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An exhibition of artist self-portraits in the age of selfies

A group show celebrating 25 years of Gallery Threshold showcases self-portraits by leading contemporary artists

V Ramesh, 'Self Portrait in the Studio with a Single Malt', watercolour on Arches paper (2023). Images: courtesy Gallery Threshold
V Ramesh, 'Self Portrait in the Studio with a Single Malt', watercolour on Arches paper (2023). Images: courtesy Gallery Threshold

The famous Mughal miniature painting, Dying Inayat Khan (1618), commissioned by emperor Jahangir, was a portrait of his close associate, dying from addiction to opium and wine. This portrayal of an emaciated body, juxtaposed against luxurious pillows, was a rare occurrence in this genre of art. At Bikaner House, Delhi, one can see painter V. Ramesh turn this portrait on its head. In Self Portrait In The Studio With Single Malt, he fashions himself on Inayat Khan, sprawled on a chair in his studio, with a glass of single malt on a table in front of him. However, instead of his spirit ebbing, the artist seems to be thriving.

In stark contrast is Sudhir Patwardhan’s Reflected Shadows, an oil on canvas, a minimalist self-portrait that shows him gazing ahead, with shadows framing his visage. Only his face and neck are visible, creating an illusion of a painted selfie.

Many such self-portraits form part of the ongoing exhibition, titled Reflecting The Self, which celebrates 25 years of the Delhi-based contemporary art space Gallery Threshold. The group show features works by 35 artists such as Amit Ambalal, Anju and Atul Dodiya, Anindita Bhattacharya, Krishen Khanna, Anupam Sud, Achia Anzi and Paramjit Singh in diverse media like painting, sculpture, video and installation. The gallery is not just showcasing the diversity of practices it has supported along the way but also acknowledging and honouring the artists who have been integral not just to its journey but to the broader art landscape as well.

According to Tunty Chauhan, founder, Gallery Threshold, artists and gallerists share a deep understanding and these relationships shape the programme of any gallery. Thus it was imperative to bring together, in this exhibition, both the personal and professional, multigenerational and diverse artistic practices that have been the gallery's ethos.

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Gallery Threshold started in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, in 1997, after Chauhan moved there after marriage. Though she had no formal education in the arts, she had seen her mother—a painter—at work. “So, in a way, I had grown up on the smell of linseed oil. My parents are aesthetes and I was exposed to craft and textile as we travelled extensively through the country because of my father's posting in the Indian Army. In fact, my mother also revived phulkari 40 years ago when they were posted in Patiala , at a time when there was no Dilli Haat or craft melas in the Capital,” she adds.

The roots of the gallery lay in Curiosity, a home décor store she started in 1997. She designed and made wrought iron and cane furniture. A trip to the Odisha crafts village of Raghurajpur, while touring Puri, proved serendipitous. She invited the pattachitra artists to Visakhapatnam to exhibit at her space and the homestore metamorphosed into a gallery. One thing led to another and she connected with the Fine Arts Department at Andhra University where V. Ramesh was a professor of painting, who ended up becoming a good friend.

Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Reflected Shadows', oil on canvas (2023)
Sudhir Patwardhan, 'Reflected Shadows', oil on canvas (2023)

Curiosity metamorphosed into Gallery Threshold, focussing on artists at the 'threshold' of their career. Chauhan started organising annual workshops, The Vizag Sojourn, which brought together over 40 contemporary artists including Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita and Paramjit Singh, Jogen Chowdhury, Anjolie Ela Menon, N.S. Harsha, Jitish Kallat, and more.

In 2001, the family had to relocate to Delhi. Chauhan set up a small gallery in Sarvodaya Enclave—very close to where the present gallery is today. As the gallery started showing a lot of sculpture and the exhibitions became larger in scale, Threshold moved to Lado Sarai. Inspite of the 2008 economic slow down , the gallery hung on, and in 2015 It relaunched at its present home in Sarvodaya Enclave.

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Chauhan's passion for travel and culture led her to conceptualise a programme unique to the gallery called Mapping Memories, which allowed artists and academics to travel together to culturally rich heritage sites.

The one common thread through the years has been “the mission to identify and enable future artistic talent. "The idea of Reflecting The Self was born during the pandemic when I heard a lot of artists talk on zoom. I felt I was understanding their practice anew. An artist doesn’t fall for the popular trend of selfies. There is something much deeper in the way they perceive and understand the self—both from the inside and the outside,” says Chauhan.

When she approached the artists to create self-portraits, she met with some resistance. “There is a level of discomfort in looking within. It is so much easier to paint a portrait rather than a self-portrait. But I wanted to acknowledge the contribution of artists who shaped my journey. So the first piece that you see on entering the space is a self-portrait by my mother,” she adds.

The exhibition took on a momentum and dimension of its own due to the way artists engaged with the theme. “Some artists like Thota Vaikuntam and Paramjit Singh, didn’t do self-portraits. But it was important for me to have their works in the show. Singh, for instance, sees the light in every negative situation. So, I said, why don’t you give me the large black and white drawing, which you had started several years ago? He completed it for the show,” says Chauhan, who has curated the show with close friend Deeksha Nath.

Krishen Khanna has created a portrait at the age of 98. He lauds Chauhan for starting him on a journey he wants to examine further. Pandit Bhila Khairnar, an abstract painter specialising in colour, has taken the figurative route. Anindita Bhattacharya has pushed herself to work on a totally new medium. The 60 works on display range from the representative to the metaphorical and conceptual. Nearly 90% of the exhibition is based on new work created especially for the show. “Each artist has given a work, which is so layered and personal ," adds Chauhan. After the Bikaner House, Reflecting The Self will move to the gallery space, albeit in a trimmed avatar.

Reflecting The Self is on view at Bikaner House till 28 August, 11am-8pm. It will be showcased at Gallery Threshold, Sarvodaya Enclave, From 4th Sept till 30 September,11.30am-6.30pm, (closed on Sunday)

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