiated as an experiment of gestures and strokes led to Thebe’s first series of abstractions, which were majorly based on music. The Dharan-native painted while listening to music and attempted to capture the impressions the audio made on him onto the canvas. It was not an attempt at illustrating the song in any way, but was more like a transfer—one that is personal and from the artist’s perspective—of the timbres and the frequencies, a piece of music possessed into an entirely different media of art. These paintings have heavy brush strokes and sometimes also have outward elements like traced waveform of sound or staff notation and are almost always based on Western classical music. “I was involved with music when I was in Nepal but eventually I realised that I wasn’t very good at it, so I transferred all my energy into painting instead. I think that’s why my love for music seeped into my canvases,” says Thebe. Each painting that the artist completed through this process is named after the piece of music that he was referring to in that conjunction.
While the music-based art works that Thebe created were largely dominated by emotions and intuition, they were not a part of the second category the painter has set for himself—one bearing certain contextual grounds. But it’s something his latest body of work definitely embraces.
In 2012, there were a series of demonstrations by the former British Gurkha soldiers, demanding pay and facilities at par with their English colleagues. Thebe, whose father and grandfather fought on behalf of the British in different battles, also participated in some of the events. “After participating in the protests, I mulled over where my family (the Gurkhas) stood geo-politically. Were they the epitome of bravery or were they just mercenaries hired to kill? I was not criticising the situation, but was merely observing it and my realisation was that history is distorted and the mainstream media has played a huge part in the way its shape is changed,” says Thebe, who then started observing and researching Western mainstream media and the kind of news they produce.
The findings from his research have brought about a new sort of dynamic in the artist’s works. The making and breaking series of videos by the artist asserts this. In the series, the artist is seen painting portraits of the likes of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, whistleblowers who were regarded as traitors by their nation. In the footage, the artist, after painting the faces, stops—contemplates through sips from a mug or puffs of smoke—and then starts again by manipulating the composition by writing ‘traitor’ on Snowden’s forehead or by wiping off Manning’s mouth.
Thought Control Op. 2 is another response to the doings of the media. The painting was created in response to a CNN news report after the Boston Marathon bombing incident. “CNN made claims that the authorities had arrested a ‘dark-skinned’ man as suspect, and the information, the company claimed, was from a reliable source,” says Thebe. The painting is dominated by hues of crimson stained at places with a darker colour, the same colour also making a line in the centre. On top of the colours reads ‘Dark Skin male suspect reliable source’. At first thought, the painting does seem very documentary-like and unbiased but as one observes the dark background, one can’t be help but notice that the artist has taken a mainstream media snippet and in turn altered it in his own way to give it a new meaning of sorts, which he intends to impart. This is as if associations are made with the clichéd meanings of colours. Because abstraction is so subjective a matter, the piece manages to refrain from taking sides. Thebes says, “The background could have been something else as well. It’s just something I started doing and came out the way it is.”
Thebe’s exhibition will also feature works that are based on local issues. It’s not happening references an aerial map of a section of the Himalayas, where glacial outbursts are acute and are a threat to the terrain as well as the communities that inhabit the valley below. “I read an article a couple of weeks ago about how the issue of climate change was a hoax and it was titled ‘It’s not happening’. Glacial lakes have doubled in size in recent years and that change cannot be undermined,” he says.
The kind of abstraction Thebe performs is very different to the 60s movement, although similar visually. It’s not entirely intuitive nor is it out of the subconscious. Observing the artist’s latest works—although he rejects such intentions—it can be guessed that the painter devises these textures and brushstrokes in a way that helps him get his message across. In his case, it’s more about how colours and textures could affect the viewer in response to the ‘other’ information the artists adds on to his work.
Thebe believes that one has to play a useful role in society as an artist, although this idea has been debated forever. He says, “I don’t know if my art will be able to change anything or not. I don’t know if art has the capability for reformation or whether it should bear that burden. I am but exploring.”
Published: 31-05-2014 09:35